Dime’s 2011-12 NBA Preview: The Central Division

Everyone wants to talk about super teams. Of course, the Heat, Knicks, Clippers, Celtics and all the rest of ’em capture the imagination of the NBA fan base. There’s nothing quite like feeling the anticipation and excitement in the air when you see that news hit telling you Chris Paul has finally been traded and he’s going to the Clippers. What immediately follows is typically more invigorating than what eventually happens. The promise of what could be is almost always better than what is. Even here at Dime, we find ourselves talking about one third of the NBA about 80 percent of the time. That doesn’t mean we don’t care about everyone else.

In the final week before the regular season tips off for real this Sunday on Christmas, we’ll break down each division, team by team in an effort to give you an overall look at what to expect in what’s sure to be a relentlessly exciting season.

Yesterday, we started things off by getting our East Coast bias on and diving into the Atlantic Division. Today, it’s the Central.


5. Cleveland Cavaliers
The New Guys That Count: Omri Casspi, Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson
Projected Starting Five: Irving, Anthony Parker, Alonzo Gee, Antawn Jamison, Anderson Varejao

Irving will be starting pretty quickly. He showed that in Cleveland’s first preseason game. But will it matter? Even LeBron couldn’t get Cleveland to the playoffs in his rookie year. Kyrie has a better chance finding the downtown area popping than he does of leading this team to the playoffs. At least this season, the presence of the draft’s No. 1 pick gives casual fans a reason to watch Cleveland. But while most Duke players have a love/hate following that’s passionate and never ending, Irving was a blur, gone before they could get to know him. He probably has less of a following than even the real Hunchback of Notre Dame (Luke Harangody). Can Irving make it in the pros? Scoring 21 in your first game is a solid start.

Cleveland needs to simply hope they finish in a position that gets them a nice pick next summer, and then come back next year bigger and better. For them, the ticket to the playoffs is hope. Hope the fans continue to show up this year (they were amazing last year, despite the team’s record), hope Irving comes out looking like a future beast and hope next summer’s draft gives them a late Christmas present.

BEST CASE: Irving is the second coming of CP3 minus the flops. The Cavs catch a wave of fortune moving north from whatever the Bengals used this season and they finish third in this division.
WORST CASE: Cavs fans realize early on that LeBron is still in Miami, they are still considered losers and cry babies by the vast majority of fans and the team still sucks. The fans stop showing up and no one cares.

4. Detroit Pistons
The New Guys That Count: Damien Wilkins, Brandon Knight
Projected Starting Five: Rodney Stuckey, Ben Gordon, Tayshaun Prince, Charlie Villanueva, Greg Monroe

Normally, we tend to focus our attention – in both print and on the web – on players that win. So when you get love from us and you’re on a bad team, chances are things are REALLY f$%^&# up. ‘Tis the way right now in Detr… well maybe not right now because of the coaching change (from John Kuester to Lawrence Frank). But last year was a complete wreck in Motown. When players like Ben Gordon don’t even sugarcoat it in interviews with us, we know it was probably even worse than the media was letting on. Anytime players are laughing at you when you get ejected, it’s probably not a happy locker room.

So where can they go from here? Besides letting Rip Hamilton walk to a division rival, the Pistons drafted Brandon Knight and brought back most of their vets. An interesting move. Starting over again would’ve been my move, but Joe Dumars seems to think players like Prince and Ben Wallace still have something left. Despite the drafting of the latest treat from Calipari, the keys still belong to Monroe, and the recently re-signed Stuckey. He’s improving, but in order for Detroit to make the playoffs this year, he’ll have to throw up all-star numbers.

BEST CASE: Free of Kuester’s reign, everyone plays loose and wild. The guards sit down and learn to deal with the competition, everyone gets together like a college team and they surge into the playoffs.
WORST CASE: The Pistons’ brass finds out it wasn’t Kuester who was creating the problems. Rather than coming to an understanding, the guards are at each other’s throats. The team rips itself apart like a real pro team usually does, and they finish behind Cleveland.

