As we approach the opening tip of the 2016-17 NBA regular season, The Shadow League looks at every one of the league’s six divisions and the players who will make this year an unforgettable one. Today, we examine the Central Division, where the defending champions will continue to reign supreme.


CENTRAL DIVISION

Predicted Order of Finish:

1. Cleveland Cavaliers – After over fifty years of cruel futility, the city of Cleveland copped its first championship last season, and who can disagree with the overwhelming consensus that the Cavaliers remain the crown jewel of the Eastern Conference.  The King, LeBron James, re-upped for three more years establishing even more stability in the Land.    

Not much has changed from last season save that Kyrie Irving is set to start the season healthy. Kevin Love returns and he may just settle into a very productive third option and rebounder (again), and not be tormented by media and fans alike for not matching expectations as a high-priced trade acquisition.      


What has changed is a couple Cavs going “Calabasas.”  Tristan Thompson became more popular in the pop culture world by hooking up with a Kardashian. History, however, says that won’t necessarily elevate his game.  Also, Iman Shumpert, who hopes to reclaim his defensive stopper status after some subpar playoff performances, has a Kanye West produced video star wife in Teyana Taylor.     

After an extended negotiation stalemate, JR Smith, as the pre-season wound down, finally signed a 4-year, $57 million contract.   Smith, the 12-year vet, had never really cashed in prior to this deal as this contract alone, with $45 million guaranteed, matches his total career earnings.  Despite all his on and off-court mischief, the Cavs felt he was an important part of their family and that his return was required. 

Rounding out the team is a core of role players in Richard Jefferson, Channing Frye, Chris Andersen, James Jones, Dahntay Jones and new arrival Mike Dunleavy, Jr.  None of these players alone may excite you, but all these veterans add depth and basketball intelligence, giving head coach Tyronn Lue options.     

Simply put, we can’t see anyone in the division challenging a team led by LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. 

2. Indiana Pacers – Nate McMillian, after three years as an assistant with the Pacers, moves over a few spots on the bench to take over the head coaching duties.  This is also his third chance to guide a team after some success in the Pacific Northwest as the head coach for the Seattle Supersonics and Portland Trailblazers.  Highly respected as a former player and coach who also was an assistant for the US National Team, and known as the “Sarge” for his hard-nose style, McMillan may be the right man at the helm of the Pacers. 

But don’t be fooled, this is a player’s league.  Fortunately, the Pacers have one of the best in the NBA.  Last season, Paul George returned from basically a year off recovering from a horrific injury suffered playing for the US National Team and put up the best numbers of his career.  PG-13’s play was rated “R” for “respeck” as he tallied 23.1 points, 7.0 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game.  The 26-year-old could be viewed as an MVP candidate by the end of the season. 


Brought into to help the Pacers offense was point guard Jeff Teague, who comes over from the Atlanta Hawks where he had spent his entire seven-year career.  Teague brings some scoring, but perhaps more important is his playmaking ability. His almost six dimes a game average will be welcomed.  This should alleviate that burden from George, who led the team last season with 4.3 assists per game.

Another addition is Thaddeus Young, who is set to play power forward.  However, Young, who after establishing himself with the Philadelphia 76ers until bouncing around to Minnesota and Brooklyn, should be interchangeable with George at the forward positions.  Monta Ellis is in his second year in Indiana and will continue to be a shoot-first ask-questions-later player.  Also, second-year player, 6-foot-11 Myles Turner will be making a switch from power forward to center and expected to excel on defense while controlling the paint.

The Pacers may also rely on its bench to provide a lot of leadership and stability.  Ronald Stuckey returns in a backup role but is joined by the veterans Aaron Brooks and Al Jefferson.  CJ Miles is back in Indiana with his rangy jump shot off the bench, but his injury this preseason has allowed Glenn Robinson III an opportunity to show the family skills.  Boy, his daddy could play.     

The Pacers, with George making another quantum leap and the leadership of McMillan, grab a top four Eastern Conference seed. 

3. Chicago Bulls – The Bulls missed the playoffs last year in the tumultuous first season of head coach Fred Hoiberg.  To be honest, only Chi-Raq was more wack than the Bulls last year. 

However, all the bulls*&%  about whose team it was – Derrick Rose or Jimmy Butler, as well as the kinks in transitioning from former coach Tom Thibodeau to Hoiberg should no longer apply.  Tibs is one year removed and settled in Minnesota. Rose is in New York.  Also gone is Joakim Noah, also to New York and Pau Gasol who left to play for San Antonio.


What remains is Butler, the 6-foot-7, five-year vet from Marquette who last year more or less repeated his breakout season of 2014-15, averaging 20.9 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game.  Another holdover is power forward Taj Gibson, who gives his Brooklyn’s best e’ry day on the court.

Wait…have we buried the lead with Dwyane Wade coming home to the Chi.  Nah, Wade has gone on record that this city is still Michael Jordan’s and that this is Butler’s team.  Wade has in the past sublimated glory to teammates such as Shaq and LeBron to the tune of three rings while at the same time shining.  This is but the third and final act for Flash.   

Joining Wade in the backcourt is another former NBA champion in Rajon Rondo.  Critics may snicker at this “The Backcourt That Couldn’t Shoot Straight”, but ball players like this find a way to put the rock in the hole.  And this might be the best defensive backcourt in the League.  Coming back to the Eastern Conference after sojourns to Dallas that ended with Rondo being basically kicked off the team and Sacramento, where he actually played well, should fit Rondo’s half-court style.    

Filling out the starting line-up will be the underestimated Robin Lopez, who may not score like his brother Brook but brings a lot of energy and defense.  Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis are two reserve players who continue to be show good things and promise.


