Central Division Preview



Beyond the Arc's trip around the league continues with the Central Division:

Ego Trippin: Shaq looks to take credit for another young turks title.
  • Ego Trippin': Shaq looks to take credit for another young turk's title.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
Conference Rank: 3rd
Forum Date: Tuesday, December 8th
Notes: By adding Shaquille O'Neal to Lebron James, the Cavs now boast two of the five most famous active basketball players on the planet and arguably the two grandest personalities in the game. This will make for high ratings and good copy, but will it actually make the Cavs a better basketball team? Shaq had a bounce-back season for the Suns last year, but at age 37 and with ever-present conditioning challenges, the wise money would be on his falling back into the natural decline that was evident before last season. For the Cavs, the questions are two-fold: Can Shaq hold up well enough to be a positive contributor come playoff time, particularly in giving them a bigger, stronger body to put on Dwight Howard in a potential rematch with the Magic? And can Shaq be deferential enough not to disrupt the team's strong on- and off-court chemistry? If those questions are answered in the affirmative, then the Cavs will be a title contender as long as Lebron James — a.k.a., the best basketball player in the world — is healthy.
Pivotal Player: Shaq will garner the headlines, but a relatively obscure off-season addition could be equally crucial. Last season, the Cavs struggled with pick-and-roll defense, which Shaq won't help, and against taller perimeter scoring threats (most notably Hedo Turkoglu in the playoffs). Free-agent signee Anthony Parker, a 6'6" swingman who played with Toronto last season, will give the Cavs another wing player with size to flank Lebron. And as a career 40% three-point shooter, Parker could be a big asset on both ends. Given incumbent two-guard Delonte West's offseason troubles, Parker could be asked to start and play big minutes for the Cavs this season.
Memphis/Griz Connection: Maybe the real obstacle to the Cavs' title quest last season wasn't Dwight Howard or Hedo Turkoglu, but the presence of not one, but two players the Grizzlies let walk: Lorenzen Wright and Tarence Kinsey. The Cavs will this year embark on a their quest with a roster free of former Grizzlies.

Danny Granger should have another huge scoring season for a team that focused on defense this summer.
  • Danny Granger should have another huge scoring season for a team that focused on defense this summer.
2. Indiana Pacers
Conference Rank: 7th
Forum Date: Friday, December 18th
Notes: The Pacers are one of the most counter-intuitive NBA teams in recent memory: A non-descript, workmanlike run-and-gun team. Last year's model played the third fastest pace in the league, after only Mike D'Antoni's Knicks and Don Nelson's Warriors, and was fifth in scoring. Point guard T.J. Ford is an open-court blur and small forward Danny Granger bloomed into a dynamic scorer, but the rest of the team didn't necessarily look the part, lead by a vanilla frontcourt rotation featuring Troy Murphy, Jeff Foster, and mammoth rookie Roy Hibbert. And this summer, the Pacers added a bunch of blue-collar scrappers, lead by former Grizzlies Dahntay Jones and Earl Watson and draft pick Tyler Hansbrough.
Pivotal Player: With double-digit scorers Jarrett Jack and Marquis Daniels replaced on the perimeter by Watson and Jones, the Pacers figure to be better defensively, but they’ve lost a lot of scoring punch. If Mike Dunleavy — once expected to miss half the season after knee surgery but apparently ahead of schedule — can't return to the lineup and to his 07-08 form, then the pressure will be on second-year swingman Brandon Rush to provide some offense. Rush wasn't the instant impact player some expected as a rookie, but developed well and finished strong, averaging double digits in March and April and shooting 37% from three-point range on the season. He's got a chance to carve a major role this season.
Memphis/Griz Connection: Grizzlies fans know both Earl Watson and Dahntay Jones as physical defenders who bring a bit of swagger to the game, but their near-total lack of offensive skills have made them journeymen. Though their shared lack of viable three-point shooting could be a problem, they should both be significant rotation players for the Pacers.

