A revamped Pacers roster looks to compete for a top seed in the Eastern Conference, and possibly even challenge the reigning champion Cleveland Cavaliers for the Conference title. The journey certainly isn’t a given, though, as other teams in the East have improved to certain extent, many of which Indiana will face four times this season. On the final week of this preseason, let’s take a look around the Central Division and see where the Pacers stand.
It starts and ends here. The reigning world champions are the most obvious hurdle that the Pacers, or any other Eastern Conference team for that matter, must clear if they have serious championship aspirations. The Cavs have shifted their bottom half of the roster, but the main pieces are still the same. The big three of LeBron James (who, unfortunately for Indiana, is still the best player on the planet), Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love will look to improve on the previous seasons’ campaign. By all accounts, Love has looked the best right now out of all three of his Cleveland years, and his shooting will require attention from Indiana’s forwards on the perimeter. Tristan Thompson, Iman Shumpert, and freshly-signed J.R. Smith are also still on the books.
The Cavs also signed former Pacer and current Pacer-killer Mike Dunleavy as a bench shooting option. Ever since his departure from Indiana in 2011, Dunleavy has played for the Bucks, the Bulls, and now Cleveland in his bizarre revenge tour of the Central Division. Another change is the departure of backup point guard Matthew Dellavedova, the pesky, defensive-minded backup point guard.
Last year, the Pacers went 1-3 against Cleveland, but every game went down to the wire. Paul George and Myles Turner’s defensive presence will be invaluable this season against the King and his men.
The Pistons are looking to build on their playoff trip from last season. They have a standout center in Andre Drummond, a sharp-shooting wing in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and a potential breakout second-year man in Stanley Johnson. Unfortunately for Detroit, starting point guard Reggie Jackson has been diagnosed with knee tendinitis and is out indefinitely to start the year. The severity of the injury remains unknown; a chronic issue could take an entire season to recover, but as of now Jackson is slated to miss significant time. Detroit is poised to start backup Ish Smith, a free-agent signing from Philadelphia as a replacement. While Smith is capable of producing offensively, Jackson’s presence at the defensive point of attack will absolutely be missed.
Indiana has won 12 out of the last 17 meetings with Detroit, including a 3-1 mark last year.
Another team looking to build on previous success, the Milwaukee Bucks missed the playoffs last year after surprisingly clinching the sixth seed in Jason Kidd’s first year as head coach. Stud small forward Giannis Antetokounmpo signed a four-year contract extension, establishing the nightly triple-double threat as their go-to guy. The addition of Matthew Dellavadova will bring solid defense and three-point shooting to a team that often struggled to score from outside.
The Bucks aren’t without injury woes though, as leading scorer Khris Middleton suffered a torn hamstring muscle in a team workout before training camp. Middleton’s recovery is slated to be six months, bringing him back for the final month-plus of the season. In order to soften the blow, Milwaukee executed a trade for Chicago’s Tony Snell in exchange for point guard Michael Carter-Williams. Snell’s three-point shooting clip of .361 last season would have been good for third on the team among qualified players, but his relatively low number of shots per game dampens the impact significantly. The Bucks will also look for continued growth from forwards Jabari Parker and John Henson, and free-agent signing Michael Beasley will add some burst off the bench.
The Pacers also went 3-1 against Milwaukee last season, and have an 11-5 advantage over the past 4 seasons.
Chicago followed up its disappointing 2015-16 campaign with an equally perplexing offseason. Gone is former franchise centerpiece and hometown hero Derrick Rose, as he was shipped to New York in exchange for Jose Calderon, Robin Lopez, and Jerian Grant. Longtime center Joakim Noah also departed for the big apple, so Lopez will step in immediately. There’s no doubt Lopez can easily fill Noah’s void, as he continues to be a solid defender, passer, and rebounder, filling Noah’s role in which he was less effective last season due to injury.
The other big news for Chi-city is the addition of free agent guards Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade. While Chicago was actually the third-best three-point shooting team last season at .371, adding two aging, historically bad three-point shooters isn’t exactly helping the cause. To compound it, they received the aforementioned Carter-Williams from Milwaukee, who only shoots at just above 41%. While Wade will provide good looks inside, and Rondo will work primarily as a passer, the bulk of the offense will be provided by star Jimmy Butler, who is coming off career bests in points and assists.
The Indiana “’Not a real rival of ours’ – Derek Rose, 2013” Pacers have split the last 16 meetings with the Bulls.
With the injury issues to key players from Detroit and Milwaukee, it's difficult to properly assess how the Central Division will play out. The Cavaliers have probably locked up the top spot in the division, and if LeBron isn't coasting, they'll likely obtain the top seed in the conference as well. With Jackson and Middleton both out for extended periods of time, the Pacers on paper look like the second best team in the Central. Though Jackson is the Pistons' primary ball handler and offensive creator, he was just the fifth leading scorer on the team last season, so it will be easier to survive his loss than it is for Milwaukee, as Middleton was the top scoring option for the Bucks last year. Expect the top three teams to be Cleveland, Indiana, and Detroit, with Milwaukee and Chicago fighting to stay out of fifth.