By Matt Dollinger
October 15, 2013
The Pacers and Bulls are the cream of the Central Division and should challenge the Heat in the East.
Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images
Central Division: How They'll Finish

It’s tough to imagine the Pacers playing the Heat any better than they did in last season's Eastern Conference finals, which went seven games, but Indiana managed to improve dramatically this offseason. Most important is the return of Danny Granger, who played only five games in 2012-13 and missed the playoffs because of a knee injury. Granger, the Pacers' best player from 2007 to 2012, is a scorer capable of taking last year’s team to new heights. The Pacers also fortified their weak bench by adding Luis Scola, C.J. Watson and Chris Copeland. With Roy Hibbert, Paul George and Lance Stephenson, Indiana has the necessary defenders to play man-to-man against just about anyone. The Bulls and Pacers could be set for the tightest division race in the league, but Indiana holds the slightest of edges thanks to its health and superior depth.

The skinny: If Granger clicks, the Pacers will represent the East’s best chance of preventing a Heat three-peat.

Derrick Rose didn’t play for the 2012-13 Bulls, so that technically makes him the biggest addition to any team in 2013-14. The entire league waits with bated breath to see what he’ll look like after sitting out last season, but one thing many aren’t considering is the possibility that the 25-year-old point guard plays better than ever once he shakes off the obligatory rust. The 2010-11 MVP says his vertical leap is five inches higher than before his injury, and it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to imagine Rose's coming back a better shooter after a year-plus of non-contact activities. The Bulls also pulled off a savvy addition by signing the unheralded Mike Dunleavy, the perfect role player for Chicago's basket-hungry offense. Add in a reliable supporting cast and the ever-evolving Jimmy Butler and the Bulls look like a surefire contender barring (gulp) injury.

The skinny: Chicago's offense was fifth in the league in points per possession in 2011-12, but plummeted to 23rd last season without Rose. His return and Dunleavy's arrival will make the Bulls an elite squad on both sides of the ball again.

The Pistons might be this offseason’s paper champions. Adding Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings to your team in NBA 2K14 would make you a contender -- but in NBA 2013-14? It’s a far different story. Detroit oozes potential with the inside duo of Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe, but putting Smith and Jennings in the mix potentially stunts their development. Rather than build around the two recent lottery picks, Detroit appears to have built next to them, acquiring a redundant big man and a pass-allergic point guard. But the Pistons seem dead-set on rebuilding and making the playoffs simultaneously, a seemingly contradictory exercise but one president Joe Dumars believes he can pull off after opening the Pistons' wallet this summer. Dumars will hope for better results than the last time he broke the bank, in 2009, when he spent nearly $100 million combined on Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon. We all know how that turned out.

The skinny: The Pistons’ literal Big Three of Smith, Monroe and Drummond will be fascinating to watch, but will they be able to create space on the court? A trade makes too much sense not to happen.

The question mark next to Bynum’s name isn’t a mistake. The Cavs had a successful summer in adding Jarrett Jack, No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett and forward Earl Clark to a promising core, but the signing of Bynum carries the biggest potential to move Cleveland’s needle. At his best, Bynum is one of the top centers in the league. At his worst, he’s a 7-foot distraction better known for his hair than his hoops. He also makes Cleveland one of the toughest teams to pinpoint. With 21-year-old wunderkind Kyrie Irving and a bevy of big men (Anderson Varejao, Bynum, Tyler Zeller, the now-right-handed Tristan Thompson and Bennett), the Cavs have the pieces to challenge for a playoff spot. But if Bynum never gets healthy and Irving gets banged up again after missing 15 games as a rookie and 23 games last season, expect more of the same: a fourth consecutive playoff-less spring since LeBron James left.

The skinny: The Cavs will be a force in the East soon enough, but this season might be another lean year unless Bynum can do something besides bring comic relief.

