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NBA offseason grades: Central division

Offseason Grades: Central Division
 

Talk about agony and ecstasy: No team has had a worse offseason than the Cavs; the Pistons and Pacers have done little to discourage expectations of another trip to the lottery; and, though many NBA pundits feel otherwise, it's questionable how much the Bucks improved this offseason. Now for the ecstasy: The Bulls have taken a backseat to only the Heat with their additions.

AChicago Bulls

Damen Jackson/Icon SMI
WHAT WENT RIGHT

Logical acquisitions for the frontcourt
With a burgeoning star point guard (Derrick Rose) who can both dish and drive and a high-energy big man (Joakim Noah) who protects the rim and doesn't need touches, the Bulls were an attractive fit for prime free agents and always figured to do well this offseason. Mission accomplished. While the top three coalesced in Miami, Chicago pivoted to Carlos Boozer (pictured), an efficient low-post scorer and proficient weak-side rebounder who neatly complements Noah -- and, at roughly $75 million for five years, he comes cheaper than Amar'e Stoudemire or Chris Bosh at power forward. To back up Noah, Chicago signed 37-year-old Kurt Thomas, who delivered more rebounds and blocks per minute while shooting a higher percentage than last year's backup, Brad Miller. Thomas, who is getting $1.1 million for one year compared to Miller's three-year, $15 million deal with Houston (which only partially guaranteed the third year), will also be a good mentor for 6-foot-11 Turkish center Omer Asik, a 2008 second-round pick who signed a three-year contract.

Logical acquisitions for the backcourt
After finishing 28th in three-point percentage last season, the Bulls signed Kyle Korver, who shot an NBA-record 53.6 percent from beyond the arc last season, to a three-year, $15 million deal. To replace defensive stalwart Kirk Hinrich (traded to the Wizards for cap space), they signed another former Jazz player, Ronnie Brewer, for $12.5 million over three years. Plus, through a sign-and-trade with the Warriors, the Bulls bagged a nice backup at both guard positions in C.J. Watson, who will replace the poor-shooting Flip Murray and Jannero Pargo.

Logical acquisitions for the sidelines
As the architect behind the Celtics' marvelous defense, Tom Thibodeau has been a hot head-coaching candidate the past couple of years. This offseason, he chose the Bulls over the Hornets, giving Chicago an upgrade over Vinny Del Negro. To underline his commitment to defense, Thibodeau tapped Ron Adams -- the man most responsible for the Thunder's huge defensive improvement last season -- as his top assistant.

WHAT WENT WRONG

Miami's gain is Chicago's loss
Heading into the offseason, the conventional wisdom was that the Bulls offered the best fit for both LeBron James and Bosh. Chicago is also Dwyane Wade's hometown. Surely some combination of those super three would find their way to the Windy City. Obviously that didn't happen.

BOTTOM LINE

Despite all the activity, the Bulls are still under the luxury-tax threshold, and they don't have to break the bank for Rose for another two years.

 
FCleveland Cavaliers

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
WHAT WENT RIGHT

The righteous anger
It wasn't classy, thoughtful or beneficial for his long-term image. But the now-infamous eruption by owner Dan Gilbert in the wake of losing LeBron (pictured) made it clear that the Cavaliers' fans and front office won't easily accept any further disloyalty. And for the Cavs right now, anger is indeed better than apathy.

The chance to sort roles without pressure
There are at least two players on the current roster -- third-year forward J.J. Hickson and fourth-year guard Ramon Sessions -- who have the makings of solid rotation players, and perhaps more, if allowed more minutes to develop. Can Anderson Varejao still thrive without LeBron, or will he revert to a mediocre energy guy? The new-look Cavs will have a chance to explore both facets in a low-expectations setting.

The hiring of Byron Scott
The coach has a well-respected résumé as both a player and teacher, and he'll bring dignity and professionalism at a time when the holdovers are reeling from the rough summer after 127 regular-season wins over the past two years.

