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NBA preview: Breaking down the Central division, and the importance of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope

Everything you need to know about the Cavs, Pistons, Pacers and more

NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

A look at the Central Division on the whole

Ryan Mourton (@Ryan_Mourton)

The Central Division is both easy and complicated. Barring something drastic, it is fairly obvious who will win it: The Cleveland Cavaliers. The division is teeming with talent, but the Cavs are of course the reigning world champions, returning a mostly full roster. The rest of the teams are intriguing for a mix of reasons, and injuries have already started to impact the division. We have a quick preview for each, in order of how I think they’ll finish the season.

1.)The Cleveland Cavaliers - The Cavaliers have LeBron. Actually they have 3 of the division’s 5 best players (Paul George and Jimmy Butler). They are just too talented not to win the division without injuries, even if J.R. Smith doesn’t make his seemingly inevitable return. Young guards Jordan McRae and Kay Felder have been dynamic in Summer League and preseason, and have a chance to earn the rotation minutes left by Smith (currently), Matthew Dellavedova, and Mo Williams.

Cavs story to watch: How do LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love exist without the pressure of needing a title to validate their pairing?

Preseason Prediction: 1 seed

2.) The Detroit Pistons - Stan Van Gundy is one of the best coaches in the league, and is showing some chops as a personnel man as well. The Pistons are now 2 deep at almost every position with Jon Leuer, Ish Smith, and Boban Marjonovic shoring up a shaky bench rotation. The Pistons will be tested with starting point guard Reggie Jackson out up to 8 weeks with tendinitis in his knee, but Smith is a good fit with Pistons starting unit.

Pistons story to watch: How much internal improvement do they get? Kentavious Caldwell-Pope needs to shoot better. Andre Drummond still isn’t making an impact defensively and doesn’t have much of an offensive repertoire. Stanley Johnson will be counted on to step into a big role.

Preseason Prediction: 2 seed (made before Jackson’s injury, but I’m sticking to it)

3.) The Indiana Pacers - The Pacers are somewhat confounding but they have Paul George, a complete two way force. I don’t know what to make of their offseason. They brought in Jeff Teague at the expense of George Hill, but I think Hill is a better fit next to George. The idea is getting faster, with Teague and fellow newcomer Thad Young, but Al Jefferson is expected to play a major role. Is Nate McMillan the guy to pull this all together?

Pacers story to watch: How much better can Myles Turner be this season? The Pacers project to give big minutes to a group including Jeff Teague, Aaron Brooks, Monta Ellis, Rodney Stuckey, CJ Miles, and Thad Young. They will need a solid anchor in the middle to help Paul George keep their defense afloat. Without Ian Mahinmi to rely on, Turner is the guy. If Turner and Jefferson are bad defensively, the Pacers are really gonna struggle to stop anybody.

Preseason Prediction: 5 seed

4.) The Chicago Bulls - The Bulls don’t make a lick of sense. They made the smart money move in bringing in Dwyane Wade, a no brainer, but he doesn’t make sense with their wings. Wade and Rajon Rondo projects to be a nightmare as far as shooting goes. The fit with them and Jimmy Butler is just confusing. As the season goes on, I wonder if the Bulls will find more success pairing Wade and Butler with Doug McDermott or Jerian Grant. On the good side: The Bulls stole Robin Lopez from the Knicks. Is Nikola Mirotic ever going to be the stretch 4 he is in theory consistently in NBA games? He was on fire for 22 games after the All-Star break, but struggled in the 44 games he played prior.

Bulls story to watch: How does Fred Hoiberg bring this ill-fitting group together? Hoiberg struggled in his first season, and has been dealt some big veteran personalities and odd pieces in season two. If the Bulls are bad with Butler and Wade playing big minutes, Hoiberg’s job security could get interesting.

Preseason Prediction: Miss the playoffs (10th place)

5.) The Milwaukee Bucks - A month ago, I would have had the Bucks a lot higher, in a cluster with the Bulls and Pacers fighting for 3rd in the division and a 5-8 seed. Without star Khris Middleton for most of the season because of a torn hamstring, the cause seems lost. Giannis Antetokounpo is without a doubt the team’s best talent, but Middleton is their best player. 6’8 wings who can handle the ball, shoot 40% from deep and guard 1-4 are tough to replace, and the pressure on Giannis to turn his mind bending potential into real impact on the court is massive. Their season hinges on him becoming a true force on both ends. If he puts it all together, they go from conference cellar dweller to playoff team. Jabari Parker will need to improve as a shooter and defender and pick up slack as well. Greg Monroe is still an incredibly odd fit, and both John Henson and Miles Plumlee would seem to fit the rest of the Bucks roster better, but finding a taker for Monroe has sofar proven difficult.

Bucks story to watch: Giannis, clearly. That one is so obvious that we’ll do the secondary one: What do their guards do now? Without Middleton the Bucks guard rotation consists of Michael Carter-Williams, Matthew Dellavedova, Malcom Brogdon, Rashad Vaughn, and Jason Terry. Carter-Williams has yet to show that his being pretty decent at a bunch of stuff but not very good at anything is impactful. Dellavedova fit well in between the two handling wings as a spot up shooter, but he may be forced into an initiator role more than the Bucks would like. Brogdon and Vaughn are probably not ready for the big roles they’re going to be counted on filling. Terry is 39.

