5 Burning NBA Questions: The Central Division

The push will come stronger and faster. You can’t work your way into it. No waiting for tomorrow. You have until April 28 – that’s less than two months – to work your way into the postseason. If you’re in the East, there’s hope. Outside of three or four teams, everyone else is one big injury away from a five-game slide and a shot at extinction. Outside of Miami and Chicago, get too big-headed and you’ll be slain. Lose your confidence and you’ll end up next to Washington and Charlotte.

Questions abound for everyone, and by this point, patterns are developing. We hit you with the Northwest yesterday, as well as the Atlantic Division. Now, here are five burning questions for the Eastern Conference’s Central Division.

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Rip Hamilton was supposed to be the answer. The question? How will the Bulls score enough in the fourth quarter to beat Miami if Derrick Rose has to do everything. That’s interesting… because Hamilton is scoring only 12.5 points a night with an ugly PER of 12.33 – more importantly, he’s also missed 24 games – and still, Chicago is third in the NBA in offensive efficiency (105). The two teams ahead of them? Their two biggest threats on the road to a ring: Miami and Oklahoma City.

The same thing that makes the Bulls so consistent in the regular season – spread-out scoring – will hurt them against Miami. Games so slow down. Possessions mean more. Defenses, and no one does this better than Miami (ask Jeremy Lin), take away your first and sometimes second options. In Chicago’s four-straight losses in the Eastern Conference Finals against Miami last season, Rose shot a combined 32-for-98. That ain’t working.

They need a second scoring option to REALLY step up. Luol Deng is hitting for 15.6 a night, but only shooting 41 percent. Carlos Boozer is shooting over 53 percent, but playing under 30 minutes and barely getting 13 shots a night. And then there’s Hamilton, who crumbles apart every few weeks.

[RELATED: 5 Burning NBA Questions: The Atlantic Division]

Indiana has been one of the more well-balanced teams in the league this season, and because of it, only diehards have recognized they’re sitting at 21-12 and have a great chance to win a playoff series. They’re young, athletic and particularly long. Between 7-2 Roy Hibbert, 6-whatever-he-is-now Paul George, David West and his elbows, and Danny Granger, they cut off more space than the mama spider from Arachnophobia.

But they’re like the early-’90s British band Judas Priest post-Rob Halford: no lead man to make sure the cylinders are firing. Darren Collison is okay if you want a guy that can beat up on the lottery little guys. But outside of zombie Jameer, who will he do that to in the playoffs? He’s already been sent to the guillotine by Derrick Rose in last season’s playoffs. Even in Miami, he’s probably a better player than Mario Chalmers but LeBron and Wade function so much like lead guards that it really doesn’t even matter.

Being No. 28 in total assists just won’t work when the two best teams in your conference are known for strangling and suffocating.

Despite saying he would play with a elephant-sized chip on his shoulder after being shunned by the NBA midseason classic, Brandon Jennings has done what fantasy owners everywhere were afraid of: He’s resorted to the mean. In his last five games, he’s scoring 15.8 points and shooting barely 37 percent, and going back further, Jennings hasn’t had a night where he shot above 50 percent since the final game in January. In fact, most of them haven’t even been close.

Jennings is like J. Cole. You keep expecting – wanting – more from him, keep building him up when in reality, maybe we just need to accept what he is: a skilled player who isn’t quite physical enough to finish around the rim, which results in a lot of contested jumpers (Or in J. Cole’s case, a skilled rapper that just makes boring music.). Cole has his lane. Perhaps so does Jennings. Of course, if either of these two proves me wrong, be sure to point it out.

But that lane is killing the Bucks. They’re shooting just 42 percent from the floor on the year – a product of relying on Jennings, Drew Gooden and a bunch of swingmen who could be better off as practice chairs – with Andrew Bogut out. Combine that with their work on the boards – No. 26 in the NBA in rebounding rate (48.2) – and you have a recipe for a lot of sleeping children in the stands.

Bogut’s status is a mystery, and if the Bucks have any shot at getting back into the playoffs, Jennings can’t be shooting like Dirty Dee‘s thugs.

Honestly, despite their recent string of games (since starting 4-20, they’ve gone 8-5) where they at least resembled a professional team, the Pistons are waiting for next year. I figured by this point in the season – 37 games in – Greg Monroe‘s numbers would’ve tailed off. But he’s actually improving, and after last night’s 20-rebound night, he’s putting up 21 points, 12.6 boards and 3.4 assists a game in his last five.

The Pistons’ question is can we build around a finesse center who doesn’t play defense? Whereas the offense is infinitely better (plus-6.9 per 100 possessions) when the former Hoya is manning the high post as one of the best point centers since Vlade was chain smoking and flopping, Detroit mans up and defends SO much better without Monroe. I’m talking a difference of 9.5 points per 100 possessions. That’s not a gimmick. That’s not a small sample size. That’s not even a tiny enough difference to suggest a statistical oddity. That gap is wider than Strahan‘s teeth.

Rodney Stuckey is stuck between being the NBA’s most overrated player and it’s most underrated. But his time as a franchise cornerstone is over. The Pistons have one player to look at in these final 29 games: It’s Greg Monroe. Is he the man who’ll bring back the fans in Motown?

[RELATED: 5 Burning NBA Questions: The Northwest Division]

Is there a smoother player in the NBA than Kyrie Irving? Spin moves, crossovers… last night, he had Iman Shumpert‘s feet nailed to the hardwood on a between-the-legs dribble. He’s scoring 18.5 points a game and has a shooting percentage line that looks damn near Nash-ian: 48/42/87.

But his assist rate is dwarfed by another rookie, Ricky Rubio (36.6 to 21.1). And he’s averaging 5.1 dimes a game, which is less than Chris Paul (7.8), John Wall (8.3), Derrick Rose (6.3) and Russell Westbrook (5.3) all had as rookies.

Irving’s always been a scorer, even back in high school. During his senior year, the two best teams in the nation (St. Pats/Findlay Prep) squared off at my undergrad alma mater in what’s still considered one of the best high school games in the last 10-15 years. With Tristan Thompson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cory Joseph all playing, Irving didn’t take it over by playing point guard. He separated himself by dominating the ball and ruthlessly attacking the rim, over and over.

Unlike some, I have absolutely no problem with scoring point guards; I’d never trade Westbrook. But Cleveland does have a problem if Irving is going to be surrounded by players like Antawn Jamison, Anderson Varejao, Alonzo Gee and Omri Casspi, all of whom average less than two dimes a game and look like they haven’t created a shot since high school. As a team, their assist rate is tied for No. 21 in the league despite having one of the best young guards in the league, and their turnover rate is in the top third. That explains their 42 percent shooting.

The Cavs must find out if they need more playmakers to put beside Irving.

What are the major question marks each team faces?

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