WHAT WENT WRONG

Bye, bye LeBron
The Cavs lucked into the chance to draft their local hero, the most celebrated high school basketball player who ever lived. He became the best player in the NBA and the winner of back-to-back MVP awards. Although he was non-committal about signing another contract extension, the Cavs did everything possible to demonstrate their love, including acquiring expensive parts like Shaquille O'Neal and trading for (theoretically) complementary players like Antawn Jamison. But, two years running, the hero's team underachieved in the playoffs. Last month, the hero -- er, former hero -- went on national television and ripped out the heart of the franchise by announcing he would go play with his buddies in Miami.

The downside of Gilbert's tirade
The owner's in-your-face boast that his franchise will win a ring before LeBron could push him to try to rebuild on the fly and not slowly and carefully. The pieces simply aren't there for a rapid return to contention.

BOTTOM LINE

An epic "F" hangs over Cleveland. Perhaps time will heal some of the wounds, but right now Cavs fans can't even bask in the exploits of the past three years because those accomplishments are so inextricably associated with the player who betrayed them.

 
D+Detroit Pistons

AP
WHAT WENT RIGHT

Drafting Greg Monroe
It's not perfect -- a low-post stud such as DeMarcus Cousins or Derrick Favors (both selected ahead of Detroit's No. 7 pick in the draft) would have been a better fit on a team that is paying a lot of money for Charlie Villanueva to be a stretch power forward -- but Monroe (pictured with GM Joe Dumas) is worth Detroit fans' excitement. The 6-foot-11 standout from Georgetown is touted as one of the best passing big men to come out of college since Brad Daugherty, and someone who can create his own shot from the post or the wing.

A clean slate for Ben Gordon
The first year of Gordon's five-year, $55 million deal with Detroit was an unmitigated disaster. Assorted injuries created the lowest minutes and fewest games played of his six-year career. In every previous year, he shot better than 40 percent from three-point territory; he shot 32.1 percent last season. Rebounds, assists and points per game were also career lows in 2009-10. Entering his prime at 27, there is good reason to expect substantial improvement this year.

WHAT WENT WRONG

Joe Dumars didn't go to Jersey
This is not meant to besmirch Dumars' legacy in Detroit. By staying, Dumars will likely do that himself. No one can, or should, dispute his talent and integrity, but it was time for him to go to a new environment, and the Nets, with a rich new owner anxious to make a splash and a new arena on the horizon, reportedly were interested in hiring Dumars as their GM. In Detroit, Dumars literally has too much history, too many past glories to live up to and too many controversial recent decisions to justify and continue defending. And he is ...

Unwisely clinging to the past
The Pistons have the pieces for an interesting up-tempo offense. Last year's rookie forwards, Austin Daye and Jonas Jerebko, can run the floor; Monroe's ball-handling and passing skills can be emphasized and his lack of bulk minimized; and the inability of either Rodney Stuckey or Will Bynum to run a half-court offense could be less problematic. Notice that none of this involves Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince, two members of the Pistons' 2004 championship team who need to be peddled to open up space for the kids and Dumars' big signings from a year ago, Gordon and Villanueva. (The Pistons also just re-signed a third player from that title team, Ben Wallace.) For Detroit, standing pat is standing in quicksand.

BOTTOM LINE

The worst thing that could happen is a .500-or-better start that convinces management to ride the status quo. There is no one to protect the rim (outside of a diminished Wallace) or initiate the offense.

 
DIndiana Pacers

Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images
WHAT WENT RIGHT

Light at the end of the tunnel
How is this for damning with faint praise: The Pacers can look forward to more than $40 million in salaries coming off the books at the end of the upcoming season. That includes about $22 million for Troy Murphy and Mike Dunleavy, who tease with talent but produce pretty numbers and few victories; $8.5 million for perpetual doghouse resident T.J. Ford; nearly $7 million for the aging Jeff Foster; and the $5.5 million Jamaal Tinsley was paid to go away.

An emerging force in the middle
Big men take time to develop. But 7-2 center Roy Hibbert (pictured), 23, is progressing nicely. According to 82games.com, the Pacers were plus-11 in the 2,034 minutes he played and minus-258 in the 1,906 minutes he sat last season. Hibbert reportedly has been putting in the time this summer, including workouts with Hall of Fame center Bill Walton. Another step forward this year and the Pacers will boast that rare commodity -- a young, talented behemoth who can protect the rim.