  • 5
  • Milwaukee Bucks
  • Milwaukee Bucks
  • 2012-13 Record: 38-44
  • Top Addition: O.J. Mayo | Biggest Loss: Brandon Jennings

Sorting out Milwaukee's front office logic is like trying to pronounce Giannis Antetokounmpo on the first try. The team gave up on its failed backcourt experiment of Monta Ellis and Jennings, but brought in two similar shoot-first guards in O.J. Mayo and Brandon Knight, which seems to suggest more of the same. It appears the Bucks are undertaking a tall task for 2013-14: trying to reach the playoffs while also trying to develop their young core of Larry Sanders (24 years old), John Henson (22), Knight (21) and Antetokounmpo (18). With the additions of veteran Caron Butler and ex-Hawks coach Larry Drew, who led Atlanta to the playoffs each of his three seasons as head coach, the Bucks have a shot at the former, but the bottom line will likely be the same in Milwaukee: either a quick first-round playoff exit or a lottery finish that isn't high enough to yield a top pick.

The skinny: The Bucks have finished third in the Central three years in a row, but until they can challenge for the top spot in the division, they’re better off finishing at the bottom.   

Players To Watch
  • F
  • Chicago Bulls
  • Jimmy Butler
  • 2012-13 Stats: 8.6 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 1.0 SPG
  • Career Stats: 6.6 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 0.7 SPG

The Bulls' third-year swingman had his coming-out party last spring, when he went from effective bench player to indispensable starter. In 12 playoff starts, Butler averaged 13.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.3 steals while shooting 43.5 percent from the field and 40.5 percent from three-point range. Those type of numbers have Bulls fans crossing their fingers that they have the next Paul George or Kawhi Leonard, but Butler will have to take a significant step in 2013-14 to follow in those players' path. If he does, the Bulls could claim the Central and Luol Deng could be on his way out of Chicago.

  • F
  • Indiana Pacers
  • Luis Scola
  • 2012-13 Stats: 12.8 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 47.2 FG%
  • Career Stats: 14.2 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 50.4 FG%

Larry Bird revealed that he’s had eyes for Scola for years, but the Pacers' general manager finally landed the rugged Argentine during the summer in hopes of boosting the Pacers’ futile bench. Scola might be a turnstile on defense, but he’s starter-quality when it comes to scoring and rebounding (17.3 points and 8.9 rebounds per 36 minutes last season). Scola has also missed only eight games in his six-year NBA career, making him the reliable bench presence Indiana sorely lacked last season. Look for Scola to team up with David West and form one of the NBA's best 1-2 punches at power forward. 

  • G
  • Cleveland Cavaliers
  • Jarrett Jack
  • 2012-13 Stats: 12.9 PPG, 5.6 APG, 40.4 3P%
  • Career Stats: 11.0 PPG, 4.4 APG, 35.8 3P%

Jack, 29, was a big reason why the Warriors won 47 games last year and reached the second round of the playoffs. The Cavaliers are hoping he can play a similar role for them this season. Not only did Jack expertly spell and play alongside Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson last year, but he also served as an important veteran presence on a young team. He'll have an opportunity to do the same thing with the Cavs, mentoring Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters.

Burning Questions
  • Will Derrick Rose regain his dominant form? If so, the Bulls will be as good as anyone in the NBA, Miami included. If he comes back at, say, 80 percent of his former self, Chicago will still be a contender, but it needs the dynamic, aggressive version of Rose to be considered a title favorite. The Bulls will go as far their star and his surgically repaired knee can carry them.
  • Can Josh Smith co-exist with the Pistons’ young bigs? Few players possess Smith’s two-way talent, but a full-time move to small forward could be disastrous if that means he spends more time jacking jumpers than wreaking havoc in the paint. 
  • Which extreme makeover will actually work? The Pacers and Bulls are sure things, but the Cavaliers, Pistons and Bucks all underwent summer overhauls that are difficult to judge. All three have shots at the playoffs, but all three also have the potential to flop. Only one is likely to trend up.
Bold Prediction

The Pacers or Bulls will beat the Heat in the conference finals, ending Miami's pursuit of a three-peat.

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