Michael Carter-Williams, a lengthy point guard, and 2014 Rookie of the Year was recently acquired in a trade from Milwaukee for defensive minded Tony Snell.  MCW career, after his solid first year, has been bogged down by poor shooting.  Rookie Denzel Valentine out of Michigan State looks to continue in the tradition of unheralded former Spartans making a splash in the NBA.   

The Bulls should return to the playoffs and could surprise in the post-season.

4. Detroit Pistons – The Pistons squeaked into the playoffs last year as the eight seed.  This may not be the days of the “Bad Boys” or “Deee-Troit Basketball” but the current configuration of Pistons still plays a tough brand of ball. 

Andre Drummond is a beast of a fantasy player, racking up high double-doubles on the regular.  His eye-popping rebound stat lines are the norm for the UCONN kid who showed very little in his one season under the legendary coach Jim Calhoun.  Head coach and general manager Stan Van Gundy, however, coaxed 16 points and 14.7 rebounds per game from Drummond last year, similar to how he worked with the young Dwight Howard in Orlando.  

Also, Reggie Jackson-like the original-takes no shorts from anybody.  Full of moxie and menace, the former Oklahoma City point guard ran himself out of OKC landing in Motown, and has lived up to most of his own hype.   In his first full season in Detroit, Jackson scored 18.8 points while dropping 6.2 assists.  But Jackson will miss the early portion of the season due to injuries, and his absence will adversely affect the team in the win column.


Another seemingly malcontent, Marcus Morris, has also flourished at the Palace of Auburn Hills.  Frustrated with his former team the Phoenix Suns for various slights, including trading his twin brother Markieff, Morris was dealt before the 2015-16 season.  In his first season in Detroit, all his numbers improved.

Kentavious Caldwell- Pope and Tobias Harris round out the starting five and are also lunch pail type of players.   KCP has improved each season in a Pistons uniform since his rookie year in 2013-14 after being drafted with the overall 8th pick out of the University of Georgia.  Tobias also spent his first season in Detroit last year after being underutilized in Milwaukee before drawing attention in Orlando. 

The Pistons have acquired Ish Smith to run point but the problem with the Pistons may remain the inability to move the ball to create easy shots. Last season, they ranked near the bottom of the leagues in team assists.  Their bench is also clearly lacking.  The Pistons likely end up with a similar record as last season but it’s to be determined if they hold onto the 8th seed.    

5. Milwaukee Bucks – The Bucks are really loaded with talent.  And with head coach Jason Kidd roaming the sideline looking like Pitbull ready to hit the club, the prediction for wins may seem low.  Well, they will be without their leading scorer from last year Khris Middleton (18.2 ppg) until perhaps January due to a serious groin injury suffered before training camp.  

But beyond that, the Bucks boast players like Giannis Antetokounmpo aka “the Greek Freak” and others projected to do swell things this season are Jabari Parker and rookie Malcolm Brogdon (see the below awards section).  Not to mention, The Bucks got perhaps the steal of the 2016 draft with Thon Maker as the 10th overall selection. The 7-foot-1 center from Ontario, Canada via Australia via South Sudan has a pro body at 19 (some say older) with a nice shooting touch and athleticism.    Backing up Maker will be Greg Monroe, another quality former Hoya big man. 


The Bucks also snared away Matt Dellavedova from divisional rival Cleveland to run the point guard position.  Milwaukee also has some other decent players off the bench with John Henson and a somewhat salvaged Michael Beasley. 

Perhaps it’s just too many moving parts like putting together a puzzle on a spinning turntable. This team may eventually come together, but this year it will build on last season’s 32 wins with slight improvement.

***

PREDICTED STANDINGS: CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (60-22), INDIANA PACERS (54-28), CHICAGO BULLS (49-33) DETROIT PISTONS (40-42) MILWAUKEE BUCKS (35-47)

***

The Obama – LeBron James

The first African-American president, Barack Obama is about to leave office and nobody is more on top of their game.   Similarly, LeBron last season led his team in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks!!  He pulled off the unthinkable, bringing a title to Cleveland akin to Muhammad Ali’s Rumble in the Jungle.   Furthermore, on the side he has been running a player management and marketing agency while playing in the League!! 

The Youngin’ – Malcolm Brogdon

Well, he is an “oldish” rookie as he will turn 24 in early December of this his rookie season, but the 6-5 guard out of the University of Virginia should be able to play both the point and shooting guard. His opportunities to shine just went up following the injury to Kris Middleton and the trading of Michael Carter-Williams. 

  

Lock Down Award – Paul George

He entered the league as a player who many thought would be just a defender type. Despite his rise as an outstanding offensive performer, you might recall him checking LeBron a few seasons ago when the Heat battled the Pacers in consecutive playoff campaigns.  Now, fully recovered from the injury that caused him to miss most of the 2014-15 season, watch him lock down multiple positions in the backcourt and frontcourt.   

Most Improved- Jabari Parker

Parker has been somewhat disappointing as a number two overall selection in 2014 with injuries, subpar production and defensive liabilities.  Yet, the former Dukie will put it all together this season.

6th Man – JR Smith

Some expect that JR Smith, with his new contract, may not be motivated. But having the stability of a new deal will relax him, allowing this effervescent bomber to really show out. 

***


He Still in the League?? – Jason Terry

Jason Terry of the Milwaukee Bucks is so old he is going to be renamed the plane.

The Get Down Award – Giannis Antetokounmpo

This cat is so outlandishly manifested that he is Hip Hop personified.

Legends of Chamberlain Heights – Ish Smith

The animated series Legends of Chamberlain Heights is like a mix of The Boondocks and The White Shadow.   The most likely player to do a cameo might be the Pistons starting point guard on the basis of his name alone.