With the dust mostly settled on this offseason’s player movement — and there was a whole lot of it this year — it’s time to take stock of all the fascinating new faces in new places, as well as the more compelling stories of players who will face new challenges while sticking around. Over the course of the next few weeks, Andrew Unterberger will do a team-by-team look at the most interesting players going into next season — one new to the team, and one returning — as we all try to pass the dog days of NBA-less summer, dreaming of hoops-filled months to come. The series continues today with the teams in the Central Division: the Bulls, Cavaliers, Pistons, Pacers and Bucks.
Most Interesting New Player: Tony Snell
Not a ton to choose from here, obviously — it’s Snell, fellow rookie Erik Murphy, and reserve sharp-shooter Mike Dunleavy, now about a team away from officially reaching journeyman status. Murphy seems unlikely to make a huge impact, Dunleavy’s impact will be decent but predictable, but Snell intrigues me. From his play in Summer League, he looks a lot like budding Spurs star Kawhi Leonard, and I of course mean that in the most literal sense — with his dreads, tall but slight build, and expressionless demeanor, there’s probably not a better physical comp in the league for Leonard than Snell. But he also looks like he could maybe provide a good poor man’s facsimile of Leonard’s skills: solid three-point stroke (39 percent his final season at UNM), long and athletic wing defender (6-foot-7 for a nominal shooting guard), toughness to spare. We’ll see if it actually pans out as such, but from the little I saw, I was impressed.
In general, I was also impressed with the way the Bulls basically oriented their entire offseason around one simple strategy: improving their outside shooting. Maybe not all of Snell, Murphy and Dunleavy will end up being legit contributors to the team, but if two of them do, that’s a simple dimension added to the Bulls’ attack that simply wasn’t there last season, when Jimmy Butler and the departed Nate Robinson were the only outside threats of any consistency. Nothing too sexy, but you never know when an outside shot or two could make the critical difference in an Eastern Conference playoff game, even a whole series. Definitely better to have than not have.
Most Interesting Returning Player: Derrick Rose
Would’ve loved to say Jimmy Butler here, since I’m fascinated to see if he can continue the improvement of his breakout season and become the near-All-Star contributor I feel he might could be, but c’mon. There’ll be no bigger story the first month of the season — with the possible exception of Dwight’s first games in Houston, but I can certainly tell you which of the two I’m more excited for — than D-Rose’s return to the Bulls lineup after a full year’s absence. I practically had heart palpitations when they announced that the first TNT game this year was going be the Rose-led Bulls against the two-time-defending Heat — there might not be a better opening night matchup possible than those two old foes squaring off with both sides finally back at full strength.
Can a fully healthy Derrick Rose lead the Bulls past the Heat in the East playoffs? For now, I’m still pretty skeptical, but to have one more legitimate challengers to the throne — in a season where there are already one or two other credible contenders on the far side of the map as well — should certainly make things more interesting (and less depressing), for the regular season and beyond. I can’t wait.
Most Interesting New Player: Andrew Bynum
It feels weird that the Cavs had the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, and he’s still nowhere near their most interesting new addition. And maybe Anthony Bennett turns out to be the Rookie of the Year, while Bynum plays 15 games or less and gets waived before the end of the season. But man, Andrew Bynum. How the hell do you return from the year he had slash didn’t have in Philadelphia? Can he really just lace up opening night and be a contributor from the first tip, a reasonable approximation of the All-Star center the Sixers thought they were getting when they traded their entire immediate future for him? Will he ever be a contributor again? Will he ever set foot on the court again at all?
Just about anything seems possible with Bynum. And while Bennett seems like he’ll be a mystery for some time to come — possibly just because he didn’t get a ton of exposure in college and missed the Summer League — it at least feels like we’ll get some pretty conclusive answers on Bynum fairly quickly. We have to. I have to. I’m not waiting another year on this guy.
Most Interesting Returning Player: Tristan Thompson
Two years into his pro career, I still have absolutely no clue if Tristan Thompson is good or not. His numbers are impressive-ish — he was second in the league last year in total offensive rebounds, which I guess is hard to do — and it seems like he’s gotten better from his rookie to sophomore years in the Association, at least. But I gotta say, I watch Thompson in games, and not a lot about him sticks. A nice board here and there, a nice cut for an easy finish, but for a guy taken top five just a couple years ago, there aren’t a lot of moments that make me say “OK, I get why the Cavs reached to take him over Jonas Valanciunas.” He still seems a little bit like a glorified energy guy to me.
