ZenMasterMike’s Way-Too-Early Eclectic NBA Season Predictions — Central Division

Michael Walton II writes about the Chicago Bulls and the NBA for We Are Regal Radio.

Michael is a student, freelance writer and high school basketball scout based in Chicago. He’s previously been published in TrueStar Magazine, the Redeye Chicago and thelyricallab.com.

From the slums of Shaolin comes the Zen Master, equipped with the knowledge of NBA seasons’ past and armed with predictions based on this year’s off-season movement.

My divisional breakdowns are going to be fun for me this year, as player movement has helped improve the hurting Eastern Conference a bit.

So, starting with my hometown Chicago Bulls, here is my breakdown of the Eastern Conference’s Central Division, which I believe will finish like last year’s Southwestern Division in the West — with EVERY team making the playoffs.

Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette Fred Hoiberg hopes to give the Bulls a more modern look on offense, potentially making them more of a threat to Cleveland.

Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette
Fred Hoiberg hopes to give the Bulls a more modern look on offense, potentially making them more of a threat to Cleveland.

Chicago Bulls

Now-former coach Tom Thibodeau came in in 2010 and established a lasting identity for the then “identity-less Bulls.” This past season was Thibs’ finale in Chicago and he –much like his (former) squad — only existed on the cusp of greatness.

The Bulls finished at or just below the league’s top ten in offensive and defensive efficiency. Under Thibodeau, Chicago was always very skilled and played at a very moderate pace, only initiating its fast break sparingly.

This past season was also the first season that franchise cornerstone Derrick Rose played 39-plus games dating back to 2011. Rose’s return, combined with Jimmy Butler’s emergence into superstardom (20 points per game average) and the solid play of Pau Gasol made for a title-ready Bulls team, or so we thought.

Two factors derailed the Bulls, two of the same factors that pretty much spelled the end of the Thibodeau-era. The first of those two factors would be the way the offense would stall out at the worst moments. The second would be the fact that Thibs simply couldn’t get past LeBron James in the postseason. Bulls fans may make reference to the referees screwing them over, but despite any questionalblelx4z the Bulls should’ve capitalized on the many injuries afflicting last year’s Cavs team.

With no answer for James, and no offensive help for Rose and Butler, the Bulls were doomed.

The team comes back mostly in tact for 2015, with new head coach Fred Hoiberg being the only major change.

Fans can say goodbye to the past style of Bulls’ play. In this upcoming season Hoiberg will get Chicago to push the pace. An up-tempo attack will bode well for Rose, who will be used in the same capacity as Iowa State guard Monte Morris, who led the Big 12 in assists under Hoiberg’s tutelage.

Along with fast breaks, Hoiberg enjoys pristine spacing and lots of three-point attempts. This means that we should see an increased usage rate from Tony Snell, Doug McDermott, and rookie of the year runner-up Nikola Mirotic. If these three players can get their usage rate closer to 25 percent we could see impressive seasons from all three.

With the team pretty much in place everything will rely on how Hoiberg uses the Bulls young talent that Thibodeau often overlooked.

Most likely to have a breakout season in 2015: Doug McDermott

Team MVP in 2015-16: Derrick Rose

Predicted Division finish: 2nd

Milwaukee Bucks

The Milwaukee Bucks were my favorite team to watch on NBA League Pass last year because of how hard they played every night.

They were led by a fiery, albeit (sometimes) boneheaded, coach in Jason Kidd.

They drafted one of my favorite players, Jabari Parker, who already has a reputation as an athlete who puts in work in the community.

Combine that with the fact that their roster is filled with lanky, athletic players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Michael Carter-Williams and the sky’s the limit for this young squad.

The Bucks succeeded on offense in 2014-15 by sharing the ball at a nice rate (top ten assist rate) for a squad so young. But their defense was their calling card. They led the league in steals with 9.6 per game and their defensive efficiency was second to only the champion Golden State Warriors.

Gary Dineen / NBAE via Getty Images Greg Monroe -- the Bucks' first big free-agent acquisition in years has them excited for the future.

Gary Dineen / NBAE via Getty Images
Greg Monroe — the Bucks’ first big free-agent acquisition in years has them excited for the future.

With a defense so strong, it is no wonder the Bucks were able to take a talented Bulls team to six games. But their offense is the only thing keeping them from having real title aspirations.

Milwaukee’s offense shot a great percentage from the field last year, mostly because the milked the shot clock until they were able to get a great shot.

I believe this semi-conservative style is favored by Jason Kidd, but with the addition of Greg Monroe and the return of Parker, the Bucks now add two skilled offensive-minded bigs to a team desperately in need of some offensive punch.

With Monroe ready to provide a double-double on a consistent basis, we could see tons of open looks for Bucks shooters, including new guards Greivis Vasquez and rookie Rashad Vaughn. Speaking of shooters, Middleton exploded onto everyone’s radar last year after shooting 40% from deep. I expect defenses to collapse on Monroe, which means that Middleton could (somehow) become even more efficient from the three-point line.

Modern free-agency has helped parity in the NBA, and the 2015-16 Bucks will be a perfect example.

Most likely to have a breakout season in 2015: Khris Middleton

Team MVP in 2015-16: Jabari Parker

Predicted Division finish: (A very close) 3rd

Detroit Pistons

The Detroit Pistons have been a team in transition for several years now, but recently hired head coach/general manager Stan Van Gundy has been doing his best to mold the team in his vision.