Drafting for talent, not for need
Indiana dangled the 10th pick in an effort to bolster their point guard position, only to find zero takers. But rather than reach for an inferior point, they selected Paul George, a raw uber-athlete with a good shooting touch but propensity for turnovers. Indiana was derided for choosing a player with a skill set so similar to All-Star Danny Granger's, but George's talent justifies the move.

WHAT WENT WRONG

Down on the throttle, but with no steering wheel
Only Golden State operated at a faster pace than Indiana last season, but the Pacers weren't exactly a juggernaut, ranking 16th in scoring and 26th in offensive efficiency. The main culprit was the lack of a point guard, and if anything, the situation looks worse this year. Earl Watson, who led the team in assists and minutes at the position last season, wasn't re-signed; Ford and coach Jim O'Brien simply don't get along; and the Pacers' experiment with second-round pick Lance Stephenson running the point resulted in just six assists in four Summer League games.

The dreaded middle
The worst place to be in the NBA is stuck in a rut between 30 and 40 wins. That's bad enough to miss the playoffs but "good" enough to drastically reduce your chances of getting an elite player in the draft. Indiana has won 32-36 games four consecutive years and could easily make it a fifth in 2010-11.

BOTTOM LINE

Waiting for bad contracts to go away is a terrible short-term strategy, but it's unfortunately necessary in Indiana.

 
C+Milwaukee Bucks

Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images
WHAT WENT RIGHT

Excitement and momentum
A year ago at this time, most pundits (including me) had the Bucks ranked as one of the two or three worst teams in the Eastern Conference. Then smart drafting, superb coaching and wonderful chemistry lifted the Bucks into a Game 7 in the first round of the playoffs and led to their catchy war cry: Fear the Deer! In the offseason, the front office seized on this momentum to make a series of roster moves that have fans buzzing. (Many of them were detrimental or overrated, but more on that later.)

The re-signing of Salmons
John Salmons (pictured) came over in a late-season trade with the Bulls and helped boost the Bucks into the playoffs, just as he had done the previous year for Chicago after being acquired from Sacramento. The Bucks are counting on Salmons to continue the shrewd shot selection (which included more penetration in Milwaukee than in Chicago) as the mid-range option between Brandon Jennings and Andrew Bogut.

Good bit pieces added to the bottom of the rotation
GM John Hammond did his best work filling out the roster depth. Forward Jon Brockman, obtained from Sacramento for Darnell Jackson, is a competent banger; rookie forward Larry Sanders, the 15th pick in the draft, is an athletic leaper whom Scott Skiles will develop; and Keyon Dooling is a cheaper (though less-valuable) backup point guard than Luke Ridnour.

WHAT WENT WRONG

The chemistry gamble of Corey Maggette
The Bucks didn't get to the free-throw line last season, but drawing fouls is a Maggette specialty. Maggette also didn't cost much -- the Warriors, desperate to unload him, required only the end of Dan Gadzuric's horrible contract and swingman Charlie Bell in return. But as I argued previously, Maggette's ball-hogging style and bad defense hurt Golden State last season and could wreak havoc with the synergistic, defensive-oriented style Skiles fostered last year.

Overestimating the value of Drew Gooden
On paper, Gooden's five-year, $32 million deal looks decent: He has averaged 11.9 points and 7.9 rebounds in 28 minutes during his eight-year career. And with Bogut recovering from his horrific elbow and wrist injuries, Gooden is decent insurance. But a closer look shows he's not efficient on offense: He's shot better than 50 percent just once in a season -- not good for someone who is known for his offensive rebounding. And his defense is suspect: Both the Mavs and Clippers were at least five points better defensively per 100 possessions when Gooden sat compared to when he played last season.

Underrated losses
Ridnour is hardly a stud, but he put together his best season in 2009-10, stabilizing the Bucks while backing up Brandon Jennings. Kurt Thomas is almost 38, but he provided good minutes in the middle, especially in the playoffs. And guys like Ersan Ilyasova and Carlos Delfino, whose minutes are likely to be cut on this beefed-up roster, helped provide the Bucks with their feisty underdog identity via their unselfish play.

BOTTOM LINE

I am at odds with the consensus that the Bucks really improved this offseason. Without a doubt they have more talent. What's less certain is whether it will get them more than last season's 46 wins.

 
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