The Central Division had hopes of bringing home an NBA title last season, but those hopes were shattered the moment Derrick Rose hop-stepped in the final minutes of Game 1 against Philadelphia. As is known, he tore his ACL and the 76ers would pull off the upset. Bulls fans were left to wonder why. They battled through numerous injuries the entire season and had just finally gotten healthy. Now the Bulls will enter the season without their MVP. Coach Tom Thibodeau did a miraculous job to hold the ship together last year, but too many holes appear to be popping up for him to plug them all.
The other Central team to make some noise last season, both on the court and with their mouths, was the Indiana Pacers. In an attempt to “bully” the Miami Heat, the Pacers talked a whole lot of smack, portraying themselves as the new “Bad Boy” Pistons. It worked for the first three games of the series as they gained a 2-1 edge, but LeBron James and Dwayne Wade went off and finished the series in the next three games.
Perhaps the most interesting team in this division is the Milwaukee Bucks. They made a splash at the trade deadline last year, sending talented but often-injured big man, Andrew Bogut, to the Warriors for scoring machine Monta Ellis. Despite the trade, the Bucks still missed out on the playoffs and Scott Skiles’ job could be on the line if the Bucks are again watching from home come playoff time.
The remaining two teams in the division are in complete rebuilding mode. The Cavaliers and Pistons were in the lottery last year, but there is some hope for both franchises. Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving looked like a franchise player, which Cleveland is in such desperate need of. The Pistons saw the emergence of Greg Monroe and is creating a young core centered on Monroe, Brandon Knight and newly drafted Andre Drummond.
1. Indiana Pacers
- 2011-12 record: 42-24, 2nd in Central
- 2011-12 playoffs: Won first round 4-1 vs. Orlando; lost semis 4-2 vs. Heat
- 2012-13 projected record: 49-33
- Projected starters: George Hill, Paul George, Danny Granger, David West, Roy Hibbert. Sixth man: Tyler Hansbrough
The Pacers made strides last season, at one point looking like they had the Miami Heat on the ropes. They were unable to close though, but should still take away some positives from the playoff experience. Indiana was able to retain Roy Hibbert in free agency, who continues to grow into one of the better centers in the NBA. Paul George and Danny Granger are a good combo at the two and three spots, and West was able to provide some much needed toughness to the roster.
This year the Central is there for the taking with the Bulls losing Derrick Rose and therefore the Pacers should be the favorites to capture the Central crown. Under Frank Vogel, Indiana is one of the better defensive teams and that should continue to be so with the 7-foot-2 Hibbert controlling the paint. For the Pacers to take the next step they’ll need Lance Stephenson, who had a great summer league in Orlando, to become a reliable scorer off the bench. The addition of Gerald Green could also help end some of those scoring droughts that plagued the Pacers in the playoffs.
With a relatively young roster, the Pacers could get off to a hot start and should find themselves in good playoff position. Their downfall will once again come because their lack of a true superstar. Danny Granger is not leading any team to an NBA championship. That is just the reality of the NBA. Their overall talent is good enough to get them a three or four seed but, unless the Pacers make a blockbuster trade, another second round exit seems likely.
2. Chicago Bulls
- 2011-12 record: 50-16, 1st in Central
- 2011-12 playoffs: Lost first round 4-2 vs. Philadelphia
- 2012-13 projected record: 43-39
- Projected starters: Kirk Hinrich, Richard Hamilton, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah. Sixth man: Taj Gibson
It’s hard to imagine a team losing an MVP award winner yet still making the playoffs, but the Bulls have a chance to do so. Even with Rose missing much of last year with various injuries, the Bulls still captured the top seed in the East. Seeing Rose go down in the playoffs hit the team hard, causing their first round bounce.
There is still plenty of talent for Coach Thibodeau to work with. Deng is an All-Star and stepped up when Rose went down last year. Noah and Boozer in the frontcourt present match-up problems night in and night out, and the Bulls rebounding dominance against opponents should continue. They drafted Marquis Teague from Kentucky who should see time at point guard. If Teague or Kirk Hinrich can give the Bulls good minutes at the one, they could end up winning this division.
Expect the Bulls to find a way to make it into the playoffs as a six or seven seed. This team understands how to play without their leader and have been quite successful at it. The East is weak and there will be plenty of bottom feeders, especially within their own division, for them to beat up on. The x-factor here will be when does Rose return. He was projected to miss 8-12 months after the injury, but had reportedly suffered a set back. Although unlikely, if Rose comes back healthy and ready to go, you can’t count the Bulls out of a deep playoff run.