Of course, you could take all of this and substitute Dion Waiters’ name for Thompson’s about as easily, as Waiters has impressed me even less since his top-five drafting. It would really behoove the Cavs for one of these guys to end up being pretty good, and if I had to bet, I can at least see Thompson’s skill set blending with a contending team more easily than Waiters’. You don’t get a lot of shots at a top five pick in this league, and for the Cavs to go 0-for-2 — well, at least 1 for 3, I guess, since that Kyrie Irving guy seems to be pretty good — would be one of the bigger blown opportunities of the decade. On the other hand, a breakout year for Thompson alongside a healthy Bynum — hell, even just a healthy Varejao — could easily make the Cavs the most dangerous of the non-elite teams in the East. No idea what to expect from this squad this year, but I feel like Thompson holds the answers more than anyone else.
Most Interesting New Player: Brandon Jennings
Not that Josh Smith isn’t pretty damn interesting, mind you. But I remain invested in Brandon Jennings, who still looks like he could go a couple of different ways in his career, and who hasn’t exactly been put in a tremendous situation to succeed these last few seasons in Milwaukee. He’s never had frontcourt weapons to work with the way he’ll have in Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope could even give him his best backcourt shooting complement if he pans out as expected. Will having better teammates magically turn him into a high-percentage shooter and regular free-throw drawer? Maybe not, but it seems unfair to write him off completely as a difference-making point guard until we see if a little alleviated pressure can’t do wonders for his offensive efficiency.
Maybe the most important new connection Jennings may make in Detroit is with new head coach Mo Cheeks, though. Jennings seemed to lose the faith of Scott Skiles and then Jim Boylan in Milwaukee last year, partly because the Bucks’ backcourt was so damn cluttered towards the end of the season that his role on the team seemed to change just about every night. Excepting an extreme reversal of fortune for Rodney Stuckey or a coup perpetrated by Chauncey Billups — the latter always a possibility — Jennings will be the unquestioned Capital P Capital G Point Guard in Detroit next year, and it’s worth remembering that the last time he had that kind of positional security (two years ago in Milwaukee) he had his best season, averaging career highs in scoring, shooting and PER. I still believe in you, Young Ex-Buck.
Most Interesting Returning Player: Andre Drummond
Tempted to go Rodney Stuckey — because what the hell ever happened to Rodney Stuckey? — but hell, you saw Drummond in Summer League. The guy’s basically young Amar’e, and given the proper minutes, he could have the league’s best nightly-highlight breakout season since Blake Griffin’s rookie year. But amidst all the excitement with Drummond, and the assumption that minutes are all that’s getting in the way between him and stardom, you gotta mention that he still only played 21 minutes a game last year, and might not play a ton more this year at age 20 in an already-crowded Pistons frontcourt. He still doesn’t have a ton of polish on either side of the ball, and there’s no guarantee that Cheeks will trust him any more in big minutes than Lawrence Frank did, especially considering that the Pistons actually hope to make the playoffs this year.
Nonetheless, even more so than new additions Jennings and Smoove, Drummond is the reason you’ll tune in to countless Detroit games on League Pass. He’ll have his first posterization of legend within two weeks, I can feel it.
Most Interesting New Player: Luis Scola
With his surprise trade from Phoenix to Indiana last month, Scola inherited the Kevin Martin award for “Player least likely to make an impact on the NBA season suddenly thrust into a key role on a contending team.” Scola could’ve had another decent year Argentinian Tangoing opponents to death in the post, playing mediocre defense and generally failing to make a difference on one of the league’s crappiest teams, but instead, he now has to be a second-unit anchor on arguably the team with the best shot of taking the Heat out in the East. He’ll be replacing not only the production of the Toronto-bound Tyler Hansbrough, who incredibly enough was actually the Pacers’ best bench player last season, but also occasionally spelling David West, the oldest member of the Pacers’ starting unit and the one most likely to need the occasional extended breather.