Derrick Rose can get around Kevin Love, but may not be able to get his Bulls around the Raptors and Pacers in the playoff race.
  • Derrick Rose can get around Kevin Love, but may not be able to get his Bulls around the Raptors and Pacers in the playoff race.
3. Chicago Bulls
Conference Rank: 9th
Forum Date: Tuesday, March 16th
Notes: Remember when the Bulls refused to part with either Luol Deng or Ben Gordon in order to acquire Pau Gasol? Well, they should have been willing to part with both. Deng — unsurprisingly given his limited skills and limited athleticism — now seems to be settling in as a sub-all-star talent on a hefty contract. Gordon is a dynamic scorer that the Bulls let walk in free agency this summer. Meanwhile, the team is still searching for a viable post scorer, the reason they were interested in Pau in the first place. A classic case of a team overestimating its own talent. Nice job, Bulls.
The team was only 19th in the league in offensive efficiency last season even with Gordon and now have his 21 points per game and deadly fourth-quarter shot-making to replace. The Bulls hope John Salmons can duplicate his career-high scoring binge (18 points per game, 41% three-point shooting) after coming over in a late-season trade, but last season's numbers look pretty flukish in the context of Salmon's career. Jannero Pargo, returning from a year overseas, is a poor man's Gordon and a good signing by the Bulls, I think. But ultimately the combination of losing Gordon and not addressing their lack of frontcourt scoring will put more pressure on the team's rising sophomores: Point guard Derrick Rose and coach Vinny Del Negro.
Pivotal Player: After five years in the league, Luol Deng is still only 24 and still has a chance develop into a frontline player. He needs to stay healthy, having missed 53 games the past two years, and correct his production drop-off from last season. I don't think he really has it in him, but we'll see.
Memphis/Griz Connection: It'll be interesting to see what kind of response Derrick Rose gets upon his return to Memphis, since he seems to be getting more blame for the SAT scandal than Calipari. I expect he'll still be warmly received. I also think he will be an awesome NBA player, but the offensive burden on him and my lack of faith in Del Negro has me projecting the Bulls just missing the post-season.

I hope when I get old I don't sit around thinkin' about it, but I probably will.
  • "I hope when I get old I don't sit around thinkin' about it, but I probably will."
4. Detroit Pistons
Conference Rank: 11th
Forum Date: Wednesday, October 28th
Notes: This will be a serious transitional season for the Pistons who, after a decade of playing slow-paced, defensive-oriented, veteran basketball, will start the season with only two of its championship five (Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince) and is quite likely to end the season with only one (Prince). (Oh wait, I forgot they're bringing The Shadow of Ben Wallace back; I think the point still applies.) With a new coach (first-time lead man John Kuester) and new young finesse scorers with wobbly defensive reps (Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva) imported from division rivals (Bulls and Bucks, respectively), this team will have a much different look and will be hard to get a read on.
Pivotal Player: With Gordon and Hamilton unlikely to be able to play together in the backcourt, third-year guard Rodney Stuckey will be depended on heavily as the likely starting point guard and he hasn't proven yet that he can handle it after an erratic second season. Stuckey is a talent, to be sure, but I'm not convinced he's really a point guard.
Memphis/Griz Connection: Kwame Brown's Expiring Contract was a key piece in the Pau Gasol trade, but Brown himself wasn't good enough to demand minutes for a 22-win Grizzlies squad. Then he got a two-year contract from the Pistons! Joe Dumars: Front-Office Genius. There's actually a chance Brown could start in the middle for Detroit, his frontcourt competition a mix of the aged (Wallace), the undersized (Jason Maxiel), and the erratic (Chris Wilcox).

Coach Scott Skiles and rookie guard Brandon Jennings: Its always all smiles at the press conference.
  • Coach Scott Skiles and rookie guard Brandon Jennings: It's always all smiles at the press conference.
5. Milwaukee Bucks
Conference Rank: 15th
Forum Date: Saturday, November 21st
Notes: Great NBA subplot on a terrible team this season: Old-school former point guard coach Scott Skiles trying to mentor new-school flashy rookie point guard Brandon Jennings. That and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute's bid to replace Bruce Bowen as the league's best pure defensive specialist might be about it for entertainment value from the Bucks this season. The team was 23rd in offensive efficiency last season and payroll slashing cost them Richard Jefferson, Charlie Villanueva, and Ramon Sessions. That's a combined 49 points a game. And a team projected to start Luke Ridnour, Michael Redd, and Hakim Warrick isn't exactly going to make up that lost production on the defensive end. The Bucks could be easily the worst team in the East, and should contend for worst overall record next season.
Pivotal Player: With the roster now crammed with unproven prospects and mid-level journeyman, the Bucks bid for respectability will fall heavily on the shoulders of Michael Redd and center Andrew Bogut, both of whom missed more than half of last season with injuries (knee and back, respectively). With Bogut still not all the way back, according to the latest reports, the Bucks really need Redd to reassert himself as one of the league's elite perimeter scorers.
Memphis/Griz Connection: The Grizzlies withdrew their qualifying offer to Hakim Warrick this summer, and he landed in Milwaukee for similar money. If Skiles can stomach his lackluster defense, Warrick will get the chance to start and get plenty of shots for the Bucks. This is good news for fantasy owners who can get Warrick cheap. It is not good news for the Bucks. Hopefully Warrick can parlay a good statistical season into a decent contract next summer to become somebody's frontcourt bench scorer, the only role to which he's really suited.

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