By Paul Forrester
December 17, 2011
2011-12 NBA Preview: Central Division
How They'll Finish
Chicago Bulls
2010-11 Record: 62-20; lost to Heat in East finals
Top Addition: Richard Hamilton | Biggest Loss: Keith Bogans
Winning the division is all but a given. The problem is Miami. With LeBron James to sic on Derrick Rose, the Bulls need more reliable complementary scoring in the playoffs, especially now that the Heat have added Shane Battier to the defensive mix. Hamilton should fill some of the gap. Counting on Carlos Boozer to help consistently may be risky given his disappearing act (12.6 points, 43.3 percent shooting) in the last postseason. From Luol Deng to Joakim Noah to Taj Gibson to Kyle Korver, Chicago has plenty of quality depth but none of it is explosive. Cleveland tried this with LeBron and it left the Cavs ringless. If the Bulls hope not to play the role of the 1990s Knicks to Miami's Michael Jordan Bulls, it soon might be time to package quantity for quality.
Indiana Pacers
2010-11 Record: 37-45; lost to Bulls in first round
Top Addition: David West | Biggest Loss: Mike Dunleavy
West, provided he's healthy in his return from ACL surgery, gives the offense a focal point away from Danny Granger and Darren Collison and should create more spacing for Roy Hibbert to uncoil in the paint. If guard Paul George can build on a rookie season in which he showed a versatile scoring touch and quick hands, the Pacers could have one of the NBA's most intriguing starting fives. Coach Frank Vogel might be wise to position that unit inside the three-point arc more. The Pacers took more threes than all but eight teams last season but hit a middling 35.4 percent.
Milwaukee Bucks
2010-11 Record: 35-47
Top Addition: Stephen Jackson | Biggest Loss: John Salmons
After an acutely ugly shooting performance last season, Brandon Jennings lamented that he didn't "even know if I want to shoot the ball." He wasn't alone. Milwaukee averaged a league-worst 91.9 points, recorded a league-worst 51.1 true shooting percentage (which includes three-pointers and free throws) and averaged a league-worst 99 points per 100 possessions (aka offensive efficiency). Simply put, the Bucks' offense was the worst. Getting the ball into Andrew Bogut's hands and out of Jennings' a bit more would help produce some easier baskets. Mike Dunleavy should help, too, if he can stay healthy. With Scott Skiles still on the bench, though, defense will be how this club is judged internally. And while retaining Luc Richard Mbah a Moute will ensure that the unit still has teeth, Skiles' teams have a habit of tuning him out after a few seasons, which would sink any chance Milwaukee has of returning to the playoffs.
Detroit Pistons
2010-11 Record: 30-52
Top Addition: Brandon Knight | Biggest Loss: Richard Hamilton
Joe Dumars' attempt to rebuild on the fly -- with overpriced free-agent signings (Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva) joining expensive, championship-winning holdovers (Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince) and some young talent -- instead of launching a complete teardown has left the Pistons with little identity. Detroit, at least, has now cut ties with Hamilton, a malcontent last season. New coach Lawrence Frank would be wise to utilize promising big men Greg Monroe and Jonas Jerebko, but that won't happen if he can't get the ball out of the hands of the team's growing collection of combo guards -- Rodney Stuckey, Will Bynum and rookie Knight.
Cleveland Cavaliers
2010-11 Record: 19-63
Top Addition: Kyrie Irving | Biggest Loss: Baron Davis
Drafting Irving and Tristan Thompson was Step 1 in turning the page from the LeBron era. Step 2: Lose some more. High draft picks are the only way for a team that isn't a hot free-agent destination to build a talent base that might stick for a few years. No-nonsense coach Byron Scott and tough-minded trade addition Omri Casspi should help prevent another losing season from becoming part of the franchise's DNA. So would a modicum of effort on defense. With Baron Davis cut via amnesty, the Cavs gained salary-cap flexibility that should help facilitate a few more trades. If they can deal their other high-priced veteran, Antawn Jamison, for a draft pick or another young asset, that would go a lot further toward building this team's future than anything it does in the standings this year.
