2011-12 Record: 42-24; lost to Heat in second round
Top Addition: Ian Mahinmi | Biggest Loss: Darren Collison
The Pacers have a decidedly Oklahoma City vibe to them: They have returned the core of a young, talented team with hopes that the natural maturation process will catapult them to the next level. Roy Hibbert will still be expected to control the paint, David West and Danny Granger will be go-to scorers and George Hill will be counted on to keep execution sharp in the half court. The wild card is Paul George, who disappeared in the postseason last year (more below) and will need to diversify his offensive game and continue to defend the elite shooting guards.
2011-12 Record: 50-16; lost to Sixers in first round
Top Addition: Kirk Hinrich | Biggest Loss: Kyle Korver
Chicago returns many of its key players from a team that tied for the NBA's best record last season. One glaring exception -- at least for the start of the season -- is Derrick Rose, who is likely out until after the All-Star break with a torn ACL. His absence puts pressure on Kirk Hinrich and Rip Hamilton in the backcourt and Carlos Boozer in the frontcourt to produce just enough offense to give the Bulls' vaunted defense -- which finished second in points allowed per possession and opponents' shooting percentage last season -- a chance to win games for them. It's all a Band-Aid on a bullet hole, however: If Rose isn't healthy, Chicago can't compete with the top teams in the playoffs.
2011-12 Record: 25-41
Top Addition: Andre Drummond | Biggest Loss: Ben Gordon
After four years of roster turnover and sub-.500 seasons, Detroit may be on to something. Greg Monroe emerged as a force in the frontcourt last season and the early returns on 2012 first-round pick Andre Drummond (10.2 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 17.8 minutes per game during the preseason) suggest that the Pistons may have found someone to play alongside him. Detroit's smallish backcourt is still suspect, but if Rodney Stuckey can successfully defend shooting guards and if second-year player Brandon Knight can improve his brutal assist-to-turnover ratio from last season (1.47 to 1), the Pistons could sneak into the playoffs.
2011-12 Record: 31-35
Top Addition: Samuel Dalembert | Biggest Loss: Carlos Delfino
Defense has been a hallmark of Scott Skiles-coached teams, which is why it was surprising to see Milwaukee slump to medicore or worse in categories such as points allowed per possession and opponents' shooting percentage in 2011-12. The Bucks beefed up the front line after struggling on the glass without an injured and then traded Andrew Bogut last season, adding Samuel Dalembert and Joel Przybilla and drafting defensive-minded power forward John Henson. If the defense improves, the Bucks' playoff chances could come down to whether ball-controlling guards Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings -- who are both eligible for free agency after this season -- can co-exist.
2011-12 Record: 21-45
Top Addition: Dion Waiters | Biggest Loss: Antawn Jamison
The Cavs are on the road to post-LeBron James recovery, with 2012 Rookie of the Year Kyrie Irving and power forward Tristan Thompson established as cornerstones. Cleveland took a big risk in the draft, eschewing safer choices for Dion Waiters in hopes that the flashy scorer from Syracuse will mesh with Irving in a dynamic backcourt. The Cavs are improving, but with so many young pieces -- you can toss rookie center Tyler Zeller into the mix, too -- it will take time to develop. The hope has to be this group looks comfortable playing together toward the end of this season so that with another lottery pick and perhaps a free agent signing or two, Cleveland can make a run at the playoffs next season.
Players To Watch
2011-12 Stats: 12.1 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 1.6 SPG
Career Stats: 10.0 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 1.3 SPG
The Pacers will improve as much as George does, or at least that was the message Indiana associate head coach Brian Shaw delivered to the 22-year-old during the offseason. George vanished in the playoffs, particularly against Miami, when he was abused by Dwyane Wade and struggled with his shooting. George improved his ball handling and perimeter shooting this summer; if he can be more consistent in the next postseason, the Pacers have the size to give the Heat serious problems.
2011-12 Stats: 6.6 PPG, 2.8 APG, 2.1 RPG
Career Stats: 12.5 PPG, 5.4 APG, 3.2 RPG
Hinrich is no stranger to Chicago, having spent the first seven years of his career there before splitting the last two between Washington and Atlanta. The 31-year-old can't mimic Rose, but he is a reliable three-point shooter (37.8 percent for his career) who takes care of the ball and can defend three positions. Hinrich's job is to keep the offense humming until Rose is ready.
2011-12 Stats: 20.4 PPG, 6.0 APG, 1.5 SPG
Career Stats: 19.5 PPG, 4.5 APG, 1.7 SPG
At 26, Ellis is in danger of becoming the next Corey Maggette. Translation: superior scorer on teams that don't win much. With Bogut gone, the Bucks will rely on Ellis and Brandon Jennings to carry the offense, which they can't do if they are volume scorers, not efficient ones. If Ellis is efficient and plays reasonable defense at shooting guard, Milwaukee can make the playoffs. If he doesn't, the Bucks will miss the postseason for the third consecutive year and there will be a strong chance Ellis won't be in Milwaukee next season.
Will Rose return? A source close to Rose said the 2011 MVP is on track to play after the All-Star break but made it clear that coming back was the player's decision; if Rose doesn't feel right about returning, ownership has given its blessing to him to shut it down. And if Rose returns, how well will he be able to play? History suggests it will take Rose some time to regain his trademark explosiveness.
Is Indiana ready to join the elite? The jump from good to great often requires a cannon, and though the Pacers have a formidable roster, they are still young and lack championship experience. The Pacers will need George to step up his play and their unproven bench to deliver when called on in order to challenge Miami.
Can the Pistons put it together? Detroit will throw a lot of minutes at players who are inexperienced (Knight, Drummond) or inconsistent (Charlie Villanueva), but there is a lot of promise on that roster. Coach Lawrence Frank has re-established order in the locker room and done well developing young talent. Can the Pistons take the next step and make the playoffs? We will see.
Did You Know?
If Ben Hansbrough makes the Pacers' roster, he and Tyler will become the fourth set of brothers to play on the same team, joining Tom and Dick Van Arsdale (Phoenix); Mark and Brent Price (Washington); and Dominique and Gerald Wilkins (Orlando).
The Bulls have led the NBA in attendance for three consecutive seasons.
Irving last season joined Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Allen Iverson and LeBron James as the only No. 1 picks to average at least 18 points and five assists.
Drummond will emerge as a reliable center by midseason to help Detroit make the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
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Chris Mannix's Fast Breaks: Chicago Bulls
SI.com's Chris Mannix previews the 2012-13 NBA season for the Chicago Bulls.
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