By Joe Manganiello
3. Milwaukee Bucks (’11-’12 record: 31-35)
The Brandon Jennings era in Milwaukee is entering its fourth season. Jennings is coming off his best season yet as a professional, where he saw his points-per-game, field-goal percentage, assists and steals all rise while his turnovers decreased. At the age of 23, Jennings might be a top 10 point guard in the league and deserves all-star consideration in ’12-’13.
With that said, however, Jennings enters his fourth season with the loftiest expectations and most crowded backcourt of his career. The addition of Monta Ellis to the lineup two-thirds into last season had a lot of benefits: the Bucks finished fifth in the league in scoring last season, they went 12-9 in 21 games with Ellis and finished in the top nine of the eastern conference standings for a third consecutive season. But dealing the experience and defensive instincts of veterans Andrew Bogut/Stephen Jackson for Ellis and now third-year center Ekpe Udoh has made the Bucks an incredibly porous defensive team. The Bucks gave up 98.7 ppg last season, the ninth worst mark in the NBA. Opponents particularly thrived after the franchise paired Jennings/Ellis together; opponents scored an average of 107.7 points per 100 possessions when the two guards were on the floor.
A full season of Jennings and Ellis means a lot of things for the Bucks franchise. It means that Milwaukee will be among the most feared offenses in basketball, but it also means the defense will be among the league’s worst once more, unless the two fringe all-stars can buckle down and check somebody. The Bucks are expecting their leading guards – and specifically Jennings as their best player – to jettison this team into the playoffs. If Jennings cannot pull that off, it is more than possible that the Bucks will begin shopping him. He is a free agent at the end of the season and there is no way Milwaukee will match his market value, probably a max contract, if he does not lead them back to the post-season.
Defensive shortcomings or not, this team has one of the best backcourts league-wide. Jennings and Ellis will be a matchup nightmare for the majority of teams in the league. Teams will need depth and length at the guard spots to slow down the perimeter play of the Bucks, as Ellis and Jennings can use their unbelievable speed/ball-handling skills to create shot opportunities from anywhere on the court.
Making matters more difficult for opposing defenses is the play of small forward Mike Dunleavy, one of the best three-point shooters in the league. Dunleavy figures to reap the benefits of the attention Jennings/Ellis draw. If he stays healthy, there might not be a stationary shooter who gets more open shot attempts then Dunleavy this season. Look for his percentage to live around .400 this season. Shooting will be his number one priority, but with his six-foot nine-inch frame, the Bucks could use more rebounds (career average: 4.6 rpg) and blocks (career average: 0.3 bpg) from the forward.
There is no shortage of competition for minutes in the Buck’s frontcourt, something that should enhance the franchise’s chances at making the playoffs this season. Veteran center Samuel Dalembert will probably begin the season as a starter, but do not be surprised if injuries and inconsistent play promote Udoh to starter, leaving Dalembert to battle veteran Drew Gooden for minutes off the bench.
At power forward, promising young big man Ersan Ilyasova begins the first year of a five-year, $40 million dollar deal. Ilyasova averaged 14.7 ppg and 9.3 rpg with 29.5 mpg in February last season, numbers that seem repeatable in a full season as a starter. Underrated is Ilyasova’s inside-outside game, as he shot .506 from inside the arc and .455 from behind the arc last season.
With one of the more talented starting lineups in the league, bench play will be essential for Milwaukee, as reserve play has killed both the team’s defense and playoff chances in recent years. But this a surprisingly deep team. Drew Gooden, Ekpe Udoh, Larry Sanders and John Henson provide wonderful post depth and height, although there are injury concerns amongst the group.
On the wing, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Doron Lamb are both talented young players who will warrant playing time. Mbah a Moute in particular figures to earn a lot of time backing up Dunleavy, as he is arguably the team’s best defensive player.
Beno Udrih is the most qualified backup point guard on roster. He is a veteran with above-average creative ability. Udrih will ideally play 20-25 minutes a night, give Jennings and/or Ellis a much deserved blow early in the second and fourth quarters and rack up assists in the pick and roll game with Ilyasova.
The Bucks have made the playoffs once since ’06-’07, but they have finished in the top three of the division the last three seasons, including finishing just one spot out of the playoffs the last two seasons. They are really close to something good. The full impact of combining Ellis and Jennings in the backcourt has yet to be determined and it is clear the franchise is willing to spend every waking minute between late-October and the trade deadline in efforts to figure out if it does in fact “work.”
What if it does work? What if the Bucks frontcourt stays healthy? What if the team finishes in the top five in scoring again? What if suddenly the Bucks are a top five scoring and top ten rebounding team?