Players To Watch
Brandon Jennings
2010-11 Stats: 16.2 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 4.8 APG
Career Stats: 15.8 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 5.3 APG
Jennings spent the summer crisscrossing the country in search of pickup games during the lockout. Hopefully, the third-year guard also picked up some idea of how to shoot, because even with a 2-percent improvement in his accuracy, he still made only 39 percent last season. Worse, he struggled to set up the offense and saw his assists drop from 5.8 to 4.7. The struggles left Jennings in a bit of a quandary as to what his role on the team should be: scorer or distributor. Skiles would prefer the latter, but on a team this offensively impotent, he needs a lot of the former. Finding a happy medium will be Skiles' biggest challenge and the key to Milwaukee's immediate future.
Danny Granger
2010-11 Stats: 20.5 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 2.6 APG
Career Stats: 18.2 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 2.1 APG
Granger's offensive game is predicated on a lot of shots from mid-range and beyond. That approach has made him a player considered good but not elite, a player who has shot less than 43 percent each of the last two seasons. A higher path is available if he finally chooses to attack the rim. Can he change after six seasons in the league? That's the plan, Granger said in an interview with during the lockout. It needs to be if Indiana wants to be more than just a first-round loser.
Kyrie Irving
2010-11 College Stats: 17.5 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 4.3 APG
Career College Stats: 17.5 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 4.3 APG
Since the Cavs aren't scheduled for any national television appearances, catching the No. 1 overall pick will be a League Pass-only invitation. Will it be worth it for a player who played only 11 games at Duke because of a toe injury? It just might. Irving averaged 17.5 points for the Blue Devils and shot 46.5 percent from three-point range. And Scott has experience tutoring precocious point guards, such as that Chris Paul character.
Burning Questions
Is Rip Hamilton the missing piece for the Bulls? After being let go by the Pistons, Hamilton steps into what was a revolving door at shooting guard alongside Rose. Hamilton's patented mid-range offensive game has slipped the last few seasons, and he turns 34 in February, but there's no question he has the potential to outperform Ronnie Brewer and Korver and give the Bulls a more well-rounded player at the position. Hamilton has a history of supplying the kind of steady scoring that the Bulls lacked at shooting guard last season. And with a background in Pistons defense, Hamilton should also fit well with coach Tom Thibodeau.
What is the Pistons' plan? Shedding Hamilton was a logical step in the rebuilding direction that Detroit needs to follow. Retaining Prince -- who will take minutes from some of the team's young forwards -- was not. Looking to find a pass-first point guard made sense for a team that doesn't seem altogether comfortable with Stuckey. Drafting combo guard Knight did not.
Dan Gilbert: Eye of the storm? Though he has plenty of like-minded owners in his corner, the Cleveland boss' willingness to put his thoughts down to keystrokes about the Lakers' proposed trade for Chris Paul and LeBron's exit has made him the poster boy for NBA greed. Might that spur players to steer clear of Cleveland in free agency and balk at being traded there? The answers may say as much about the players as they do Gilbert.
By The Numbers
2 Times in the last 11 seasons that the team with the best regular-season record reached the NBA Finals. Last season's Bulls became the latest example of how finishing first doesn't guarantee anything.
20,112 Cleveland's announced average home attendance last season. The Cavs ranked third in that category in part because season-ticket holders had to renew before LeBron announced his decision to leave for Miami. Cleveland is sure to feel the full effect of James' absence at the turnstiles in 2011-12, even with the addition of two of the top four picks in the draft.
44.2 Bogut's free-throw percentage last season. Only 422 players were more accurate. With scoring never an easy proposition in Milwaukee, those misses could be particularly costly this season for a player who figures to get a greater share of possessions.
Bold Prediction
West and an improved George give Granger the help he has needed as the Pacers, after pushing the Bulls a bit for the division, sneak past Orlando for the fourth playoff seed in the Eastern Conference.
Central Video Preview
Bulls 2011-12 season preview
Source: SI's Chris Mannix says reigning MVP Derrick Rose is poised to be even better this season, but will the supporting cast be enough for the Bulls to win it all?

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