What’s wrong with the NBA’s Midwest?
Roster and coaching instability cast a long shadow over a struggling division.
As the afterglow of NBA All Star Weekend dissipates, fanbases are left wondering what’s to come. For some (like Miami, Denver, Toronto,) there is optimism around a deep playoff push. Others (Dallas, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Atlanta, Memphis) are comfortably awaiting a maturation process to lead them to the promise land.
Still others are muddled by minor setbacks (Brooklyn, Golden State) that should give way to their competitive renaissance. And then there are the perennially mediocre (Sacramento, New York, Phoenix), who, despite employing the “fake it till you make it technique,” are woefully out of touch with what it takes to be a playoff bound team.
And then there is the Midwest.
The NBA’s divisions mean less now than they did years ago. When Commissioner Adam Silver and team owners eliminated the guarantee that every division winner would make the playoffs no lower than a four seed (which led to the occasionally unfair playoff matchup, like the 2009 Utah Jazz versus the Houston Rockets, in which Utah earned home court advantage over Houston despite winning one fewer game. Utah would win that series 4–2.), he dealt a critical hit to NBA mediocrity. In 2020, beyond the occasional tiebreaker, Division titles are meaningless achievements.
However, changes to the system don’t prevent intra-division comparison. And right now, the Central Division is primed to become the NBA’s habitual under-performer.
Don’t let the success of the Milwaukee Bucks and Indiana Pacers fool you. The Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers are all approaching basketball purgatory, likely to stew in mediocrity for years.
One of the biggest hurdles for mid-sized NBA markets is convincing players to sign and stick around. It’s been a problem for decades, leading to chronic tanking to acquire high draft picks. Players are enamored with destinations like Los Angeles and Boston, leaving lower tier destinations fighting for free agent scraps.
In Chicago, a lack of signees led to building around a young core with a wavering coaching staff. Neither Fred Hoiberg nor current head coach Jim Boylen were able to recreate the defensive tenacity that was a hallmark of Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls a half-decade earlier.
Instead, Boylen has taken to Thibodeau’s hardnosed, marathon practice mentality without any knack for development. His method has worked, at least statistically, for Zach Lavine, who is experiencing the best year of his career.
But Boylen hasn’t produced wins, leaving the Bulls pressed for a way out of the NBA’s cellar. They’ve amassed rookie contracts without a developmental infrastructure to carry the team back to the playoffs.
The story is the same for Detroit and Cleveland. Both have lost core pieces (Andre Drummond, LeBron James) while fielding statistically significant, if unimpactful young players.
These teams are stunted by their rookie blinders. Year after year, they pick up players who, given a shot at leadership, can earn applause from critics. Collin Sexton is made in the mold of De’Aaron Fox and Russell Westbrook and is complemented by his backcourt brother Darius Garland.
Likewise, Luke Kennard has cemented himself as a 40 percent 3-point shooter while steadily improving his court leadership in the absence of former starting guard Reggie Jackson. On title teams, these guys are running second rotations without so much as a lapse in production.
Unfortunately, title scenarios just don’t shape up for these teams. Their biggest names flee, leaving management to scrap together whatever remains they can in hopes of clawing for the eighth seed.
Meanwhile the Bucks and Pacers showoff exactly how to build a playoff team around home grown assets and proactive management.
For the former, it’s the LeBron model. In the 2016 title season with the Cavs, James was a 31 percent 3-point shooter. So, David Griffin surrounded him with shooters.
The same goes for Antetokounmpo. He’s averaging a shade below his career high 5.9 assists this season, thanks to a bevy of kickout options.
Of course, the Bucks, nor Antetokounmpo, weren’t built overnight. Milwaukee leaned into Antetokounmpo’s development, shaping its roster around a once in a lifetime talent.
Meanwhile, Indiana took the lemonade from lemons approach. The Paul George trade has worked wonders for the Pacers. Head coach Nate McMillan identified and implemented a game plan that works for what has been a largely starless team without Victor Oladipo.
By focusing on defense and slowing the pace to a crawl, the Pacers have (ironically?) compromised for their egalitarian offense. Teams aren’t equipped to handle Domantas Sabonis facilitating in the high post, lapping up rebounds, while the Holiday brothers and Doug McDermott nail threes
Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland on the other hand are unable to find recipes for success. Coaching turnover combined with inexperienced rosters leave the teams ill-equipped to compete. Cleveland was victim to this most recently, when on Feb. 18 the team announced it would part ways with first year coach John Beilein (only to bring him back hours later in an undefined role with the team).
Two years ago, Detroit was doing the same, firing veteran coach Stan Van Gundy, despite leading the Pistons to their first playoff berth in six seasons.
Too often coaches become scapegoats for the front office’s inability to build a winning roster. Unfortunately, the inconsistent leadership, save for management that favors bi-annual fire sales, leads to rosters stuck in cycles of mediocrity.
The Golden State Warriors might be the NBA’s worst team, but the Midwest division is quickly becoming the league’s biggest joke. And unless the Draft leads Bulls, Pistons or Cavs to a crystal in a cornfield, the Midwest won’t be making any leaps anytime soon.