Yes, they were repugnant defensively following the Andrew Bogut trade, but in a full 82-game season with the talent they possess in the frontcourt and the clear motivation on Brandon Jenning’s part to succeed in a contract year, opponents should have a much harder time averaging 98.7 points per night on them. Also keep in mind, with three starters who figure to exceed 15 ppg and a team that goes twelve deep when healthy, this team will score more than they give up.
Pre-season expectations and grade:
The Bucks will consistently play .500 basketball, score and rebound with the best of them and play enough defense to grab the final playoff spot in the east.
2. Chicago Bulls (’11-’12 record: 50-16)
Nobody is saying Derrick Rose is not the best player on roster, but it is fair to ask who will be their best player in ’12-’13. The answer is probably not Rose, as by the time he returns to game shape, hits the court and begins knocking the rust off, the regular season will be over and the incredibly unforgiving playoffs will be staring #1 in the face. For the Bulls sake, somebody needs to claim this team in Rose’s absence; a player must put the team on his back in a similar fashion that Rose himself would to ensure that Chicago is still in contention when the former MVP returns.
The answer could very well be Luol Deng, but he needs to prove he can consistently ball without Rose in the backcourt running the offense. Deng averaged just 14.0 ppg with shooting splits of .456/.364/.571 in the first round against the 76ers. That was not good enough, especially with Rose out with an injury and the eyes of the whole country on the Bulls organization, checking for how they will respond. Deng needs to work with veteran Kirk Hinrich and rookie Marquis Teague, the team’s replacement point guards, to make sure he is getting consistent looks in the flow of the offense. There are no excuses to be made, just games to be won.
The Chicago Bulls return the same base starting lineup from last season. Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Loul Deng, Richard Hamilton and Hinrich in for Rose until about late February. It is an elite defensive lineup with rebounding prowess, initiative at the defensive end and shooting efficiency. Injuries occasionally hamper Boozer and Hamilton, while Deng is coming off a bothersome wrist injury that ailed him all throughout last season. The Bulls desperately need to stay healthy, particularly until Rose comes back.
The Bulls bring aboard 35-year-old backup center Nazr Mohammed to join forward Taj Gibson down low. Gibson is arguably the league’s best big man off the bench, as he sets the tone for the Bulls second-team defensively. Mohammed is the lone big man on the team’s bench after Gibson, with the only other player on the bench taller than six-foot-seven being forward Vladimir Radmanovic – who will not earn much playing time this season. The Bulls will desperately need to add size to their bench over the course of the season, because one injury could bring down their entire rotation.
Teague will backup Hinrich at point guard. He will certainly struggle in his rookie season, without much collegiate experience to call upon or anything close to an NBA ready jump shot. Teague will have to rely on his athleticism early on in his career to get by. Second year small forward Jimmy Butler will backup Deng, while talented Italian combo guard Marco Belinelli will see action behind Hamilton. Sparkplug Nate Robinson also figures to see minutes while Rose is out, with the idea being Robinson might play his way into a role on the post-season roster.
The bench, as well as the entire team, looks an awful lot more attractive with Rose headlining the starting lineup. Until he returns, the bench is going to have to overachieve, meaning Butler/Belinelli/Robinson will have to create points for this team that match – or at least attempt to match – Rose’s production.
Chicago was 18-8 without Rose last regular season but were completely taken advantage of in the first round without the 2011 MVP. Until he is back, the Bulls will simply be a shadow of themselves. Rose is such a game-changing talent that he masks many of the shortcomings of the team.
They are not all that dynamic offensively: Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng struggle to create their own shots; Hamilton is often injured and even when healthy has shot .452 from the field or lower the last four seasons; and Noah is about as basic an offensive player as any starter in the league, as his field goal percentages are much more a result of his offensive rebounding totals and less about demanding shots in the offense. Players like Hinrich and Belinelli will be called upon to create offense for the Bulls in Rose’s absence, which will only be so effective considering Hinrich is an average shooter and Belinelli has battled injuries throughout his career while never exceeding 11 ppg in a season.
Regardless of when he comes back, the Bulls will have to kick it into full gear when Rose returns to make up for lost ground in the playoff picture. It would truly be unprecedented for a team this dominant defensively to miss the playoffs, or to even miss the second round.
Until Rose comes back, the Bulls will be a .500 team, but look for Chicago to play spoiler in the first round of the playoffs as a #6 or #7 as long as they stay healthy and domineering on defense.
1. Indiana Pacers (’11-’12 record: 42-24)
For now, the answer to this question remains Danny Granger. At a top-heavy small forward position, Granger is a legitimate top six player at his position. But his scoring average dropped in head coach Frank Vogel’s first season with Indiana (20.5 ppg to 18.7 ppg) and Granger is not the focal point of the offense anymore.
