By Britt Robson
October 13, 2010
2010-11 NBA Preview: Central Division
How They'll Finish
Chicago Bulls
2009-10 Record: 41-41; lost to Cavaliers in first round
Top Addition: Carlos Boozer | Biggest Loss: Kirk Hinrich
It hurts to lose Boozer (broken hand) before roles and patterns had been established, and it remains to be seen whether new coach Tom Thibodeau and young point guard Derrick Rose can live up to the high (unrealistic?) expectations. But if everybody's healthy, the Bulls have the ingredients for championship contention: a blossoming star (Rose), a dedicated bulwark to protect the rim (Joakim Noah), legitimate second (Boozer) and third (Luol Deng) options on offense, and role players with clearly defined skills (sharpshooter Kyle Korver, defensive energy guy Taj Gibson). More seasoning and some luck would finish the recipe.
Milwaukee Bucks
2009-10 Record: 46-36; lost to Hawks in first round
Top Addition: Corey Maggette | Biggest Loss: Luke Ridnour
A trendy Fear the Deer bandwagon has been picking up speed since the Bucks acquired Maggette and Drew Gooden during the summer. But Beware the Boomerang: A surprising 2009-2010 season had as much to do with the synergy of role players under Scott Skiles (especially on defense) as it did with the emerging stardom of center Andrew Bogut and the precocity of rookie point guard Brandon Jennings. And the likes of Maggette and Gooden don't scream synergy.
Indiana Pacers
2009-10 Record: 32-50
Top Addition: Darren Collison | Biggest Loss: Troy Murphy
The four-team trade that brought Collison (and forward James Posey) to Indiana was a masterstroke for the Larry Bird-led front office, which had been desperate to land a starting point guard. With Collison and lottery pick Paul George joining leading scorer Danny Granger and on-the-rise center Roy Hibbert, and with $30 million in contracts coming off the books at season's end, the future in Indiana finally looks purposeful and bright.
Detroit Pistons
2009-10 Record: 27-55
Top Addition: Greg Monroe | Biggest Loss: Kwame Brown
Really, Tracy McGrady? The signing of a dinged-up, aging former superstar who disappointed even in his prime is further evidence that the Pistons are in denial, trying to win now when overachievement would barely get them into the playoffs. That second-year forward Jonas Jerebko sustained a torn Achilles tendon during the first preseason game was a big blow, as he's a youngster the Pistons put on a fast track to develop. He is expected to miss five months. One bright spot: A healthy Ben Gordon should bounce back with a vengeance.
Cleveland Cavaliers
2009-10 Record: 61-21; lost to Celtics in East semifinals
Top Addition: Ramon Sessions | Biggest Loss: LeBron James
Their post-LeBron prognosis is anywhere from mediocre to awful, and where they fall on that continuum is about psychology as much as talent. How will the plethora of second bananas -- former All-Stars Antawn Jamison and Mo Williams and longtime Cav Anderson Varejao -- determine a pecking order? When and how thoroughly will ownership try to raze the roster? The Cavs have intriguing pieces in J.J. Hickson and Ramon Sessions to go with their Medium Three, but the odds of deflation overcoming pride points to a lost season.
Players To Watch
Derrick Rose
2009-10 Stats: 20.8 PPG, 6.0 APG, 3.8 RPG
Career Stats: 18.7 PPG, 6.2 APG, 3.8 RPG
The pressure is on Rose at both ends of the court. With Boozer projected to be sidelined until late November, Rose will bear an extraordinary load for the offense, even as opponents pack the paint and dare him to beat them with passing and mid-range jumpers. And his below-average defense on the perimeter the past two seasons is a flaw the Bulls can no longer conceal now that Hinrich has departed.
Corey Maggette
2010 Season Stats: 19.8 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 2.5 APG
Career Stats: 16.6 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 2.2 APG
Nobody draws the foul off penetration better than Maggette, which is sweet elixir to a Bucks team that was outscored by more than 400 points at the free-throw line last season. But the preponderance of other stats confirm what your eyes tell you when watching Maggette play: He's a black hole with the ball and simply doesn't try hard enough on defense. Both deficiencies have to be at least partially remedied if this marvelous athlete is to satisfy Skiles and be more than a glitzy performer on a bad team (Maggette has been to the playoffs once in 11 years).
Roy Hibbert
2009-10 Stats: 11.7 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 1.6 BPG
Career Stats: 9.5 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 1.4 BPG
The 7-2 center dramatically reduced his fouling last season without sacrificing too much defensive tenacity (he must continue to get better in this area to increase his playing time). He also moved the ball more confidently and shot more accurately. But with Murphy's departure, Hibbert must improve what is a poor rebounding rate for someone his size. The Pacers were thrilled that Hibbert reported to camp in great condition, an important development given that the big man is playing in coach Jim O'Brien's up-and-down system.
Burning Questions
How quickly can Bogut return to form? On defense, the Milwaukee center added superb shot-blocking to his talent for drawing charges last season. Those abilities shouldn't be adversely affected too much by his injuries -- broken right hand, dislocated right elbow and sprained right wrist -- from a grisly fall from the rim last April. But most of the Bucks' offense also ran through Bogut, who passed well and finished with either hand, and the injuries mean that prowess won't be automatic, especially in the first month or two of the season. And it goes without saying that banging in the NBA paint just six or seven months after the incident is not going to be risk-free.
When will Joe Dumars turn the page? Why is a team that went 27-55 last season continuing to deploy 60 percent of the starting lineup that it used to close out the Lakers for the 2004 championship? Sure, Rip Hamilton's contract makes him difficult to deal, and the sad fact remains that 36-year-old Ben Wallace is the best center in Motown. But Dumars needs to trade Tayshaun Prince -- valuable to a contender beyond his expiring contract -- and hasten the rebuilding process by letting kids like Monroe and Austin Daye get more time in the frontcourt.
Can Chicago or Milwaukee crack the East elite? The Bulls would need a huge season from Rose, a quick recovery and seamless transition from Boozer and a masterful debut season from Thibodeau. The Bucks would require another stellar season from Bogut, improved shooting from Jennings and near-maximum value from new additions Maggette and Gooden.
By The Numbers
6 Seasons out of the last seven that Thibodeau's teams finished first or second in opponents' field-goal percentage. As an assistant with Houston (2003-07) and Boston (2007-10), Thibodeau focused on the defensive end.
23 Wins the LeBron-less Cavs need this season to avoid the largest one-year decline in NBA history. The record is 39, held by the 1996-97 San Antonio Spurs, who crashed from 59 to 20.
$4.5 million The amount the Bulls owe Gibson over the next three seasons, a tremendous bargain given that he made the All-Rookie team last year as the 26th pick, ranking eighth in offensive rebounding percentage and 22nd in blocks. He will also be invaluable filling in for an injured Boozer.
Bold Prediction
Bogut, Noah and Hibbert will enjoy productive seasons, giving the Central the best center threesome of any division.

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