NBA 2023 Central Division Preview

What’s success for Chicago? Garland’s & Mobley’s growth, Pistons’ bigs, Haliburton! The best duo in basketball

Simply Ballin
13 min readOct 10, 2023

The NBA season is almost here. It’s that time of year when it’s so close that you just can’t wait for it to start because it’s been far too long now without NBA basketball.

So, for the next week or so, here are the division previews. In each preview, I’ll be going through some of the main questions for each team and discussing what’s in store in the upcoming season.

Today, we’re going through the central division.

Chicago Bulls

The Bulls are one of those teams where they’re just in a weird spot. They have a bunch of questions but it most likely doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. And it all depends on their goals with this core.

They started this whole build around DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine, and Lonzo Ball pretty well in their first year. Unfortunately, that didn’t last long because of Ball’s injury and that changed everything.

Since then, it’s hard to get a feel of the Bulls. They made the playoffs two years ago but also had a negative net rating and were bad on defense(especially without Ball). This year, they somehow were better statistically but worse record-wise and missed the playoffs.

Their off-season wasn’t any better either. I’d assume they would’ve pivoted to a different approach rather than running it back. But that’s where they are now. They’re the same team as last year. They’re banking on continuity. But is it going to be any different?

  • Can the defense carry their offense?
  • Or can the offense improve drastically?
  • What’s a successful season for the Bulls?

There are only two main, realistic questions for the Bulls this year, assuming they want to see this core through and still compete.

Firstly, is their defense legit? They were the fifth-best defense and were the best defense from January 1st. But how much of that is sustainable going forward?

One stat that is interesting and pops out is since January 1st, their defensive numbers differ significantly with and without Nikola Vucevic. With him on, they had a 114.6 defense and 104.7 without. Now, this could be lineup noise, but with Vucevic on and without Alex Caruso, that defense drops to 118.2, which would rank 22nd. This also isn’t the first time where their defense slips a lot without Caruso.

But that does leave some questions as to whether this elite defense can continue. And it has to if they can’t fix the offense.

In that same span from January 1st, they were the 23rd worst offense. And a big part of that is their dead last rank in 3pt attempts. It’s tough to have a good offense in 2023 without putting up 3s, especially when you’re also not great everywhere else.

Now, they brought the same core back. Was their two previous seasons of low 3pt volume based on the scheme or something that they can change with this personnel? Or is that more of a talent issue? With this being their main weakness, it might be fair to assume that it’s going to get addressed to some extent but don’t know if that’s going to be enough.

But what even is a successful season for them? Let’s imagine they do fix their offense to at least average. Let’s also imagine their defense is legit where they’re top-5 or top-10. Is that team even a contender for a 2nd round? They aren’t beating any of the top three teams in the East. Their chances of beating a team are quite low as it’s entirely dependent on having a perfect matchup.

Their season is just hoping to remain relevant and have a shot in the playoffs.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Well, their first year after trading for Donovan Mitchell was a success. Yes, it didn’t pan out well in the playoffs but outside of Mitchell, this is a young team that made a leap faster than they probably were ready for — though that’s still a good thing.

Their regular season was a big success, though! Per Cleaning the Glass, they had the second-best net rating for the entire year. They were seventh on offense and had the best defense.

That obviously didn’t mean they were the second-best team but it’s still a good sign that they are even capable of reaching such highs. They are clearly almost there, it just may need a little push or growth somewhere to take them over the top.

Luckily, they have so many options that can make that true.

  • What will Evan Mobley look like in his 3rd year?
  • Did they find the right 5th starter?
  • Will Mitchell continue to get better?
  • Can this team translate to the playoffs?

Let’s start with the main one. Mobley. He was already third in Defensive Player of the Year voting at just 21 years old. But he did struggle a lot in the playoffs on both ends, which wasn’t unexpected.

Though for the Cavaliers to be a threat in the playoffs, it depends on Mobley to step it up. He’s already done that throughout the regular season. Increasing his scoring and efficiency(went from 55% to 59% TS). That kind of disappeared in the playoffs where he didn’t average double digits and shot 47% from 2. Now, it was a tough matchup against the bigs from the New York Knicks. He wasn’t much of a factor on either end (though some of the issues, especially rebounding was more of a team thing).

But we know that the potential is there. We’ve seen the improvements from Mobley in his second year and if he establishes himself as a legit threat and be that third option behind Darius Garland and Mitchell, that’s a pretty good big 3.

One of the other issues has been their fifth starter. Is it Caris LeVert? Is it Isaac Okoro? Or Cedi Osman? In the off-season, they brought in both Max Strus and Georges Niang — two players that should help tremendously with the spacing. They needed someone who could be a threat from 3 to help the backcourt with two non-spacing bigs.