Everything about the Pacers goes through Roy Hibbert and his seven-foot two-inch body, both offensively and defensively. It was the height advantage by Hibbert and David West that gave the Pacers an avenue for success in the Miami series, not Granger. In fact, Granger’s forgettable shooting splits (.377/.364/.833), average 13.3 ppg mark and suspect defense against the Miami wing players kept the playoff series open long enough for LeBron James’ monster game four performance to bring all the momentum back to Miami.
Similar to the identity crisis going on in Memphis with Rudy Gay, the Pacers starting small forward needs to figure out if he is “el hombre” or just another “hombre” and fast; the Pacers will only have the money to keep either him or West next season and Granger’s long-term replacement is on roster already in Gerald Green just in case he thinks the Pacers are bluffing.
Simply put, this starting lineup is one of the best in the business. It was not a fluke that this team had a 2-1 lead on Miami in the second round. Hibbert and West are possibly the conference’s best starting big man tandem, while Paul George and George Hill create one of the more promising backcourts in the league. Sandwich Granger in between those four and the Pacers trot out as formidable a starting lineup outside of Miami, Oklahoma City and the Lakers as any in the league.
Where the question marks on this team lie, of course, is on the bench, where Miami ripped them to shreds. This team has to prove that when Hibbert is on the bench, they are not completely useless.
Replacing Darren Collison as the team’s starting point guard is D.J. Augustin. The former starter in Charlotte, Augustin will push Hill in a healthy way, but is a much less threatening player from Hill’s perspective compared to Collison.
Augustin is not nearly as explosive as Collison, and while Collison has looked impressive when given starter’s minutes in both New Orleans and Indiana, Augustin has looked like a backup point guard when given starter’s minutes. This is Hill’s team now and so credit the team’s new GM Kevin Pritchard in moving Collison in the fashion he did, acquiring the highly coveted backup center Ian Mahinmi from Dallas in a trade for him.
Green was a valuable addition for the Pacers, as he gives the Pacers an athletic specimen off the bench who is not much of a defender in his young age, but can score in bunches and has unbelievable explosiveness. The Pacers second unit now features two wings, Green and Lance Stephenson, who are both unapologetically offense-only players at this point in their careers. But with a defensive identity already in place with Vogel as their head coach – tenth in the NBA in points allowed last season, fourth in rebounding – both players have a chance to evolve into more trustworthy defenders if they buy in.
Mahinmi and Tyler Hansbrough are as quality bench bigs as the league has right now, as both provide necessary intangible traits that every winning team needs. Jeff Pendergraph and rookie Miles Plumlee might also occasionally earn playing time.
Indiana is a deep team with one of the leagues most talented starting lineups in the NBA’s second-worst division. Equally beneficial for the Pacers is the Derrick Rose injury that will truncate the Bulls regular season win total. Both factors will certainly help in the Pacers efforts to secure first-place in the Central. What the Pacers do with a top 4 seed in the playoffs is completely up to them, as they will either see Miami or Boston in round two and both teams have ions more playoff experience.
Indiana came within one “LeBron James” of going up 3-1 over Miami in the second round last season, before James dropped 40 points, 18 rebounds and 9 assists on the Pacers, knotting up the series and motivating the Heat to run away with the series. Miami still has the LeBron advantage and Indiana does not have any new tricks to try and stop it. The argument that the team’s nucleus – George, Granger and Hibbert – will have a year’s worth of experience at their disposal seems inefficacious when considering that the Miami Heat has championship experience and hall-of-fame talent on their side.
The Pacers have two jobs to do this season if they want to take the next step as a franchise. They must hold off the Bulls and win the central division – while they have such a unique opportunity to do so – and secure the number two seed in the east. If the Pacers can earn home court through the first two rounds, then the Pacers figure to have the edge in the “Larry Bird series” against Boston in round two. Pacers v. Heat in the eastern conference finals would feel a lot different then the same two teams in a second round series.
A conference finals appearance for the Pacers might worry the Heat just a bit, as the Pacers are as a tough a matchup for the Heat as anybody. Very few teams have the combination of post play (Hibbert, West and Hansbrough) and wing play (Granger, George and Green) Indiana has with the height and athleticism to play defense on Miami’s best players. If Boston is Miami’s most notorious rival in the east, Indiana is certainly next in line, as a well-seasoned and healthy Pacers team could push Miami’s buttons.
The Pacers are just a notch under the Heat and Celtics in the east, but if they can hold off the Bulls and earn a high seed in the playoffs, they will make things interesting in a second round matchup against either of the conference powers.