The Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls are two of the top teams in the Eastern Conference, and they call the Central Division home. But they aren't alone. Cleveland looks poised to - finally - rise from the proverbial ashes. Detroit could be onto something with their big name off-season acquisitions. Meanwhile, Milwaukee... well, four out of five teams headed in the right direction isn't bad.
The Central is the best division in the Eastern Conference. Time to get familiar.
We'll be previewing each division individually for the next few days, so stay tuned.
What To Like: Larry Sanders is a great defensive big. The Packers season could last until mid-January, so the fine people of Wisconsin only have, like, three months of only watching the Bucks.
What Not To Like Just look at the roster: Luke Ridnour. O.J. Mayo. Caron Butler. They aren't exactly tanking, but the Bucks' efforts have netted them a collection of talent that is either washed up or in need of a very specific system to thrive. Things could get very ugly this year.
Random Note The emergence of Larry Sanders is something for Bucks fans to hang their hat on. Look for the young center to lead the league in blocks, and put up a respectable double-double (along the lines of 11 points, 13 rebounds per game). Hey there, silver lining!
What To Like: Cleveland is oozing with young talent. Dion Waiters should continue to progress from an up-and-down rookie season that still saw him average 14.7 points and three assists. Tristan Thompson averaged 13 and 10 after Anderson Varejao got hurt, and, bare minimum, will be one of the best defensive bigs in basketball this year. Meanwhile, Anthony Bennett (the Canadian Charles Barkley) has an unreal combination of skill and athleticism. They also have some guy named Kyrie Irving playing point guard who's supposed to be pretty good.
What Not To Like Kyrie has proven to be injury-prone throughout his first two years in the NBA, and who knows what Andrew Bynum will bring to the table? If your best two players (on paper) have had this much bad luck suiting up, you're banking a lot on staying healthy. Maybe if the name on the front of your jersey read a city other than Cleveland, you can hope for as much, but...
Random Note: Young Cavs not named Kyrie will come up big. Waiters, Thompson and Bennett should all show flashes of greatness (or, at least, solid-ness) this year, making this a deeper sqaud than anything field during the LeBron era. Factor in guys like Sergey Karasev (a sharp-shooter from Russia) and Carrick Felix (a do-it-all, defensive-minded two in the same mold as Jimmy Butler), Cleveland has both talent and depth. Odds are at least one of these guys joins Kyrie on the road to superstardom.
What To Like: New talent. Brandon Jennings needed a fresh start. Ditto with Josh Smith. A simple relocation could bring out the best for these All-Star caliber players, infamous for their rocky relationships with their former teams and fan-bases.
What Not To Like: They're starting how many bigs? Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Smith are all talented, young (Smith is the eldest at 27) players, but starting them side-by-side just seems...gimmicky. Like Joe Dumars took a look at the fast, small teams currently dictating the direction the NBA is heading, and said, "I'm going to do the exact opposite of that, and start a power forward and two centers."
He could be the last one laughing, but it's pretty difficult to see his vision right now. By default, Detroit should be an above-.500 team, but how many of those victories will come against quality opponents that they can't just out-muscle?
Random Note: Greg Monroe, on the block. Trading block, that is. When this little experiment doesn't exactly yield the kind of results that Detroit is hoping for, one of their two young bigs will be traded. And considering Drummond's unreal talent, look for Monroe - who has All-Star potential - to get shopped around for shooters who can stretch the floor, and possibly some draft picks.
What To Like: The best young nucleus in the East, possibly in basketball (Golden State is up there as well). They have: a budding superstar wing (Paul George), a two-way center fresh off the best run of basketball in his young career (Roy Hibbert), and a backcourt that features a player who, not too long ago, was dropping buckets with the best of them (Danny Granger, who will ). Factor in David West's veteran presence (and knack for getting tough guy buckets), what part of their starting lineup really needs a facelift?
What Not To Like: We're nitpicking here, but chemistry. Depth shouldn't be an issue - CJ Watson and Luis Scola should be aces coming off the bench. But with Danny Granger being handed the starting lineup spot over Lance Stephenson - who can be a very volatile player - you have to wonder. How will this effect the young shooting guard who made such progress last postseason? Can Granger and George coexist? Who is "the man" in crunch time?
Keep in mind, this is complete speculation; really, the Pacers have an abundance of talent, an issue that damn near all of the teams in the NBA would love to have. But if we have to pick the one issue to focus on, it'd be the meshing of said talent. Frank Vogel has a tall order.
Surprise Storyline: Focus on the emergence of Hibbert and Stephenson. Probably not the most far-fetched prediction - those who watched the playoffs last year know what the duo can bring - but sometimes, a solid postseason showing is all a young player needs to realize his full potential.
What To Like: Well, Derrick Rose returning. And besides that, Derrick Rose returning. And then there's Derrick Rose returning.
Tom Thibodeau really is one of the league's best coaches, transforming a team without its signature player into one of the grittiest, scrappiest collections of talent in basketball. Drop Derrick Rose in the mix - and, make no mistake, - and Chicago has every right to feel confident about their chances at making a deep playoff run.
What Not To Like: Is it too early to bemoan Rose's lack of help on the offensive side of things? Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer did an admirable job last year, but there isn't a player on the roster besides Rose who can go off for 30 on any given night. That needs to change, like, yesterday.
Random Note: This team has a pretty large expiring contract (Deng) who doubles as an effective wing scorer, a young, athletic guard dripping with potential on both sides of the ball (Jimmy Butler), and a power forward in Taj Gibson who would be starting were it not for Carlos Boozer's Contract. Rather than hope Deng evolves into a legitimate 23 PPG scorer in his ninth season and wait for Butler to progress, why not try to make a deal by February?
A starting lineup of Rose, Marquis Teague, Rudy Gay, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah would be superb. And, yes: Chicago has made it clear that Butler is "off the trade block." Talk to me again when Rose is clocking 40 minutes per game by mid-January.
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