It’s been a few years since the Cleveland Cavaliers earned the top spot in the Central Division.
Cleveland took second place among its Midwestern rivals during the 2022-23 season. It placed seven games behind the division champion, the Milwaukee Bucks. The Miami Heat defeated the Bucks in the playoffs’ first round after Milwaukee earned its highest regular-season win total since the 2018-19 season. Cleveland was 11 games ahead of the Chicago Bulls, 16 ahead of the Indiana Pacers and 34 ahead of the Detroit Pistons. The Cavs last took first place in the division in 2018, the final year of the four-year battle with the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals.
Cleveland claimed four division titles in a row from 2015-18 after taking first place in the division in 2010. The Cavs clinched a division title in 2009 following a 3-point win over the Sacramento Kings in Sacramento. It would be their first since 1976, when the Jim Chones and Campy Russell-led Cavaliers placed one game ahead of the Washington Bullets and nine ahead of the Houston Rockets.
Will this be the year the Cavaliers finally reclaim the Central Division title?
The Cavs went 13-3 against their division opponents in the 2022-23 regular season. They swept the Bulls and the Pistons while taking a 3-1 record against Indiana. The Cavs finished the regular season with a 2-2 split against Milwaukee, taking two early losses in November before bouncing back with victories in December and January.
It’d be challenging to claim the Pistons and Pacers are the same teams they were last year.
The Pacers addressed their need for a starting power forward when they drafted Houston forward Jarace Walker with the No. 8 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft. They signed guard Bruce Brown to a two-year contract and re-signed All-Star guard Tyrese Haliburton to a five-year deal. Detroit finalized a contract with former Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams in June. The former NBA Coach of the Year helped guide the Suns to a 194-115 regular season record and an appearance in the 2021 NBA Finals during his four years with Phoenix.
The Bulls will have plenty to prove after making a flurry of moves in 2021 and hiring head coach Billy Donovan in 2020.
They have finished the last two seasons with a record of 86-78 and one trip to the NBA playoffs. The Bulls took second place in the division during the 2021-22 season, but fell to the Bucks in five games in the first round of that year’s playoffs. Chicago nearly took another spot in the postseason last year after defeating the Toronto Raptors in their first game of the East’s Play-In tournament. A loss to the Heat in the East’s 8th-seed game ultimately pushed them just out of reach of a place in the playoffs.
The Bulls re-signed guards Coby White and Ayo Dosnumu to three-year contracts, added forward Torrey Craig and signed guard Jevon Carter in the offseason. Forward DeMar DeRozan, guard Zach LaVine and center Nikola Vucevic will all be under contract for Chicago during the 2023-24 season, according to sports salaries and contracts website Spotrac.
Milwaukee’s roster will still feature guard Jrue Holiday, who took a spot alongside Mobley on the league’s All-Defensive First Team last season. Center Brook Lopez signed a two-year, $48 million contract extension with the Bucks in July. They hired former Raptors assistant Adrian Griffin to be their head coach in July. The 15-year NBA assistant was a “top candidate” to fill Cleveland’s coaching vacancy in 2014, according to NBC Sports.
And, of course, the Cavs may still have to face Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo next season.
The seven-time All-Star underwent surgery in his left knee in July. Griffin said Antetokounmpo and forward Khris Middleton are expected to be ready for the start of training camp, according to a September article from Associated Press sports writer Steve Megargee.
“That’s the plan,” Griffin said, via Megargee. “They’ve been working their butts off in the gym every day and just grinding. I think the most important thing is to just take it day by day. That’s what they’re doing. It’s been terrific.”
Antetokounmpo averaged 33 points, 11.7 rebounds and six assists during the three games he played against Cleveland last year, highlighted by the 45-point, 14-rebound performance he had during an 8-point loss to the Cavs in December. Cleveland guards Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland scored a combined 59 points against Milwaukee in the Cavs win at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse.
“(The Cavs are) very, very dangerous,” Antetokounmpo said in December, via Fanatics View. “They have great players and a great system. They know how to play the game. They defend really well. If they stay healthy, they’re going to be a really good team. You’ve got to respect the team. They have (guard Darius) Garland, (guard) Donovan Mitchell, great shot blockers, great shooters, defenders, a great coach and great fans.
“You have to be careful. You cannot take them lightly. They’re not the same team they were 2-3 years ago. If they get into the playoffs, you have to play with a sense of urgency.”
Even with a competitive Bucks squad and up-and-coming rosters from Indiana and Detroit, Cleveland can be in a solid position to take the division if they can tap into the potential of their big four and beyond during the regular season.
Cleveland made improvements of its own by adding extra shooting help and depth at the five in the offseason. The Cavs will have to rely on the improvement of their younger options and work hard to create a more dynamic offense with their newest additions. Garland proved he could pair well with Mitchell in the backcourt last season after averaging 21.6 points and 7.8 assists per game in the regular season. Mobley became the second-youngest player in NBA history to be named to an All-Defensive First Team when he was selected in May.
Either way, it will be imperative for the Cavs to at least keep pace with their division rivals in the regular season before facing the East’s tougher competitors in the NBA playoffs. But, if Cleveland starts strong with wins over the Pacers and Pistons in October and November, they could pave the path to a Central Division title and build a solid foundation for a potential extended run in the postseason.