Preseason Prediction: Miss the playoffs (13th place)

Team to watch

David Zavac (@davidzavac)

The Indiana Pacers are a really interesting team. Swapping out George Hill for Jeff Teague, and Frank Vogel for Nate McMillan strike me as lateral moves at best, and could potentially be downgrades. The team was able to add Al Jefferson and Thaddeus Young to a group that won 45 games a year ago. That team, surprisingly, pushed the Toronto Raptors to the limit in the playoffs before losing in Game 7.

Most of the credit for that impressive playoff showing goes to Paul George, who is a genuine NBA superstar. Over the seven games, George put up a 63.2% true shooting rate on high usage. He kept his turnovers down and guarded multiple positions. He did this without getting much help around him. For the season last year, the Pacers ranked 25th in the NBA in offensive rating. Monta Ellis needs possessions, and he doesn’t use them particularly effectively. If Al Jefferson is used mainly with bench units to help with scoring when George sits down, and Myles Turner takes a step forward, Indiana could push for a high playoff seed in the East. They’ll also need a healthy C.J. Miles to provide outside shooting. Jeff Teague shot 40% from three a year ago. If he can replicate that, the Pacers might finally score a bit.

Player to Watch

Alex Ralston @Aralsto

The NBA is teaming with great players and storylines. On any given night there are a multitude of games that should be considered appointment viewing for a variety of reasons. In no division is this more apparent than the central division. The central is the home of the best player on Earth, LeBron James, and his reigning NBA Champion Cleveland Cavaliers but it’s also the home of Dwayne Wade, Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Andre Drummond. There is no shortage of talented teams and certainly no lack of entertaining players. There are NBA Champions, All NBA players, Olympic gold medalists and top draft choices. But the Central isn’t just brimming with top tier talent, it is also the home of some of the most exciting upcoming talents in the NBA. Myles Turner, Jabari Parker and Stanley Johnson all ply their trade in the Central and are worth checking out on a nightly basis. No matter what your basketball preferences are there is always a reason to throw on some Central division basketball when you are scrolling through league pass this upcoming season. And when you are scrolling through league pass an under the radar player to keep an eye out for this season is Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

Many Cavs fans may remember the Piston’s shooting guard from Cleveland’s round 1 playoff matchup with Detroit last season. The feisty two guard endlessly hounded the Cavaliers perimeter players, as he did all season for the Piston’s. KCP’s game is worthy of a deeper dive and the soon to be restricted free agent is certainly a player to keep an eye on during the 2016-2017 season.

KCP is the only member of the Piston’s starting five who is not under contract for multiple years. Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond both received big contract extensions from Stan Van Gundy, and Tobias Harris and Marcus Morris both also have multiple years left in Auburn Hills as well. At face value it might seem as though the franchise values KCP last amongst their core players given his contract situation but on the court KCP is an integral part to Detroit’s success. Simply put Caldwell-Pope is the best perimeter defender on the Piston’s. Last season players guarded by Caldwell-Pope shot worse from three and overall from the field when they were guarded by the Piston’s shooting guard*. KCP is not even 24 years old and he is carving out a niche that he excels at, setting himself up for a long NBA career whether or not the Piston’s extend the number 8 overall pick from the 2013 draft.

KCP being eligible for a contract extension is one of the main reasons to keep an eye on the Stan Van Gundy’s defensive ace. How will KCP respond to the pressure not only of increased expectations for his team but also of playing for a contract? Will he continue to grow into an All-NBA level defender? Or will he buckle under the pressure and continue last season’s trend of lackluster shooting from behind the arc? It is not just KCP’s bank account that is counting on him to continue to develop in his fourth season, the Piston’s need him to continue to improve as well.

KCP is fantastic on one side of the floor but last season, Kentavious’ streaky outside shooting left a lot to be desired as an offensive piece playing next to Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond. Improving his three point shooting is the biggest area for growth in KCP’s game. Coming out of college scouts projected him to be more of a scorer than he has shown so far in his career and a big part of that was his excellent shooting from deep while in Athens, Georgia. But as KCP has learned the NBA is not college basketball and the former Georgia Bulldog was absolutely horrible from deep last season, shooting a career low 30% from behind the arc. Stan Van Gundy’s offensive scheme is built around pick and rolls with players not involved in the first action providing spacing for the Jackson and Drummond. Given that philosophy it is easy to see why KCP is an offensive liability for Detroit. His poor shooting allows defenders to cheat off of him which cramps the spacing of the offense, causing the team’s performance to suffer.

While his offensive performance last season leaves a lot to be desired there are signs that KCP can provide more from behind the arc than he did last season. Caldwell-Pope's sophomore campaign saw him shoot 34% on over 5 attempts per game and if KCP can get his percentages back to those levels opposing defenses will at least have to respect that he may shoot the three which will give Stan Van Gundy and the Pistons offense another dimension. If Caldwell-Pope can smooth out his hot and cold streaks through a more consistent shooting stance he has the opportunity to be a decent three point shooter and a huge asset to his team.

Caldwell-Pope is one of those special players who has the opportunity to grow into the exact player his team needs to get to the next level. Three and D wing players are in vogue in today’s NBA and that type of player also happens to fit perfectly into Stan Van Gundy’s play style. The Pistons are taking steps forward to bring the one time Eastern Conference powerhouse back into contention and the growth of KCP will have a big impact on how much success the Pistons have this season. Stan Van Gundy has done a fine job of melding the roster to fit his preferred play style and has some excellent pieces in Reggie Jackson, Tobias Harris and Andre Drummond. If Van Gundy can help KCP find a consistent shooting stroke the Pistons could be make some noise in the playoffs and Caldwell-Pope could earn himself a big time contract extension.

*all stats via nba.com