Niang has been a 40% shooter for his entire career and over the last three seasons has drilled over 40% on around five attempts. Strus may not have the accuracy as elite but he’s got the volume where he took seven a game this year. That’s two shooters that immediately become the team’s best shooters.

Both players may be more suited coming off the bench and may not be good enough for starter-level minutes. But for this team, that may be what they need. And also with them having two shooters, those minutes can easily be split between the two.

When looking at Mitchell’s season, I haven’t seen it be talked as much. He just had a career-best scoring season with almost 30 points per 75 possessions on a career-high 61% TS. Not many players have achieved that. He was truly elite this year. He has easily become one of the best 3-level scorers in the last couple of years. Here are his shooting splits:

  • 69% with 3ft
  • 53% within 3–10ft
  • 48% within 10–16ft
  • 41% within 16–3pt
  • 39% 3pt

That’s insane efficiency from everywhere. Sure, his playoff shooting went away but that seems to be an outlier compared to his career and this is something that I talked about in my player tiers.

Another thing to watch out for is Garland. Based on six different outlets doing rankings, Garland ranked 37th on average. That feels kind of low and I wouldn’t be surprised if that went up significantly this year. Amongst on-ball players, he ranks:

  • B in rim shot creation
  • A+ in drive assist/pass %
  • A- in floater talent
  • B- in 1v1 talent
  • B- in mid-range talent
  • A+ in 3pt shot making
  • A- or better in all passing stats

The passing and shooting stand out a lot, but everything else is well-rounded. There could be jumps in some of those areas.

Finally, I expect this team to be even better in the regular season. I don’t see any reason why they can’t have a top 5 record in the league. But the real question will come in the playoffs. Can everything they do translate to the playoffs? Will their defense be better? Will their defensive rebounding be better? Will Mitchell find his shot again? Will Garland improve in his second year in the playoffs?

There are not many questions that can be answered in the regular season — it all hinges on the playoffs now.

Detroit Pistons

It was an unfortunate season for the Pistons, mainly because Cade Cunningham only played 12 games. Having your best player miss basically the entire season when you’re looking to develop your young core hurts. And it’s no wonder they had the worst record in the league with only 17 wins.

Regardless, it was still a somewhat fun season. There were still many things to watch out for. I loved watching Jaden Ivey play — watching him on fastbreaks the first time was something else. This was a team filled with young players, whether that was Jalen Duren, Isaiah Stewart, Marvin Bagley, and later James Wiseman.

This season is likely going to be more of the same thing, but hopefully, with fully healthy, some of the questions can now be answered:

  • What’s the deal with their bigs?
  • What will a healthy Cade Cunningham look like?
  • Is the development enough to make a push for the play-in?

That list of young players… A lot of them are bigs. That’s four guys that are their centers. Now, what’s the deal with that? It’s as if they are projects that you want to take a shot at. They are all first-round picks — two of them are former second-overall picks!

Luckily, they all bring different things, but that doesn’t make the job of figuring out who they should play more or how the lineups should work any easier. It’s going to be very interesting to see who’s starting with whom and who they will prioritize going forward.

But the biggest question of this season is Cunningham. He is their guy and that’s the guy to bank on. So far, we’ve only seen him as a rookie(outside of those 12 extra games last year). This can be a very different Cunningham going forward.

One particular stat he jumped in this season was the increase in the long mid-range. Over 17% of his shots were within 16–3pt and he shot 49% there. That’s elite. A lot of that has to do with the limited spacing the Pistons surrounded him with but if that’s the counter he has, then this is something to watch out for if he's getting to the rim and finishing improves a lot.

Although Cunningham will most likely play one of the biggest roles for the Pistons this season, a lot of it will also depend on the countless other young players. Obviously, the bigs growth will matter a lot, but I’m more curious about both Ivey and Ausar Thompson. It will be fun to see how that trio will end up playing together.

And arguably the biggest question of it all… is this the year for Killian Hayes? He’s had a rough start to his career, one of the worst scorers and shooters out there — 45% TS for his career. But he has shown flashes everywhere else and who knows, there could be growth eventually.

Now with all of the potential growth plus the veteran presence of Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Harris, Alec Burks, and Monte Morris, is that enough to make a push for the play-in?

I still think that’s too soon and I honestly don’t envision the Pistons making such a drastic jump over many other teams in the East in the same position. But it will still be fun to watch.

Indiana Pacers

Another similar team that’s also going to be fun to watch, but that’s again what the focus should mostly be on. This was their first season with a full season of having Tyrese Haliburton and it was a good one. They jumped up to 35 wins — that’s a significant improvement and that’s with Haliburton, so there’s hope that they can be even better

  • How good is Haliburton going to be?
  • Can the offense remain elite?
  • But can the defense step up?
  • Are they locks for the play-in?

