Central Division preview: Bet against Giannis and the Bucks at your own peril

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) reacts during the second half of Game 6 of basketball's NBA Finals against the Phoenix Suns in Milwaukee, Tuesday, July 20, 2021. (Paul Sancya/AP)

The NBA is back, and Sportsnet is breaking down everything you need to know about each of the 30 teams in the lead-up to tipoff on Tuesday, Oct. 19.

Today, we look at best- and worst-case scenarios for the Eastern Conference’s Central Division. (Teams are listed in the order in which we believe they’ll finish in the 2021–22 standings.)

Milwaukee Bucks

2020–21 finish: 46-26, first in the Central, won NBA championship.

Major additions: Grayson Allen, George Hill, Semi Ojeleye.

Major subtractions: Bryn Forbes, Jeff Teague, P.J. Tucker.

Best-case scenario: For the defending champs, it’s really simple what they should be aiming for: A title repeat. With the exception of P.J. Tucker’s departure in free agency, this Bucks team is nearly identical to the one that won it all last season, but now Giannis Antetokounmpo knows exactly what it takes to go all the way. Bet against him doing it again at your own peril.

Worst-case scenario: The worst possible thing that could happen to the Bucks would be anything that might threaten Antetokounmpo’s long-term health. As long as he’s with the team and is healthy enough to go, Milwaukee will always be dangerous.

2021–22 season prediction: 54-28, second in the East.

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Chicago Bulls

2020–21 finish: 31-41, third in the Central, didn’t qualify for the post-season.

Major additions: Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso, DeMar DeRozan.

Major subtractions: Lauri Markkanen, Tomas Satoransky, Garrett Temple, Thaddeus Young.

Best-case scenario: The Bulls made some big changes in the off-season by adding Lonzo Ball in free agency and then making a big trade for DeMar DeRozan, giving them potentially one of the most dangerous wing combinations with DeRozan and Zach LaVine. Add in the fact they also have Nikola Vucevic, who they picked up at the trade deadline last season, and this is a team that should feature a ton of firepower and figures to be pretty fun to watch.

There’s still a lot of questions about them that need to be answered, however, but this is quite a bit of individual talent that’s been assembled and should be able to take advantage of a relatively weak Eastern Conference.

Worst-case scenario: As mentioned before, there’s a lot of unknowns with this Bulls team, most notably it’s tough to tell how well all of this talent might mesh together.

All three of DeRozan, LaVine and Vucevic are high-usage players and, while DeRozan and Vucevic are adept play-makers are their positions, they still need the ball in their hands with their teammates likely standing around in hopes of a pass in order to be effective as facilitators — let alone as scorers. Finding a balance may prove problematic.

2021–22 season prediction: 42-40, eighth in the East.

Chicago Bulls’ DeMar DeRozan (11) drives against Cleveland Cavaliers‘ Cedi Osman (16) in the first half of an NBA basketball preseason game, Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021, in Cleveland. (Tony Dejak/AP)



Indiana Pacers

2020–21 finish: 34-48, second in the Central, lost in the second play-in game.

Major additions: Chris Duarte (R), Brad Wanamaker.

Major subtractions: Doug McDermott.

Best-case scenario: For the Pacers to have success this season, they’ll need the injury bug to finally leave them alone. All three of Malcolm Brogdon, Caris LeVert and T.J. Warren could miss the start of the season, with LeVert and Warren likely out for a longer period of time. If this trio can get healthy and actually find a way to get on the court together, however, they’re all solid complementary pieces to all-star centre Domantas Sabonis and could make Indiana more dangerous than many think them to be.

Worst-case scenario: Unfortunately, banking on good health with Pacers seems more like a fool’s errand and chances are injuries will plague this team all season long, meaning this club will likely be fighting for a play-in spot and not much else this season.

2021–22 season prediction: 39-43, 10th in the East.

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Cleveland Cavaliers

2020–21 finish: 22-50, fourth in the Central, didn’t qualify for the post-season.

Major additions: Lauri Markkanen, Evan Mobley (R), Kevin Pangos, Ricky Rubio.

Major subtractions: Larry Nance Jr., Taurean Prince.

Best-case scenario: For the Cavaliers this season it’s going to be all about figuring out how, exactly, they’re going to make some of the existing talented young pieces they have like Collin Sexton, Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen will fit with No. 3 overall pick Evan Mobley.

It’s kind of a broken record with teams that are clearly in a rebuilding mode like the Cavaliers are, but this season is all about development and not much else. The only real icing they could add to the cake would be if they could find a good trade for the expiring contract of Ricky Rubio to help further their rebuild.

Worst-case scenario: Mobley is touted as a potentially game-changing big man prospect, but he is still just a rookie big, meaning he’ll likely take longer to actually begin seeing signs of what his ceiling might be. Cleveland must give Mobley plenty of opportunity this season to try to jump start his growth, but it also must exercise caution and understanding and allow the young man to make mistakes, because they will be made.

2021–22 season prediction: 27-55, 13th in the East.

Detroit Pistons

2020–21 finish: 20-52, fifth in the Central, didn’t qualify for the post-season.

Major additions: Cade Cunningham (R), Trey Lyles, Kelly Olynyk.

Major subtractions: Wayne Ellington, Dennis Smith Jr.

Best-case scenario: Similar to the Cavaliers with Mobley, this season for the Pistons is all about No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham and getting him as many reps and chances to prove himself as possible. Detroit isn’t as talented as the Cavs are but it could prove to be a good learning environment for Cunningham, especially as he will have a solid veteran point guard in Cory Joseph who should serve as a good mentor for the youngster, despite the two players’ physical differences.

Worst-case scenario: Make no mistake, the Pistons are going to be really bad this season, and while that all but assures Cunningham will get a ton of playing time when he does get on the court – he’s dealing with an ankle injury that could see him miss some of the start of the season – that isn’t exactly a good thing if all Cunningham will be experiencing is losing basketball.

This is only Cunningham’s rookie season, of course, but you don’t want to expose a talent like this to nothing but losing for all that long lest it start to haunt him all his career like it’s done with other top prospects over the years.

2021–22 season prediction: 24-58, 14th in the East.

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