The NBA’s Central Division is improving quickly, so don’t look away. From the Indiana Pacers pushing the Miami Heat to seven games, the “Return” of Derrick Rose, and the rise of “Uncle Drew” and the Cleveland Cavaliers, this will be a competitive division without question.
Indiana Pacers (49-32)
Last season Indy found themselves one game away from their first finals berth since the 1999-2000 season. Reggie Miller is the last true superstar the franchise had, but the Pacers appear to have a new budding superstar in Paul George.
After a year hiatus from injury, long time Pacer and former all-star Danny Granger is back and working to round into shape. Pair that with all-star caliber big men Roy Hibbert and David West, and Indianapolis has a lot of star power. Indy also happens to rank near the top or at the top in all the major defensive categories.
The key weakness for the Pacers last year was undoubtedly their bench unit. With money to spend, the reserve unit heading into the 2013-14 season looks to be completely retooled. Insert Luis Scola and Chris Copeland to the team and the Pacers are deep.
Though the team figures to make improvements and win 50 plus games this year, a second straight Central Division title is no longer a given like the previous season. Look for this team to be a true title contender coming out of the East regardless of the competition.
Chicago Bulls (45-37)
He’s baaaacccckkkk. That’s where this story begins and ends. The Bulls can only go as far as Derrick Rose can take them. With a few preseason games under his belt, Rose looks like he still has his athleticism and explosion but not to be forgotten, plenty of rust too. The rest of the core of Chicago will look to stay fresh throughout the year to avoid the costly injuries that have plagued this club for the last three seasons.
Joakim Noah made his first all-star team and was a first team all-defensive member, while Luol Deng made his second straight ASG. The starter-reserve combo of Boozer and Gibson will supply a sturdy mix of offense and defense, with Gibson especially primed to take on a bigger role.
The keys for the season will be new starting shooting guard Jimmy Butler and how much of a jump he can make in his third pro season. The bench of the Bulls will be vital as well. Oft-injured Kirk Hinrich is a leader of the team and a key reserve at both guard spots.
Offseason acquisition Mike Dunleavy Jr. could end up being a bigger signing than it appears on the surface if he can hit the three ball at a high percentage and play multiple positions as a super sub. The Bulls are ready to take back their Central Division crown and re-enter the title contender conversation.
Cleveland Cavaliers (24-58)
The Cavs look to make major strides in 2013-14 after another tough losing season in the post-LeBron James era. Much like Chicago and Derrick Rose, Cleveland leans heavily on superstar point guard Kyrie Irving. “Uncle Drew” is unquestionably becoming one of the best point guards in the L, and furthermore, one of the best players in the league regardless of position. The biggest question mark for Irving continues to be health. Kyrie has only played in 51 and 59 games respectively the last two seasons.
Cleveland also found some lottery luck (again), when they landed the 1st pick in the 2013 draft. The Cavaliers selected small forward-power forward hybrid Anthony Bennett from UNLV. Fan favorite Anderson Varejao is set to return from a season lost to injury, and will be a major key to the Cavs season.
Free agent acquisition Jarrett Jack from Golden State may be the difference in this team missing or making the playoffs. Dion Waiters must show dedication and drive to reach his potential, which is not always a given with his questionable work ethic. Cleveland aims to miss the lottery this year for certain.
Detroit Pistons (29-53)
Joe Dumars yet again in his career in the front office for the Pistons has made some bold moves. The two major signings for Detroit this past off season were point guard Brandon Jennings and combo forward Josh Smith. While neither player has made an all-star team, they are certainly all-star level players on most nights. J-Smoove looks to take over as a leader instantly for a young Pistons team trying to find their way.
While Jennings and Smith may put up the big stat lines in Detroit, all eyes will be on the tantalizing potential of Andre Drummond. The 6’10” second year stud from UCONN caught most by surprise in his rookie season last year.
Drummond’s season was derailed a bit by injury, but when he was on the floor he looked like a future centerpiece to a championship level team. If power forward Greg Monroe can continue his steady improvement, the big men for the Pistons can inch this team closer to a playoff spot. Detroit will be a lot more fun to watch this season without a doubt.
Milwaukee Bucks (38-44)
The Eastern Conference’s eight seed from a year ago will have an uphill battle to match the previous year’s success. Gone from the squad are Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, the faces of the franchise the past few seasons. The undersized combo guard experiment was a failure and Bucks ownership decided it was time to move on. The Bucks have a young core assembled that looks to compete right away but also may endure a series of growing pains.
Larry Sanders is the new face of the franchise. Sanders catapulted himself from reserve bench player to the league leader in blocks and a double double threat at the center position. Brandon Knight comes over from the Pistons in the Jennings trade, and looks to grow with little chance of anyone taking his starting spot in Milwaukee. The big signing for the Bucks was O.J. Mayo.
The former Maverick will look to step in and be the go to scorer immediately and has a chance to become a twenty point scorer for an offense lacking firepower. Milwaukee looks for power forward John Henson to take a big step forward as a starter oozing with potential. It will be interesting to see if the Bucks move the uniquely talented Ersan Ilyasova, or find a way to give him consistent minutes in a consistent role. One thing is for sure, the Bucks wish they could go back on the Tobias Harris for J.J. Redick deal.
Projected Division Winner: Chicago Bulls 57-25
Division MVP: Derrick Rose