For the first time in four seasons, a Central Division team not based in Cleveland will be champs of the Midwest in the NBA. The Cleveland Cavaliers will push for 35 wins. The Chicago Bulls are hot garbage. The Detroit Pistons are, well, the Detroit Pistons. This leaves the Milwaukee Bucks and the Indiana Pacers. Last season, the Bucks and Pacers were 44-38 and 48-34 respectively. Both teams made improvements this off-season. Who will finish this season in first place of the Central Division? Let’s break things down into a few categories.
Best Players: Victor Oladipo, 26, had a break-out 2018 season on his way to making All-NBA Third Team. Giannis Antetokounmpo was an MVP-candidate for most of last season. He is a top-7 player at the age of 23 and made All-NBA second team in 2018.
2nd Best Players: Khris Middleton has been a fringe all-star player in the past and really impressed in seven games against the Celtics in the playoffs last spring. It’s hard to establish who the Pacers second best player is, which isn’t really a problem in the grand scheme of things. For trivial matters like this exercise, it’s Tyreke Evans based on last year’s production. I’m hoping it’s actually Myles Turner.
Supporting Cast: I’m not a huge fan of Eric Bledsoe after last season, nor my wild about Ersan Ilyasova’s role on this team as someone who is best suited, like Giannis, as a four. Hopefully the addition of Brook Lopez insures John Henson never plays meaningful minutes for the Bucks again. The Pacers are pretty loaded. Every position has a solid starter and backup. The only position I have any concerns about is the backup power forward.
Home-court: Bankers Life Fieldhouse hosts some of the best fans in the league, right up there with TD Garden. The new Fiserv Forum is the better venue, but Milwaukee fans lack the passion of the Pacers’ crowd. The comparative home-court records last season (Indiana 27-14, Milwaukee 25-16) doesn’t do the Pacers justice.
Head Coach: Nate McMillan has been a solid coach in the NBA since his days coaching the Seattle Supersonics soon after retiring as a player. He was the Portland Trailblazers’ head coach for seven seasons, which is a long time. He deservedly received Coach of the Year buzz last season after being mediocre the year prior. Mike Budenholzer comes to Milwaukee with high expectations, and rightfully so. Coach Bud comes from the Gregg Popovich coaching tree, which doesn’t necessarily promise the best head coaches (Mike Brown), but Budenholzer has been viewed as one of the better coaches in the league since leaving San Antonio. He was Coach of the Year in 2015.
These measurements are not the end-all be-all indicators of success. Other factors such as team chemistry and health certainly matter too. But I do think the Bucks will be slightly better than the Pacers this season, and if they are in the ballpark of my Eastern Conference projections, these teams will meet in the first round of the playoffs for a great 4-5 match-up and Central Division showdown.