1. Home
  2. NEWS
  3. NBA
  4. BUCKS
  5. Bucks look to set the pace again in NBA’s Central Division behind Giannis, Lillard
Bucks look to set the pace again in NBA’s Central Division behind Giannis, Lillard

Bucks look to set the pace again in NBA’s Central Division behind Giannis, Lillard


Central Division teams are seeking to make amends after creating some unwanted NBA playoff history last season.

Last season marked the first time that no Central Division team advanced at least as far as the conference semifinals since the league went to a 16-team playoff format in 1984. The Central Division’s combined 2-8 playoff record – excluding the play-in tournament – was its worst postseason mark ever.

The quick exits unfolded even though the Milwaukee Bucks owned the No. 1 overall playoff seed and the Cleveland Cavaliers had home-court advantage in the opening round.

“It stings watching other teams make it there, watching other teams hold the trophy, watching other teams’ parade, watching other teams with cigars in their mouths, watching other teams do all the type of crazy stuff that you really want to do,” Bucks forward Bobby Portis said. “Yeah, that hurts. Especially when you’ve done it before.”

The Bucks won the title in 2021 but haven’t advanced beyond the second round since. After their stunning 4-1 loss to the Miami Heat in the first round of last season’s playoffs, the Bucks made some major changes.

They fired Mike Budenholzer, the coach of their 2021 championship team, and replaced him with former Toronto Raptors assistant Adrian Griffin. They also acquired seven-time all-NBA guard Damian Lillard to pair with two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo as part of a blockbuster multi-team trade that cost them two-time All-Star guard Jrue Holiday and Grayson Allen as well as plenty of draft capital.

The Cavaliers didn’t make such dramatic moves after losing 4-1 to the New York Knicks in their first playoff appearance since 2018, LeBron James’ last year in Cleveland. But the Cavaliers believe they got better from the humbling experience.

“We have a year under our belt,” said All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell, who averaged 28.3 points and dropped 71 on Chicago in January. “Ultimately, the amount of preparation we do in practice is great, but the only way you really learn is through experience. And it sucks to say, but the best way to learn is through heartbreak and through the trials and tribulations of this game.

“We had one last year, and it’s like how do we respond this year? I know we’ll respond the right way.”

The other three teams in the division are trying to bounce back from losing seasons.

The Chicago Bulls did advance to the play-in tournament before losing to Miami, though they finished 40-42 one year after going 46-36.

The Detroit Pistons made the most offseason headlines of the Central’s three non-playoff teams with the coaching hire of Monty Williams, who led the Phoenix Suns to the 2021 NBA Finals. Williams takes over a team that posted an NBA-worst 17-65 record last season.

The Indiana Pacers are hoping to take the next step in their rebuild after improving from 25-57 in 2021-22 to 35-47 last season.

A look at each team in the Central Division in predicted order of finish:

The addition of Lillard assures the winners of the last five Central Division titles will remain one of the NBA’s top title contenders, though their regular-season record could take a slight hit as the Bucks’ two superstars get accustomed to playing together.

Holiday’s exit also could make the Bucks slightly less dangerous on defense, though their offense should take a giant step forward with Lillard.

A big key will be the health of three-time All-Star Khris Middleton, who played just 33 regular-season games last year. The Bucks also need 35-year-old center Brook Lopez to have a second straight healthy season after a back issue limited him to 13 games in 2021-22.

A 51-win season and return to the playoffs last season was soured by the disappointing finish.

The Cavs wilted under the postseason’s bright lights while being bullied by New York, raising questions about Cleveland’s toughness, depth and future.

The need for more outside shooting was addressed with the signings of free agents Max Strus and Georges Niang, both of whom bring some attitude and postseason experience. But the bigger issue for the Cavs is Mitchell’s commitment along with the continued growth of guard Darius Garland and forward Evan Mobley.

Mitchell chose not to sign a contract extension this off-season, knowing he will continue to be asked about his long-term plans. He’s signed through next season, making it imperative for the Cavs to take another step this season to convince him to stick around.

The Indiana Pacers have spent nearly 20 months rebuilding around All-Star guard Tyrese Haliburton, an Oshkosh, Wis., native. Team officials are cautiously optimistic this will be the breakthrough season.

With two-time league blocks champion Myles Turner, 3-point specialist Buddy Hield, all-rookie selection Bennedict Mathurin all returning and versatile defender Bruce Brown now part of the mix, the Pacers certainly have a solid foundation. And with 10 players who were first-round draft picks, they have plenty of depth on the roster, too.

It could be enough to end the Bulls’ three-year playoff drought.

TOP PHOTO: FILE – U.S. guards Anthony Edwards (10) and Oshkosh, Wis., native, Tyrese Haliburton (4) a Basketball World Cup second round match in Manila, Philippines Friday, Sept. 1, 2023. United States defeated Montenegro 85-73. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

The Bulls opted for continuity coming off a disappointing season that ended with a loss to Miami in the play-in tournament and kept their core intact.

Besides sticking with stars Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan rather than trading them, they kept Nikola Vucevic off the free-agent market by agreeing to a three-year, $60 million extension. They also retained guard Coby White and added backcourt depth by signing former Bucks guard Jevon Carter.

They’ll need more than promising flashes from Patrick Williams in his fourth season. A jump by Dalen Terry — last year’s first-round pick — would help, too.

The Pistons and Williams are counting on Cade Cunningham bouncing back from a shin surgery and playing for the first time since early November of last season.

Detroit drafted the former Oklahoma State star No. 1 overall in 2021 and he was unanimously voted to the NBA All-Rookie first team before having his second season stunted by injury.

The three-time NBA championship franchise desperately need Cunningham to stay on the floor to improve its slim chances of making the playoffs for the first time since 2019 and to perhaps end a league-record, 14-game postseason drought that dates to 2008.

Cunningham leads a young team with Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren, the No. 5 and No. 13 picks overall in 2022, veteran scorer Bojan Bogdanovic and rookie wing Ausar Thompson.

TOP PHOTO: FILE – Milwaukee Bucks guard Damian Lillard, center, greets Guard Cameron Payne (15) during a timeout in the first half of the team’s NBA basketball game against the Memphis Grizzlies on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Nikki Boertman)

Public Inspection File FCC EEO Public File Report - Employment Opportunities at Our Stations