The 2022-2023 version of the Central Division features one clear-cut title contender, two teams on the cusp of being taken seriously, and two rebuilding teams with some fun pieces that will be worth keeping an eye on.
Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks will look to re-assert their dominance in the Eastern Conference by winning this division on their way back to the NBA Finals. However, the re-tooled Cleveland Cavaliers represent a serious threat to steal the division crown and the Chicago Bulls are also a team that exists.
While these three teams battle it out, the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers will most likely be competing in the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes. The Pistons do have an outside shot of making the play-in if everything goes right, but I think the allure of the tank will prove too much for them to resist.
Tier 1: The Contenders
Milwaukee Bucks- Over/Under 52.5 wins
The case for the Bucks is a simple one: they have the best player in the NBA, a two-way All Star as their #2 in Khris Middleton, one of the league’s best defenders and complimentary playmakers in Jrue Holiday, and solid depth surrounding these pieces. Outside of adding Joe Ingles to help bolster their playoff rotation, Milwaukee is running it back with virtually the same roster as last season. If the big three stay healthy, the Bucks will likely win the division. The question becomes will their roster stagnation put them behind teams like the Philadelphia 76ers and the Boston Celtics, who made meaningful offseason additions to get better.
Cleveland Cavaliers- Over/Under 47.5 wins
There’s a real argument to be made that the Cavaliers are the most interesting team in the NBA. Drafting Evan Mobley and pairing him with Jarrett Allen gave them an old-school, twin towers setup that, along with the emergence of Darius Garland as a star point guard, propelled them to the playoffs a season ago. Cleveland had an incredible offseason, acquiring all-star guard Donovan Mitchell from the Utah Jazz and cutting bait on guys who didn’t fit with the rest of their roster in Collin Sexton and Lauri Markkanen. They also added solid depth in Ricky Rubio, Robin Lopez, and Raul Neto, improving their roster from top to bottom. I think there’s a real chance that the Cavaliers could edge out Milwaukee for the division title, and wouldn’t rule out a deep playoff run for this group, either.
Tier 2: Someone Please Take Us Seriously
Chicago Bulls- Over/Under 41.5 wins
The Bulls were dubbed the winners of the 2021 offseason and came out of the gates firing last year before crashing back down to Earth and getting bounced in the first round of the playoffs. Zach Lavine, DeMar DeRozan, and Nikola Vucevic provide a stable regular season floor, but this team doesn’t have the defense or playoff-tested performers to be considered a real threat. As much as Dallas Mavericks fans wanted Goran Dragic, the additions of him and Andre Drummond do little to inspire any kind of renewed belief in this Bulls roster. First-round pick Dalen Terry is intriguing, and the Bulls should be plenty of fun to watch, but I don’t think anyone is really scared of this squad, especially with Lonzo Ball out indefinitely.
Tier 3: First Steps Out of The Rebuild
Detroit Pistons- Over/Under 29.5 wins
Detroit has been rebuilding seemingly forever, and it finally seems like they have some pieces worth getting excited about. Cade Cunningham is entering his sophomore season, and the Pistons are hoping he can make a Luka-like jump to stardom this year. The Pistons had the best draft of any NBA team, acquiring Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren to serve as franchise building blocks alongside Cade.
They also acquired Bojan Bogdanovic in the Utah fire sale, providing much-needed veteran stability. Overall, they added to their pool of young talent and depth and I think there’s a universe where they crack the play-in this year. More than likely, however, they’ll tail off toward the end of the season in hopes of joining a legendary race to the bottom.
Tier 4: They Stink
Indiana Pacers- Over/Under 23.5 wins
Rick Carlisle seems like the last coach you would want presiding over a terrible team at the beginning of a rebuild, but that’s exactly where the Pacers are right now. They stripped the team down and sold it for parts, and Myles Turner has one foot out the door. Buddy Hield will almost certainly be traded, as well. Indiana will likely be the worst team in the Eastern Conference and outside of checking in on Tyrese Haliburton and rookie guard Bennedict Mathurin, they won’t be very fun to watch, either.
Players to Watch
Donovan Mitchell. How will Mitchell adapt to a situation where he won’t always be the primary ball handler? Darius Garland will and should have the ball in his hands a ton and I’m curious to see if this leads to an uptick in efficiency for Mitchell or if he struggles to take on a secondary role.
Ayo Dosunmu. The former second-round pick had a strong and efficient rookie season for the Bulls last year and will be asked to take on a larger playmaking role with Lonzo Ball sidelined. Just how good is he? Will he be able to remain an efficient scorer on more volume?
Tyrese Haliburton. Haliburton should have a crazy usage rate this year. Will he take the next step as a three-level scorer? Is the year-three leap to superstardom coming? Just how bad will the Sacramento Kings look for trading him?
While the Bucks are the chalky favorites, I’m going to be bold and declare the Cavaliers Central Division winners. Everything will have to break right for them, but I’m not sure I trust the health of the Bucks holding up and believe that the Mitchell addition will be a perfect fit.
Division Award Winners
MVP. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best player in the sport and strong bet to win league MVP, so he’s an easy choice here.
Defensive Player of the Year. Evan Mobley is a throwback to the old-school style power forward days of guys like Kevin Garnett. His defensive versatility is his best skill and although Giannis could also win this award, I think Mobley is the sexy candidate.
Sixth Man of the Year. The 6MOTY award is usually given to whoever gets the most buckets off the bench, so I like Caris Levert as that guy in the Central Division. Levert is best suited as a microwave scorer, and he should thrive attacking second units this year.
Most Improved Player. I think a healthy Patrick Williams has a breakout season for the Bulls, showing the world why they reached to nab him with the number four overall pick in the 2020 NBA draft. Williams has the skillset everyone wants in a modern NBA wing and this is the year he puts it all together.
Rookie of the Year. The Pistons are going to be league pass darlings this season and Jaden Ivey is going to be a big reason why. The dynamic guard out of Purdue is must-see TV and will almost certainly be one of the most impressive rookies in the NBA.