3. Milwaukee Bucks
The New Guys That Count: Stephen Jackson, Beno Udrih, Tobias Harris, Jon Leuer
Projected Starting Five: Brandon Jennings, Jackson, Carlos Delfino, Drew Gooden, Andrew Bogut

The year hasn’t exactly gotten off to a great start. Stephen Jackson is reportedly pissed about not having a contract extension, and is already battling back problems from playing too many minutes for far too long (and if we know anything, it’s that it’s probably not a good thing to piss of Jack). Then, the Bucks hiked up to Minnesota this weekend and ran into an avalanche, losing 117-96 to the worst team in the NBA last season. Luckily for them, the real year doesn’t start until next Monday against Charlotte. That should be enough to at least start 1-0. After that is anyone’s guess.

Led by Jennings and Bogut, this team was supposed to be a playoff contender last season. Injuries were a major factor. That’s not a good omen with Jackson’s troubles starting earlier than usual this year. Our guess? It’s going to come down to Jennings’ growth, and whether he actually got better over the lockout.

BEST CASE: Jennings starts playing like an All-Star, Bogut finally gets recognized as one and the Bucks bring some flash and 38 wins to Milwaukee. They bring the playoffs as well.
WORST CASE: Jennings thinks he’s still playing in summer showcases, Bogut and Jackson both can’t take the constant pounding of a shortened season and the Bucks get clipped during hunting season.

2. Indiana Pacers
The New Guys That Count: Lou Amundson, George Hill, David West
Projected Starting Five: Darren Collison, Paul George, Danny Granger, West, Roy Hibbert

I haven’t been this excited about basketball in Indiana since they fielded a team of brawl starters and strip club shooters. They have basically seven starters with Hill and Tyler Hansbrough, and showed in the playoffs last year that they could challenge the team with the best record in the game.

Indiana is known for its cornfields. But they have a bunch of dogs on the court, and we wouldn’t be surprised if they start chasing everybody down – even the Bulls – early this season. Larry Bird knows what he’s doing. We can’t use certain jokes anymore because whatever his plan actually was, the Pacers look really dangerous right now. Inside. Outside. Shooters. Athletes. They nearly have it all.

BEST CASE: The new guys gel, Paul George grows another two inches, West stays mean and the Pacers win a round, and nearly upset someone in the second round.
WORST CASE: Chemistry problems arise and no one wants to be coached by Frank Vogel. They lose their way at the end of the season and miss out on the playoffs.

1. Chicago Bulls
The New Guy That Counts: Richard Hamilton
Projected Starting Five: Derrick Rose, Hamilton, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah

We’re not trying to believe history because history tells us Chicago should take a step back. They jumped too many last year, and now are supposed to stumble and fall off. Normally, we’d agree. But when you have a monster playing point guard, and a fanatic coaching him from the sidelines, history can be ignored. Tom Thibodeau is probably studying his defense right now, eyeing the backside rotations on the half-court trap from a game in last November. Dude is like a crazed animal, and that attitude rubbed off on his team last season.

Keith Bogans is gone and is being replaced by Richard Hamilton. Considering Rip isn’t the player he once was, that’s not a huge difference. But it’s enough to keep opponents guessing and enough – as Rose says – to increase his assists. Realistically, their offense will be the same as it was last year, perhaps with a little more Boozer thrown in. You won’t beat Miami that way. It’ll take a psychotic defensive effort. Luckily, they have the one guy who can probably make that happen.

BEST CASE: Boozer is rejuvenated, and Rose improves the “point guard” within him. Chicago wins their first title since MJ, snuffing LeBron and Miami in an epic Game 7 along the way.
WORST CASE: Boozer loses his confidence, Thibs wears himself out and the team shuts him out. The Bulls sputter to a lower seed and fall out in the second round.

What do you expect from this division? Is Indiana the East sleeper?

Follow Sean on Twitter at @SEANesweeney.

Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.

Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.