If the NBA season ended at its halfway point, four of the five Central Division teams would be in the playoffs. Despite that, three of the five teams have been relatively disappointing. David Blatt has already been fired, the Chicago Bulls have been wildly inconsistent, and the Milwaukee Bucks have no clear vision.
Cleveland Cavaliers: A-
The 2015-16 Cleveland Cavaliers are a tough team to grade. They finished the first half of the season with a 30-11 record, good enough for the top seed in the East. Through those first 41 games, they ranked top six in both offensive and defensive rating. But they also fired their head coach. Fair or not, the Cavaliers are ultimately being judged this year on whether or not they win a championship. And, while they have been the best team in the East so far, they are clearly a tier behind the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs.
One of the major reasons behind the disappointing (relative to expectations) start for the Cavs is the deterioration of LeBron’s shooting. LeBron’s shooting efficiency is as low as it’s been since he was 23 at nearly every location on the floor. His three-point shooting has been particularly poor at just 29.3 percent, the lowest since his rookie year. Fortunately for the Cavs, LeBron is still an incredibly smart basketball player. Because he’s struggled from behind the arc, he’s shooting a much higher percentage of his shots at or near the rim, and he’s still converting those attempts at a very high rate. But, the lack of an outside shot from the Cavs’ primary ball handler has limited their offensive potential a bit.
Compounding LeBron’s outside shooting struggles was the absence of Kyrie Irving due to injury. Kyrie missed 26 of the Cavs first 41 games. And, since his return, he hasn’t played particularly well. Kyrie has also struggled from behind the arc in his limited action, which hasn’t alleviated the primary ball handler shooting woes that the Cavs struggled with when he was injured. The offense has still been quite good, ranking fifth in offensive rating through the first half of the year. But, it hasn’t clicked on the level it did following last year’s trade deadline.
Indiana Pacers: B
Fueled by Paul George’s hot start following his return from injury, the Pacers have been one of the pleasant surprises of the first half of the season. George was downright unstoppable for long stretches, and particularly deadly from three-point range–reminiscent of his hot start two years ago. George has cooled off the last month or so, and the Pacers offense has followed suit, finishing the first half just 19th in the league in offensive rating.
Fortunately, the strength of the Pacers’ first half has been suffocating defense we’ve come to expect from the Frank Vogel coached team. After trading Roy Hibbert, it was fair to expect the Pacers defense to regress. Instead, the Pacers finished the first half with a defensive rating of 101.9, good enough for third in the league. George has undoubtedly been a big factor in the success of the Pacers’ defense. His length and quickness creates huge problems in both man and help defense. He gets into passing lanes and either creates turnovers or disrupts timing, making things extremely difficult for opponents. But perhaps the biggest bright spot in the Pacers defense has been the success of Myles Turner.
Turner has not played a lot of minutes, but he’s been terrific defensively when he’s been on the floor. Turner ranks just behind Roy Hibbert in rim protection according to Nylon Calculus. The biggest reason for Turner’s first half defensive success is his innate ability to contest shots. Among all players playing 15 minutes per game or more, Turner ranks first in the league in contest percentage. His combination of length and athleticism allows him to contest shots that most others simply cannot.
The Pacers haven’t been perfect, but their performance in the first half of the season has produced plenty of optimism.
Detroit Pistons: B
After years of struggle, Detroit finally appear to have found a good basketball team. The Pistons’ recent ineptitude is rather remarkable, having finished below-average in both offensive and defensive rating for the last six years. Through the first half of this season, the Pistons rank 10th in defensive rating and 16th in offensive rating. That 16th offensive rating rank has been rapidly rising too, after some early season struggles with new pieces like Marcus Morris and Ersan Ilyasova.
The major thing holding the Pistons back in the first half of the season was their bench. It was, at times, downright awful. Steve Blake is old and struggles to create for others, Stanley Johnson has looked like a rookie for much of the first half of the season, and Aron Baynes is a huge downgrade from Andre Drummond. Over the last month of the first half, though, the Pistons bench played much better. And the return of Brandon Jennings is a big reason for that. Jennings has embraced coming off the bench and has forced a quicker pace, something much needed given the bench’s struggles to score in the half court.
Ultimately, the Pistons success in the first half hinged on the performances of Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond. Both Jackson and Drummond were terrific for much of the first half of the season, providing a formidable pick and roll combination that was the backbone of the Pistons’ half court offense. Combined with the major improvements made by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the Pistons’ young stars provided much needed hope to Detroit fans for the first half of the season.
Chicago Bulls: B-
The Bulls are ahead of both the Pacers and Pistons in the standings, but their performance relative to expectations has been worse. After replacing Tom Thibodeau with Fred Hoiberg, the Bulls looked to make major strides on the offensive side of the ball. Unfortunately, for Bulls fans, the offense has been far worse than it has been in seasons past. The Bulls ranked 23rd in offensive rating in the first half of the season, scoring just 103.5 points per 100 possessions.
Hoiberg’s offenses at Iowa State were known for their efficient shot choices, shooting the vast majority of their shots either in the paint or behind the arc. The philosophy is strong, but the Bulls personnel isn’t necessarily equipped to carry it out. The Bulls top three creators, Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, and Pau Gasol, all like to operate from the mid-range. And, to this point in the season, the Bulls’ personnel has won out over its coach’s style. The Bulls rank 25th in Three-Point Attempt Rate, 17th in percentage of shots taken inside 3 feet, and eighth in percentage of long (16+ feet) twos. Making things worse is Derrick Rose’s rough start, partly due to vision issues.
One thing was clear in the first half of the season, though: Jimmy Butler is a bonafide star. Butler was a huge point of optimism in an otherwise disappointing first half. Butler has once again increased his usage offensively, while still continuing to be efficient. Because of that, he’s averaging over 22 points per game and carrying a Bulls offense that desperately needs him. But, as evident by their poor offensive performance, the Bulls need more than Jimmy Butler if they are going to play better basketball in the second half of the season.
Milwaukee Bucks: C-
The Bucks gave the Warriors their first loss of the season, but the season in Milwaukee has otherwise been tough to watch. The Bucks showed flashes of brilliance last year, much like they did against Golden State earlier this year, but they have been unable to convert that potential into consistent production through the first half of the season.
Adding Greg Monroe in the offseason was supposed to fill a glaring need for offense in the starting lineup, but the addition has done far more bad than good. The Bucks rank 29th in the league in terms of defensive rating, allowing 109.1 points per 100 possessions. Monroe’s lack of quickness and awareness in help defense has killed much of what the Bucks like to do. The Bucks do their best to take advantage of their length, playing a very aggressive style of defense. But, that brand of defense becomes much more difficult without an athletic help defender as the last line of defense.
Offensively, the Bucks have similar fit issues. Last year, the offense was successful early in the season with Brandon Knight at point guard. Following the trade for Michael Carter-Williams, their offense sputtered. Those struggles have continued into the first half of this season. The Bucks have athletic wings, but they lack the spacing of the better offenses in the league, and Carter-William’s inability to shoot exacerbates the problem. The result is troubling: the Bucks rank 29th in the league in Three-Point Attempt Rate. And as long as their point guard can’t shoot, that problem looks to continue.