Can he be a difference maker? Years of irrelevance playing on average Rockets teams and last season’s miserable Suns squad have dulled memories of what a terror Scola was in the post his first few years in the league, particularly with the 2009 Rockets, where he was one of the key offensive cogs (14 a game, 49 percent shooting) on a team that unexpectedly pushed the championship-bound Lakers to a seven-game second round series. But of course, he’s older now (33 last April) and his shooting and scoring both dropped in Phoenix, though not so low that you couldn’t expect a comeback, especially in a more specialized role. At least he seems to fit the Pacers’ style and culture, and though it’s weird now to picture his long greasy hair falling over a Pacers uni, by the New Year it might seem like the most natural thing in the world.
It won’t take much for Scola — as well as fellow new reserves C.J. Watson, Chris Copeland and Solomon Hill — to be an improvement over what came off the bench for Indy last year. But can Luis, or any of the rest of them, be trusted against LeBron, Wade and Bosh during key moments in the East playoffs? If not, it’s gonna be a real tough offseason for Larry Bird.
Most Interesting Returning Player: Danny Granger
It blew my mind a little to see that Bradford Doolittle of ESPN projects Danny Granger to be a more valuable SF this coming season than teammate Paul George, as George seems well on his way to being a superstar, and it’s unclear that Granger is ever even gonna be all that good again. Granger had his worst season in half a decade two years ago, and last year he managed just 74 disastrous minutes before tapping out for the season. By his own admission, it’s time for him to pass the torch to George and Hibbert as the team focal points. If he gave the Pacers anything close to George’s production next season, they’d probably rename the stadium in his honor. It’s probably not gonna happen.
But Granger doesn’t have to be an All-Star to be of tremendous use to his ballclub. Really, all he has to do is provide a bench boost from within, as the Pacers will look for him to give the second unit some perimeter scoring to go with Scola’s post play and Watson’s ball-handling. Keep in mind the Pacers’ reserve wings in the postseason last year were Sam Young, Gerald Green and Orlando Johnson. It’s not a particularly high bar Granger has to clear, and if he can’t clear it, he might not be in basketball after his contract expires at the end of next season. But if he can be a reliable outside shooter and a decent slashing threat, it’s another weapon for the Pacers, and every weapon matters when the margin of victory between them and Miami proves as thin as it did last season. And if not … well, it’s a hell of an expiring contract (over $14 mil) to have at Indy’s disposal at the trade deadline
Most Interesting New Player: O.J. Mayo
Do you have it in you, Juice? I remain one of the last lingering hangers-on on the O.J. Mayo bandwagon — between the shooting, the passing, the athleticism and the smarts, it still seems practically impossible to me that he can’t ever get it all together — but like so many others in these columns, this is probably his last chance. I really hoped he’d end up on a contending team with a winning culture where he’d almost be bullied into caring, but instead, he’s gonna have to find his own motivation once again on a mediocre and practically point guard-less Bucks team, for whom he might be expected to handle even more offensive responsibility than he did on the undermanned Mavs last year.
The numbers don’t seem to hold a lot of confidence that he’ll be able to do it for Milwaukee, now or ever. Five years into his career, Mayo’s still yet to even post a PER above the accepted league-average of 15. But I’m holding on for one more year, that maybe this will be the season when he grows up a little and takes the reins on this young Bucks team and becomes the all-around player we always wanted him to be. It’s not too late to start giving a crap, Ovinton.
Most Interesting Returning Players: John Henson and Larry Sanders
The Bucks certainly have a type with their draft picks — long, wiry, athletic big men taken in the mid-first who seem invisible for much of their early pro careers, then emerge out of nowhere to grab 20 boards or block 10 shots in a game and dazzle with their sensational talent. (C U When U Get There, Ekpe Udoh.) In Henson and Sanders, the Bucks might have one of the most promising young frontcourts in the league, but both are still relatively unknown quantities. Henson’s monster games all happened at the end of the season, basically garbage time for most of the league, and Sanders’ emotional inconsistency has often gotten in the way of his on-court consistency, as he did over one stretch last season where he racked up six techs and three ejections over a 10-day period.
Still, if the Bucks are gonna escape from the averageness they otherwise seem to have doomed themselves to — in terms of standing and in general watchability — Henson and Sanders’ realizing their incredible upside will have to be one of the main reasons why. The Bucks might be drafting in the teens for decades yet to come, and not even the clever teams are gonna hit with those picks every time. (Shoutout to Giannis Antetokounmpo, though. Can’t wait to have him flummoxing TNT broadcasters and Sporcle quiz takers when he comes over in a year or two.)
Previously: Atlantic Division