3. Milwaukee Bucks
- 2011-12 record: 31-35, 3rd in Central
- 2011-12 playoffs: n/a
- 2012-13 projected record: 40-42
- Projected starters: Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Ersan Ilyasova, Drew Gooden. Sixth man: Tobias Harris
The Bucks have missed the playoffs the past two seasons but that could come to an end this year. With a dynamic backcourt duo, they should be able to outscore plenty of opponents. Both Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis are electric on the floor and will be counted on to carry the scoring load each night. Ersan Ilyasova was good for 13 points per game and 8.8 rebounds per game last year ,and should continue his quiet productivity.
The Bucks also added some talent through he draft: John Henson should give the Bucks and added post presence, particularly at the defensive end where he can alter and block shots. Doron Lamb was the second leading scorer on National Champion Kentucky last year. Lamb could give the Bucks another scoring dimension off the bench to spell Jennings and Ellis a few minutes. Tobias Harris is entering his second season and could be ready to emerge into a greater role. He impressed in the summer league and has plenty of tools to be successful in this league.
With the East down, the Bucks have a great chance to break into the playoff picture. They barely missed out last season and have made some strides during the offseason. Defensively they may have some trouble stopping opponents, but they do have the firepower to win some shootouts. The future is definitely getting brighter with several young assets in the Bucks organization. At the very least this year, they are going to be a fun team to watch.
4. Detroit Pistons
- 2011-12: 25-41, 4th in Central
- 2011-12 playoffs: n/a
- 2012-13: 33-49
- Projected starters: Rodney Stuckey, Brandon Knight, Tayshaun Prince, Charlie Villanueva, Greg Monroe. Sixth man: Corey Maggette
This will essentially be used as a scouting season for the Pistons. They are not making any real noise this year, but do have some young talent to evaluate. Brandon Knight appears to be a future piece for them and could eventually supplant Rodney Stuckey as the point guard in the coming year. Greg Monroe could be an All-Star this year if he continues to progress from last year’s great individual numbers.
The Pistons could bother some teams this year though. Corey Maggette will give them a scoring punch off the bench and Tayshaun Prince is still a solid defender. Stuckey had a good year last season, averaging nearly 15 ppg, but it remains to be seen if he’ll be the point guard of the future. Austin Daye should get a chance to crack the rotation this year. If the 6-foot-10 small forward plays like he did in the summer league, the Pistons will surely be pleased.
A lot of excitement by Pistons’ fans this year is centered on rookie, Andre Drummond. He could eventually determine whether Detroit is making playoff runs in the next few years or watching lottery balls bounce. He has the physical potential to be one of the most dominant post players in the NBA. Many scouts compare his physical skill set to that of Dwight Howard. If the Pistons can properly develop him, a frontcourt consisting of Monroe and Drummond will cause havoc for the next decade.
After having a string of success which included an NBA title, fans of Detroit will just have to sit through another year of losing. A successful season for the Pistons involves having Monroe and Knight establish themselves as future NBA stars and Drummond show some of his promise. If the Pistons make out well in the lottery for next years top heavy NBA Draft, they could be one of the up and coming NBA teams. At least Detroit will have the Lions to root for.
5. Cleveland Cavaliers
- 2011-12 record: 21-45, 5th in Central
- 2011-12 playoffs: n/a
- 2012-13 projected record: 29-53
- Projected starters: Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Alonzo Gee, Tristan Thompson, Anderson Varejao. Sixth man: Omri Casspi
The Cavs were bad last year, and they’ll be bad again this year. After having LeBron James break their hearts, Cavs’ fans can rest easier knowing they’ll have Kryrie Irving leading them for years to come (hopefully for Cleveland’s sake that’s true). Cleveland also will add fourth overall pick, Dion Waiters, who has much expected of him. He should gain a starting role, after not even starting at Syracuse. If Waiters proves to be worth that high pick, the Cavs will have a strong backcourt to build with.
In the post Anderson Varejao and second year player Tristan Thompson will anchor them. Varejao was banged up most of last year, but when he did play was very effective. The Cavs also traded up to draft Tyler Zeller from UNC. Zeller could inherit the starting center position if the Cavs decide to trade Varejao mid-season.
With another year of rebuilding ahead, Cavs’ fans can’t help but look down to Miami in disgust. The biggest night of the Cavs’ year will come in late May when the NBA draft lottery is held. If Cleveland could end up with a top two or three pick, they could end up with Nerlens Noel or Shabazz Muhammad. That would surely alter the path of their franchise. I wish I could say the same with Cleveland fans that I said with Detroit having the Lions, but the Browns and Indians don’t seem to be going anywhere either. It can only get better in Cleveland, right?
The Pacers should win this division by default. If the Bulls had a healthy Rose, they would be competing for not only a division title, but the Larry O’Brien Trophy. The Milwaukee Bucks could really surprise a lot of people. In the super-star driven NBA, having two scoring studs should be enough to carry them into the playoffs. Piston and Cleveland fans will have to look forward to the 2015-2016 preview for a better outlook. They both have some young talent on the roster, but are years away from seeing that talent transition into wins.