As we near in on the regular season opener, the season preview continues with a look at the Central division. This is easily one of the NBA’s deepest divisions and could very well end up being the best division in basketball. Some experts even have gone so far as to say the NBA champion will come from the Central. Let’s examine.
CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (2005-2006 record: 50-32 Lost to Detroit in Round 2)
Predicted division finish: 1st
I’m not sure you’ll find a lot of writers who agree with this prediction, but I’m using specific logic to get to this point, so bear with me.
LeBron James is one of the top 5 players in the league. His mere presence makes this team a legit threat to win anything. King James silenced his critics to a certain extent last season when the Cavs both made the playoffs and won a series. Then James and the Cavs almost became a HUGE story when they went the distance with the Pistons in the Eastern Semifinals.
So, it’s time. James is still getting better and he’s finally acclimated to what is around him. He watched his good friend Dwayne Wade carry the Heat to a title. I think James will show the competitive fire his critics have been clamoring for these past few years. He and Wade are about to engage in a Bird/Magic type rivalry for Eastern Conference supremacy if his teammates cooperate the way Wade’s have.
Larry Hughes dealt with personal hardship and injuries last season. Ideally, he should bounce back and be a reliable second scoring option this year. Zydrunas Ilgauskas had an all-star year and stayed injury-free. He’s one of the best centers in the game when he’s healthy.
Damon Jones and Donyell Marshall are keys. Neither shot the ball particularly well last season, but both are capable of doing so if they have the confidence. The Cavs added small amounts of firepower in the off-season by signing David Wesley to play shooting guard and drafting the uber-athletic Shannon Brown. They also kept Drew Gooden and backed him up with Scot Pollard, so they seem to have the pieces to make a run.
Ultimately, how far the Cavs go depends on James. He has the potential to single handedly lead them to the Eastern Conference Finals and maybe even a championship. He has the potential to make everyone around him step up to another level.
I feel very strongly that the Cavs will win this division and here’s my reasoning. The Pistons are weaker without Ben Wallace, so they fall a bit in the standings. The Bulls will be better with Ben Wallace, but they’ll spend the first month or so adapting to their new parts. Indiana is dangerous, but they never seem to be able to put it together. Milwaukee's simply too young to take seriously as a division champion contender right now.
To me, that leaves the Cavs as the team to beat. Much of that depends upon health and whether LeBron can make his supporting cast better, but I like them better than everyone else simply because they have LeBron and no one else does.
CHICAGO BULLS (2005-2006 record: 41-41. Lost to Miami in Round 1)
Predicted division finish: 2nd
No team had a better off-season than the Bulls.
John Paxson got the top free agent out there in Ben Wallace, and in doing so, he seriously damaged a team in his own division. Then, he arguably had the best draft of anyone by trading for the draft’s top athlete, Tyrus Thomas, and finally addressing the team’s need for backcourt size by selecting Thabo Sefolosha of Switzerland.
If that wasn’t enough, he found a taker for Tyson Chandler and his sizeable contract and got some veteran leadership back in P.J. Brown.
However, people seem to have lost sight of the fact that this was a .500 team last year. They have great pieces in Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon, Luol Deng, Andres Nocioni and Chris Duhon, but since Michael Jordan left the Windy City, the Bulls have lacked a go-to scorer who can deliver when they need one. Unless one of the players just mentioned steps into that role, they still don’t have one.
The addition of Wallace, Brown and Adrian Griffin make this team wiser and better defensively, but they were already good defensively. None of the additions solve their main flaws, which are a lack of low post scoring and clutch scoring. Will Ben Wallace even be on the floor in close games with his horrible free throw shooting?
This sounds more negative than I really feel about the Bulls. I love that Paxson and head coach Scott Skiles have turned this franchise around. Will the Bulls be considerably better than they were a year ago? Absolutely. Should Bulls fans be excited? Absolutely. Will they win the East or the NBA title this year? I don’t think so.
Here’s a fun piece of trivia. The last time a team went from losing in the first round of the playoffs to winning the NBA title the next year was the 1981 Los Angeles Lakers. That was the year they added a rookie named Magic Johnson. In the NBA, it takes time to build a championship team. History indicates that you don’t just add parts to a .500 team and go from gritty 7-seeds that push the Heat, but ultimately lose, to NBA champions in one year.