When Van Gundy stepped in as the head of the Pistons last year, it was evident that he was going to try to recreate the magic (pun very much intended) from his days in Orlando.

Andre “Jamal” Drummond is an uber-athletic center in the exact mold of a young Dwight Howard. Van Gundy has clearly taken his blueprint and tried his best to duplicate it with mixed results. Stan “the man” likes his team to space the floor using the “four-out one-in” motion offense. This specific offense focuses on perimeter shooting with one dominant post presence that can really be a nuisance on the boards.

The Pistons organization has trusted Van Gundy enough to give him a great amount of control, and I believe that year two of his rebuild looks very promising. By adding Steve Blake, Ersan Ilyasova, and getting Brandon Jennings back, the Pistons suddenly have a bevy of shooters to space the floor for what is an already devastating Drummond-pick-and-roll.

Fernando Medina /NBAE-Getty In my opinion, the steal of the 2015 NBA Draft -- Stanley Johnson

Fernando Medina /NBAE-Getty
In my opinion, the steal of the 2015 NBA Draft — Stanley Johnson

While I believe the Andre Drummond has the potential to have a better career than Dwight Howard, I don’t think Van Gundy will ever again be able to cobble together a veteran-laden roster that can get all the way to the Finals.

The “X-factor” for the Pistons in re-creating the magic of the ‘09 Magic (damn these puns) will be-my favorite pick in the 2015 NBA Draft-Stanley Johnson. He has an “NBA-ready” body (6-foot 7-inches, 245 lbs.) and ran away with Pac-12 Freshman of the Year at the University of Arizona.

Throughout the NBA Summer League young Stanley showed that he wasn’t about to back down against better competition. I repeatedly watched him grab offensive boards in traffic and then proceed to scream and-one as he converted put-back layups. He basically a power forward in a prototypical small forward body.

In college he shot around 37 percent from three-point range, but as former three-point specialist Dennis Johnson commented during Summer League, Johnson still has an awkward shooting stroke that involves the ball basically being shot from right  in front of his face (Seriously, go watch Stanley Johnson shoot, it’ll make you feel like this.) But if his jump shot comes along he will be a terror.

Most likely to have a breakout season in 2015: Stanley Johnson

Team MVP in 2015-16: Andre Drummond

Predicted Division finish: (A very close) 4th

Indiana Pacers

The Indiana Pacers come in as the key piece in my theory that all teams in the Central will make the playoffs in the ‘16 season.

The Pacers lost some regulars like David West, Luis Scola and Roy Hibbert, but team President  Larry Bird has the team moving in the right direction with an intriguing mixture of veterans and youth talent.

The Pacers big offseason move was the signing of big-time scorer Monta Ellis. His presence gives Indiana the type of explosive scorer that they have lacked for so long (maybe forever). The Pacers backed up this move by re-signing Rodney Stuckey to a three-year deal worth $21 million that gives Indiana a very deep guard rotation that includes: Stuckey, Ellis, George Hill, Solomon Hill, Pac-12 Player of the Year Joe Young, and the oft-slept on Donald Sloan.

The frontcourt will be bolstered by the Paul George power forward experiment and the arrival of the underrated Jordan Hill, but the most interesting addition to the Pacers is rookie Myles Turner. Turner came out of high-school as a top-three recruit. He was a rare mixture of long-range shooting and rim protection.

During his one year under Rick Barnes at Texas, he excelled at the defense with 89 blocks in 34 games. And he struggled with the long-range shooting with a putrid 27 percent from the three-point line. As he adjust to the NBA game his shooting will improve, and his floor-spacing alone will be a weapon.

The Pacers full transformation to a small-ball team will take a few years, but they have added enough to the roster to improve the scoring. Their defense takes a huge hit with the loss of Hibbert, but Frank Vogel-led teams always play hard on defense so I expect them to be at least league-average next year in the defensive department.

I expect the Pacers to win somewhere between 38-44 games, which unfortunately means that they could be playoff bound. Welcome to the Eastern Conference.

Most likely to have a breakout season in 2015: Myles Turner

Team MVP in 2015-16: Paul “El Trece” George

Predicted Division finish: 5th

Cleveland Cavaliers

I’ll end my Central Division preview with the team that just put up a valiant fight in the 2015 NBA Finals. The Cleveland Cavaliers had the same offseason plan as the Chicago Bulls, which was  to retain all of their talent. And so by having one of the most boring off-seasons the Cavs in effect had perhaps the best one.

There was never any worry of LeBron James leaving, so the biggest situation that needed action was the signing of Kevin Love. There was noise about Love making a move to a team out West. Strong rumors connected him to the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, and the Portland Trailblazers.

But Love said in late May that he wanted to stay a Cavalier. On July 1st Love signed a five-year $110 million contract to stay with Cleveland.

The Cavs followed this by signing Iman Shumpert to a four-year deal worth $40 million with a player option in the fourth year. Adding Mo Williams also gives Cleveland decent guard depth, which they will need in the improved East.

The Cleveland Cavaliers will come back healthy and as long as they re-sign J.R. Smith, Matthew Dellavedova, and Tristan Thompson at reasonable rates they will have the best chance of challenging the ‘16 Western Conference Champions.

Most likely to have a breakout season in 2015: Kevin Love

Team MVP in 2015-16: Kyrie Irving

Predicted Division finish: 1st

Follow Regal Radio on Twitter @regalradio1 and on Facebook under Regal Radio; follow Michael on Twitter @ZenMasterMike

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