Haliburton surprised me. He surprised me again in FIBA. He has easily solidified himself as one of the better passers in the league, where among on-ball players:

  • A+ in passing creation volume
  • A+ in passing efficiency
  • B in passing creation quality
  • A+ in playmaking talent

Here’s a fun stat, the Pacers with him on had a 118.8 offense. Though, individually, I do think there were still some things that held him back from being an All-NBA this year, but that all could change. And I wonder what even is his ceiling just in this season.

But even with improvements, a lot of the team's issue is on the defensive end and I don’t know if they’re there as a team yet. They’ve made good moves with getting Bruce Brown, trading for Obi Toppin, still having Myles Turner and also drafting Jarace Walker. That should help there.

Now, looking at the East, there’s a good chance they could make the play-in. They were close last year. They were neck-and-neck for that ninth and 10th spot right until the end of March. And they got better. And they’ll have Haliburton healthy.

Milwaukee Bucks

I wasn’t expecting any of this. After losing to the eighth-seeded Miami Heat, there were bound to be chances. They did change coaches to Adrian Griffin. And it was fair to assume that they probably wanted to shake things elsewhere after such a disappointing season — disappointing but not a failed season because that doesn’t exist.

But nothing could’ve prepared for this. When I was arguing about the market for Damian Lillard, not once did I think about the Bucks. Not once did I think that they would even entertain such a thing. It just wouldn’t make sense to have such a drastic change. And then considering the type of assets they had — limited picks with no key young player — it wasn’t like it was likely to happen even if they wanted to.

Still, Lillard is now playing for the Bucks with Antetokounmpo. That’s weird to say. A championship-level team just got better.

  • Is the Lillard-Antetokounmpo duo the best in the league?
  • How much will the defense suffer without Holiday?
  • Are they the favorite in the East?

Out of all of the duos, this could be the one that fits the most. Outside of I think Nikola Jokic and Stephen Curry, I don’t think there’s a better duo of two complementary pieces that fit so well together. There are duos like Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler or Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, but they aren’t guys that complement one another perfectly.

Giannis is one of the most dangerous presence in the paint and at the rim ever.

He draws defenses in like no one else(maybe the only player that comes close is Shaquille O’Neal) at the rim and that alone can create one of the most efficient offenses because of what it leads to after, which are fouls or kicks for 3s. Giannis just pressures the defense in ways that it’s almost impossible to stop unless you create the entire system just for him.

Then you add someone who is one of the five best offensive players in the league. Per LEBRON from BBall-Index, he had the highest impact on offense(also the 10th highest in the entire database from 2014).

And a big reason for that is he’s the second-best 3-point shooter behind Curry. From 2020, he has a 52% 3pt rate and makes 38% of them. Do you know how ridiculous that is? Over half of your attempts being from 3 and being so accurate?

You combine that with a player that has the best rim pressure out of anyone in the league and it’s HOW do you stop that.

And acquiring Lillard will do a lot in the playoffs for their offense. That has been the issue. They had their share of problems on that end when it comes to the half-court offense. Holiday wasn’t going to solve any of that. Khris Middleton isn’t a ball-handler. and Giannis isn’t that type of offensive player. Lillard fixes that.

This is going to be a huge upgrade over Holiday who has been Eric Bledsoe level bad on offense in the playoffs. The fit and what he provides most likely answer everything perfectly.

I do think the upgrade on offense will be exactly what they need but there will be a lot of changes on defense(though as a whole, I don’t think it should be an issue).

Holiday was always elite on defense. He is arguably the best guard defender and he’s one-half of what allowed the Bucks to have such an elite defense. You can’t be so elite in drop defense without great guard screen navigation and recovery.

Well, say goodbye to all of that. Say goodbye to having the best perimeter defender taking on the toughest matchups. Say goodbye to having that luxury of not having a guard being hunted.

I do think those are legitimate concerns and ones that will have real consequences. I don’t think they’ll be able to keep up with such an elite defense through the whole season. But I don’t think that matters as much in the playoffs, especially when Lillard brings so much value on offense.

The position matters on defense and losing perimeter guards for historic-level talents on offense is enough to offset that.

Outside of Lillard and Giannis, there are some questions for the rest of the team, though. Will both Middleton and Lopez remain healthy for the whole season? Middleton has had issues and Lopez is getting up there in age. How many big guys do you see playing at such an elite level so late in their careers?

But at this moment, I do think they’re the favorites regardless of any other issues — whether that’s defense, depth, fit, or anything. They have two of the best players at two very different things surrounded by an elite rim protector and a great third option. That’s another thing. That eases Middleton's job too because he no longer will have to be the team’s best shot creator.

When you have two top players like that, it’s hard to bet against them when I don’t see much reason for drop off anywhere else.