So, pencil the Bulls in for 7-10 more wins than last year and a playoff series win or two. There’s little doubt they’re headed in the right direction, but Chicago won’t be a title contender until next year at the earliest.
DETROIT PISTONS (2005-2006 record: 64-18 Lost to Miami in Eastern Finals)
Predicted division finish: 3rd
It’s been a tough off-season for Pistons fans.
First, they had to deal with going from “best team ever” talk to not making the NBA Finals.
Then, the team lost its heart and soul when Ben Wallace left for boatloads of money in Chicago.
However, there’s still plenty to like about this team. They still have Rip Hamilton, Chauncey Billups, Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace. The Pistons made a concerted effort to become more offensive-minded last season, and that will only help them now that they’ve lost their best defender.
Big Ben’s departure hurts, but there’s still a very strong starting lineup when you add in the perfectly serviceable Nazr Muhammed. I’m sure Flip Saunders will use Antonio McDyess with the foursome quite a bit as well to create a very difficult small lineup.
Joe Dumars may end up regretting his Darko Milicic trade and not re-signing Mehmut Okur now that Ben Wallace is gone, but he’s still put together a very good basketball team. His main mission this off-season was to find a bench for Saunders to use, and the addition of Flip Murray through free agency should help. Big questions remain as to whether Jason Maxiell can give them quality minutes and what role Carlos Delfino will play after allegedly wanting out.
The Pistons will fall back within the pack without Ben Wallace, but this is still a very dangerous team. I’m picking them third, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them higher when the season is over.
The biggest concern for Pistons fans is Flip Saunders’ coaching track record in the postseason. That didn’t change last year, and until he proves he can win the big series, I don’t think it’ll be changing anytime in the near future.
So, let’s nutshell this. The Pistons are a good regular season team that won’t win 64 games again, but probably are still good for 50-55. In the postseason, they’re gone in round 2.
INDIANA PACERS (2005-2006 record: 41-41 Lost in round 1 to New Jersey)
Predicted division finish: 4th
The Pacers had a very interesting season last year. They were banged up all year. They never seemed to get on track. And yet, when it counted, they pushed New Jersey to six games.
In the off-season, the Pacers reloaded their roster to the point that as I’m writing this, they have 18 guys under contract.
Jermaine O’Neal was the focus of a lot of trade rumors, but he’s still a Pacer, and he seems to be healthy coming into the season. He will find a lot of new weapons along side him. His good friend Al Harrington is back in the fold after he was acquired for nothing from Atlanta. Look for Harrington to thrive next to O’Neal since he can go back to being on a team that matters and won’t have to worry about being “the man.”
Marquis Daniels and Darrell Armstrong came over from Dallas via trades and add good depth in the backcourt. The Pacers also drafted very well by grabbing forward Shawne Williams from Memphis and James White from Cincinnati.
With a nucleus of O’Neal, Harrington, Jamaal Tinsley, Stephen Jackson and second-year man Danny Granger, the Pacers seem to be in a good position for a return trip to the postseason. To me, they seem more like the team you don’t want to play in the first round than anything more substantial.
MILWAUKEE BUCKS (2005-2006 record: 40-42. Lost in Round 1 to Detroit)
Predicted division finish: Last
The Milwaukee Bucks have a new logo and new uniforms for the upcoming season, but that’s not the only makeover facing the franchise.
T.J. Ford, Jamaal McGloire and Joe Smith are gone, and in return the Bucks added Steve Blake, Brian Skinner, Charlie Villenueva and Ruben Patterson.
Villenueva is the key addition from the group. He looked great in his rookie season in Toronto, and he could be a force to be reckoned with lined up along side Andrew Bogut, who will move to his natural position at center.
Micheal Redd is back to pour in the points from the outside, while Bobby Simmons adds some offensive firepower from the small forward position.
One of the big questions will be whether Mo Williams can adequately run the point, but Blake has shown he can be a serviceable backup just in case.
This is a very young team, but the Bucks have a load of talent other teams in the bottom half of the East can only dream about. Milwaukee will find itself in contention for the postseason again unless their youth catches up with them.