The Chicago Bulls are fantastic, the Indiana Pacers are dangerous, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Detroit Pistons have fallen off hard and the Milwaukee Bucks are totally anonymous. What is this, the 1990s?
Yep, the Central Division is having a real throwback era. That's not good for everyone.
FEATS OF STRENGTH
The Bulls were really quiet in the offseason. The draft resulted in Chicago picking up a heckuva foreign prospect in Nikola Mirotic, a naturalized Spaniard with a sharp scoring instinct and good size. He should arrive in the NBA in a year or two, and he just might put the Bulls over the top when he does. In the meantime, Chicago will rely on the addition of Rip Hamilton, hopeful frontcourt health (and the connected attribute of depth) and further refinement for Derrick Rose. This is the sneaky backside of Rose's MVP: the stats largely say that he wasn't the best, most productive or most valuable player in the league. That means that he can still reasonably be expected to get even better than he was. That's terrifying. Don't rule out seeing a jump in efficiency, which (barring a minutes drop) will boost his production and make a repeat MVP plausible.
It was an offseason of mostly good coach hires, but none reigns supreme over the Pacers' eventual decision to bring back Frank Vogel. The closest thing to a cult favorite on the sidelines, Vogel is the emotional leader who helped carry an overmatched roster into the playoffs -- it didn't hurt that the Bobcats essentially conceded at the deadline -- and who prepared his team well enough to spook the Bulls a couple times in the first round. The Pacers had another coup in landing David West on a two-year, $20 million; Indiana refused to go as high as Nene wanted to go, which will look smart in the end. Until then, a West-Roy Hibbert frontline will get the job done, and George Hill (picked up on draft day) should help in the backcourt.
The Milwaukee Bucks swung trades for Stephen Jackson and Beno Udrih. I know what you're thinking, but trust me: these are upgrades. Udrih is the type of consistent point guard Milwaukee missed when it let Luke Ridnour walk; you hope Brandon Jennings' rough sophomore season can be blamed on injury, but in case that's not the case, Udrih will fill in admirably on offense. On defense, he will line the path to the basket with rose petals and brandy snifters. Stack Jack's the opposite: he's a credible stopper, even as he ages, but he's an offensive mess who will make Jennings' bad shot ledger look like child's play. Milwaukee has an awful offense already, and Jackson is going to add a couple off-the-dribble, fading elbow threes per game. Sweet!
The Detroit Pistons picked up Brandon Knight in the draft, kept Rodney Stuckey and Jonas Jerebko on affordable deals and stunningly gave Tayshaun Prince an old Rip Hamilton extension. Oh, and they bought out Rip Hamilton's Rip Hamilton extension. Seems like Joe Dumars is content to repeat the same mistakes. Outside of the Prince deal, the Pistons had a good offseason. Unfortunately, Knight is green as Ben Gordon's wallet, Greg Monroe is still developing and this should be another long season in Motown.
The Cleveland Cavaliers landed two of the top four picks in the June draft; Cavs GM Chris Grant ran circles around Clippers GM Neil Olshey to land the pick that became Kyrie Irving, and Olshey's a shoe-in to win Executive of the Year. But sadly, that two-pick draft gives the Cavaliers ... two promising young players. Omri Casspi can make it in the league if he gets a strong opportunity and finds his three-point stroke again, but he's at best a complementary starter on a playoff team. We won't know about Irving and Tristan Thompson for a couple years, but it's a nice start. One of the top five 2012 picks will help, too.
AIRING OF GRIEVANCES
I was all set to let the Cavaliers out of the cellar and pick the Raptors, Pistons or Hornets as the league's worst team this season, but Cleveland is a really stong contender. Even if Irving came in fully formed -- he's not -- he has no one to chuck the deuce to. Antawn Jamison has become mummified before our eyes, there's no decent wing scorer on the roster and Thompson isn't close to contributing at the level a good team would need him to be. It's going to be a really brutal season in Cleveland.
Detroit's Prince deal (four years, $27 million) is something else. Had Prince walked, the Pistons would have lost one of the starters from the No. 27-ranked defense and a 15-point scorer who shoots inefficiently but moves the ball well. Somehow, I think Detroit would have survived. Bringing Prince back on a four-year commitment the same day as the club retained Jerebko is even more egregious; Austin Daye has looked solid this preseason, and now Lawrence Frank will be forced to slot Jerebko and Daye at power forward more frequently to get everyone time, which heaps more defensive pressure on Greg Monroe, who has solid fundamentals but needs some help given his heavy offensive load. By the time the Pistons are ready to make another assault on the East, Prince will be winding down his career. It makes no sense.
The Bucks' offense was worse than that of the Cavaliers, the Timberwolves -- everyone -- last season. How amazing is that? Milwaukee was nearly a playoff team, and it had the worst offense in the league by no small margin. And they replaced the efficient if erratic Corey Maggette with ... Stephen Jackson. I'm convinced that the Bucks are single-handedly trying to return us to the 1950s.
The Pacers really do have some talent in the backcourt, but no one is sure whether that's two gallons of talent or a half-empty pint of talent. Darren Collison wasn't terribly impressive in Indiana last season -- he was good, but didn't make any great strides over his season in New Orleans. Paul George looked promising (especially as a defender in the playoffs), but he's still a lump of clay. George Hill was one of the better reserves in the league during his time in San Antonio, but his playmaking streak is extraordinarily underwhelming. It's hard to bet heavy on this team's rise without knowing exactly what's going on in the backcourt, even if West and Danny Granger should carry the offense for long stretches.
For the Bulls, Hamilton isn't the most efficient off-guard in the league, but when he curls off of those Joakim Noah picks, that'll be a huge pressure valve for the overtaxed Rose. Chicago now has four starters who can hit the mid-range jumper (Rose, Rip, Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer), and while a floor-stretching three-point shooter would be a bigger help, it's hard to complain given how good the defense is. You do wonder if, at some point, Tom Thibodeau will opt for Ronnie Brewer as a starter over Hamilton; where Chicago ranks on defense in the early going could dictate that.
It will be miraculous if ...
Any team in the Central finishes top five in offense, and any team but the Bulls finishes top 10.
Tom Thibodeau relaxes for a moment or two.
Charlie Villanueva finally lives up to his contract.
Antawn Jamison looks happy for a moment or two.
Byron Scott looks happy for a moment or two.
Scott Skiles looks happy for a moment or two. (This is a very concerned division.)
Andrew Bogut shoots as poorly as he did last season.
Anyone in the city of Milwaukee misses John Salmons' game.
Beno Udrih meets a pull-up jumper in traffic that he doesn't like.
Joakim Noah acts subdued for, like, five minutes.
Carlos Boozer's actual and-1 to claimed and-1 ratio climbs over 0.00000025 at any point in the season.
A fan anywhere in northeast Ohio says out loud, "Say, I'm really glad that the team brought Anthony Parker back."
THE HUMAN FUND
Let's get sincere.
Projected order of finish (asterisks indicate playoff berths):
1. Chicago Bulls*
2. Indiana Pacers*
3. Milwaukee Bucks*
4. Detroit Piston
5. Cleveland Cavaliers
Division MVP: Derrick Rose.
Division ROY: Brandon Knight.
Division DPOY: Andrew Bogut (with Luol Deng a close runner-up).
All-Stars: Rose, Boozer, David West OR Andrew Bogut.
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