Ah, the Central Division. The division which I picked last year as the toughest in the league remains tough, but a couple of teams have been downgraded, such as my beloved Pacers. In fact, let's start with them:
Indiana Pacers. Some much needed housecleaning was done with this team last season, and I'm not sure if it really made the team all that much better. There are a few pieces here to work with (including a new coach who promises to play more uptempo, which should fit guys like Tinsley a bit better). Unfortunately, the Pacers lost their draft pick to ATL in acquiring Al Harrington last season.
Like the Timberwolves, I'm always optimistic about my Pacers. Sure they've got some dead weight (Dunleavy, Murphy), a hard-nosed defensive center(Foster), and an injury prone star (O'Neal). But they also have some young guys who show promise - Danny Granger (whom I wanted the Wolves to draft over McCants), David Harrison (coming off surgery), Ike Diogu, and Marquis Daniels all can find roles to play with this team. I just don't expect that role to be in the postseason quite yet, but we'll see - a new coach can work wonders for a team which never appeared to buy in to Carlisle's deliberate offense.
Milwaukee Bucks. Well, the Bucks certainly had a disappointing season, followed by what appears to be a disappointing draft. Who knew that the top Chinese prospect in the draft wouldn't want to play in Milwaukee? Oh, that's right - EVERYONE KNEW THAT. When Yi's handlers don't invite you to watch him scrimmage against a chair (for real), it means don't draft him. Hopefully they can get him signed and everything worked out.
Anyway, I'm taking a pass on the Bucks this year. Considering almost every one of their players was out for a significant amount of time last year, they never really got to jell. They re-signed Mo Williams, and Redd and Bobby Simmons remain dangerous scorers. Bogut and Villaneuva will also have the benefit of another year of experience, so only time will tell what this team can do. In some other divisions, this could be a borderline playoff club, but playing most of your games against the Bulls, Pistons, and Cavs really hurts in the loss column.
Cleveland Cavaliers. There is no way in hell this team makes it to the NBA Finals again without improving one iota in the offseason. I don't care how talented Lebron is, he doesn't have the talent around him to make it happen. Sure, they've got some good pieces (Gooden is an underrated replacement for the loss of Boozer, and Pavlovic is getting better as well), but you can't drag stiffs like Damon Jones and Eric Snow and expect to win. Yes, they're vets (I'm a big fan of experience over raw talent when it comes to the playoffs), but they just don't have enough in the tank to play with the likes of a Tony Parker or Steve Nash.
While most teams in the league got better over the offseason, this team did nothing, hoping to coast off LBJ's growing talent. They may win 50 games again, but you won't win a title watching Lebron go 1-on-5. This team needs to dump some dead weight and get another piece to the puzzle - Larry Hughes is not enough, even if he's paid like it. Also, you traded your first round pick for Jiri Welsch a few years ago?? Ouch.
Detroit Pistons. Everyone's favorite team without a star should be ready for another solid season next year. They've re-signed Billups, have plenty of veteran players who know their roles, and even have a few youngsters waiting in the wings. Billups, Hamilton, Prince, and Wallace will continue to dominate the game, as these four players in particular not only play excellent defense, but also create mismatches on the offensive side of the ball, which creates many scoring opportunities.
I expect the Pistons to show a slightly different look this year - even if they keep vets like McDyess and Webber, this year's draftees Rodney Stuckey and Aaron Afflalo could see some playing time, Stuckey in particular. Also poised for breakout seasons are Jason Maxiell and Amir Johnson. Amir was the last high school player ever picked in the draft, and just signed a new 3-year deal with Detroit, and averaged 4.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in only 15 minutes of play.
Chicago Bulls. This is the team that finally made The Leap last year. With another season of improvement and no major personnel losses, the Bulls should continue to improve this year. They're deep at every position, have postseason experience, and have the right combination of youth and leadership to make a title run this year. Kirk Hinrich's progress has warranted him a spot on Team USA, and players like Nocioni and Sefolosha have more experience than their brief time in the NBA demonstrate.
I also think this could be a breakout year for F Tyrus Thomas. He doesn't really have much in the way of basketball instincts and fundamentals, but his pure athleticism means he can block shots and rebound fairly well. I think an offseason of basketball instruction combined with experience will really start to turn things around for him. And I didn't even mention the other big names on this squad - Deng, Wallace, and rookie Noah. Deng should also continue to improve, and Noah's intensity will prove many of the doubters wrong. Sure, he's not going to score 20 points per game, but neither does Big Ben, and I'd say he's had a successful career.
This year's Central Division: