It wasn't too long ago that the Central Division was a one-note wasteland made up of Milwaukee and five NBA ghost towns. From the 1980-81 season, when the current divisional alignments were created, through 1985-86, the pattern was the same: The Bucks would win the Central without a struggle and then lose to the Boston Celtics or Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference playoffs. In 1982-83, the Central's six teams had a collective winning percentage of only .411 and finished 88 games below .500. That was the worst performance by a division in NBA history.
"The division used to have what I call 'bops,' " says Detroit Pistons coach Chuck Daly. "You could bop into town, get a win, bop out again."
But now the Central has gone from bops to tops. Through Sunday, five of its six teams had .500-or-better records, and the sixth, the Cleveland Cavaliers, was only three games below break-even. Moreover, all six teams should make the playoffs. Boston is the conference's top team, but at week's end Centralians held down spots 2 through 7. (Eight teams make the conference playoffs.)
More than the other NBA divisions, the Central has forged an identity, in much the same way that college basketball leagues do. For the most part, Central teams are young, eager, athletic and feisty. How did this happen? "There's less exposure and less pressure to win right away in the Central cities than in places like New York, Philly or L.A.," says Atlanta Hawks general manager Stan Kasten. "So teams have built slowly, using the draft. And that's the best way."
Donnie Walsh, general manager of the Indiana Pacers, has a simpler theory: "I know we work harder than most. Then again, we had farther to go."
Consider that only 12 players are still with the Central teams on which they played in that nadir season of 1982-83. The Chicago Bulls (with center Dave Corzine), Indiana (forward Herb Williams) and Cleveland (forward Phil Hubbard) have only one each. Further, no Central coach was with his present team in 1982-83. New players and new coaches, new intensity and new boldness yield new results.
Consider that when the Phoenix Suns recently put out a sign that read FIRE SALE, Central teams lined up at the door. Detroit general manager Trader Jack McCloskey swapped rookie forward Ron Moore and a 1991 second-round draft pick for Suns center James Edwards. McCloskey also considered giving Phoenix two of his better young players, guard Joe Dumars and forward-center John Salley, for either point guard Jay Humphries or point guard Jeff Hornacek and standout forward Larry Nance. When that deal fell through, Cleveland stepped in, trading rookie playmaker Kevin Johnson (the seventh pick in last spring's draft) and two valuable backups, center Mark West and forward Tyrone Corbin, for Nance and reserve forward Mike Sanders. It was a major move not recommended for the squeamish dealer.
Let's not ignore the obvious about the Central, either: It's the mailing address of those no-last-name-necessary superstars Michael, Dominique and Isiah. And it's home to some of the league's most fascinating and frenetic coaches. In a recent game against Indiana, Atlanta's Mike Fratello ran down a ball that went out of bounds, passed it to the referee and tried to start the Hawks on a fast break. Daly prowls the sideline like a crazed sentry, yet somehow never musses his GQ duds or his wavy hair. At 63, the Pacers' Jack Ramsay is a triathlete, still pursuing physical fitness off the court and victory on it with the intensity of a man 40 years his junior. The two former NBA players among the Central coaches, Doug Collins of Chicago and Lenny Wilkens of Cleveland, can still hold the floor in pickup games.
It's a good division for unusual general managers, too. Kasten may be the busiest man in sports because he's also president of the Atlanta Braves. He'll spend the next month shuttling between his office at the Omni in Atlanta and the Braves' winter home in West Palm Beach. Wayne Embry of the Cavaliers has been highly successful in business—he was a McDonald's magnate in Milwaukee, where he ended his playing days. Walsh once turned down a job offer from Richard Nixon's former law firm. McCloskey is an energetic sort who has said, only half in jest, that he would trade anything but his trusty, old tennis racket.
The Central also is the most likely place other than an NHL arena to catch some fisticuffs of a winter's evening. Even the superstars take off the gloves. Chicago's Michael Jordan, Atlanta's Dominique Wilkins and Detroit's Isiah Thomas have all been involved in squabbles this season. Indiana's superstar-to-be, forward Chuck Person, is a veritable Charles Barkley of the Central, a volatile, unpredictable fellow who throws elbows at opponents and tortured glances at referees with equal abandon.
Clearly, the Central Division is not a place for love-ins. The Hawks don't like the Pistons very much. The Bulls don't like the Pistons very much. The Bucks don't like the Pistons very much. Zebras don't always like the Pistons very much. In a Feb. 19 game at Milwaukee, Steve Javie and Darell Garretson whistled seven technicals on the charmers from Motown. Do you detect a pattern here? "I can't think of anyone in the league who respects them," says Corzine, referring to the Pistons.
Says Detroit center Bill Laimbeer with a big smile, "Gee, I don't understand that. We respect ourselves very much."
Milwaukee and Chicago have a spirited rivalry, too, as do Atlanta and Indiana. After throwing elbows at Wilkins and his teammate, guard Randy Wittman, during a Feb. 23 game at the Omni, Person walked into the Hawks' locker room and said, "Nothing personal." Responded Wittman, "Get the——out of here."
John Lucas, Milwaukee's veteran playmaker, sums up the Central thusly: "It's like the Black-and-Blue Division [NFC Central] in the NFL. We're relieved when we play teams outside this division."
With the NBA season winding down, the Centralians are looking to the playoffs to see just how strong they are and what influence they can have on the championship pairings. Here's a look at the division, from the bottom to the top:
6. CLEVELAND (28-31 at week's end)—The trade for Nance demonstrates that Embry is hardly taking a cavalier attitude toward his club. "The addition of Larry certainly won't take us to the top right away," he says. "There are other things to be done. But we want to be the NBA champions, and this was another step in that direction."
Prognosis: The Cavs survived a dismal start when Ron Harper, their sensational rookie guard of last season, missed 24 games with an ankle injury. This is an Embry-o of a team that will need time to adjust to the talented Nance. Fratello and Ramsay both suggest that Cleveland will miss West's defense and posting-up strength. Perhaps. But if Wilkens finds a way to coordinate all the pieces of a potentially potent offense, the Cavs could move past the Pacers, Bulls and Bucks next season.
5. INDIANA (29-29)—Walsh has never regretted the day in 1965, when, fresh out of the University of North Carolina Law School, he turned down an offer from the New York law firm of Nixon, Mudge, Rose, Guthrie, Alexander & Mitchell to accept a graduate-assistant coaching position under Tar Heel coach Dean Smith. Nor does he regret two other major decisions that he made years later, in the summer of 1986: to draft Person and hire Ramsay, who were the main reasons that the Pacers won 41 games last season.
This season has been decidedly less uplifting for Indiana, however. Ramsay has criticized Person's lack of defensive intensity and his tendency on offense to rely on jump shots instead of going to the basket. Vern Fleming is an adequate point guard, perhaps even an underrated one, but that's about all. Ditto center Steve Stipanovich and the shooting-guard tandem of rookie Reggie Miller and veteran John Long. And is power forward Wayman Tisdale the type of player to build an offense around? "I'm reluctant to trade Wayman because, frankly, I don't know how good he's going to be," says Walsh.
Prognosis: The Pacers may need to make a major move to keep pace in the ultracompetitive Central.
4. MILWAUKEE (31-25)—Yes, the Bucks are the grand old men of the Central, but they're not exactly playing with canes and walkers. Terry Cummings turns 27 on March 15, Sidney Moncrief is 30 (except for his knees, which are 97), and Jack Sikma, rejuvenated by his move to power forward from center, is having what coach Del Harris calls "a career year" at 32. Harris moved Sikma because 7'3" Randy Breuer has improved so much at center.
"I honestly think we'll be as good as anybody in the league over our last 25 games," says Harris. "If I'm wrong and we don't close strong, then we'll be more aggressive in making postseason moves to get younger players. But we won't have a fire sale, I can promise you that."
Prognosis: Says Walsh, "The Bucks will be right there in the playoffs because they've got brains." Brains, yes, but not the legs to get past either the Pistons or Hawks.
3. CHICAGO(33-25)—Scott Pippen, a rookie swingman who was supposed to take some of the load off Jordan, has been playing poorly over the past month. He has had some back problems, but he has also lost confidence.
And at times Jordan has vented his frustration over the lack of support from Pippen and others. "It was a night when our younger players could have really made a difference," he said after he scored 52 points in a 104-96 loss to Portland on Feb. 26. "It was hard, especially because I had to play defense against [Clyde] Drexler [who had 42 points] and then turn around and try to carry the load on offense. There was only so much I could do."
Prognosis: Power forwards Charles Oakley and rookie Horace Grant must become offensive threats, and Pippen must regain his confidence if the Bulls are to catch the Pistons and Hawks next year. All Chicago may need is time, particularly if Sam Vincent, who arrived from the Seattle SuperSonics via a trade for Sedale Threatt, works out at point guard. Having only Jordan to go to at crunch time may be a limitation, but, as Harris points out, "it's a wonderful limitation to have."
2. ATLANTA (35-22)—As the 76ers used to gauge themselves by the Celtics, the Hawks now gauge themselves by the Pistons, who have won three of four meetings between the teams this season. The Hawks' shortcomings are readily apparent—they're getting very little out of the power forward and shooting guard positions.
Examples 1 and 1a are forward Kevin Willis, who was a terror last season, and Randy Wittman, whose hallmark had been consistency. The absence of key reserves Jon Koncak, who suffered a knee injury Feb. 12, and John Battle, who has been out since Feb. 9 with hepatitis, has hurt.
Right now the Hawks are nothing more than the Bulls with a southern accent. Their attack consists of Wilkins, Wilkins and more Wilkins. In a recent game against Detroit, for example, Dominique took 35 shots, not because he was gunning but because he was the only Atlanta player with a pulse on offense. He finished with 50 points and the Pistons finished with a smile. "All those points don't mean anything when we get the win," said Laimbeer.
Prognosis: Kasten has taken heat for not keeping up with Trader Jack. But he and Fratello have spent four years building this team, and ripping it apart now wouldn't make sense.
1. DETROIT (38-19)—The Pistons are running on all cylinders. Dennis Rodman played so well when Adrian Dantley was out for 10 games with a sprained right ankle that Daly has continued to start Rodman. He brings Dantley and his 21.4 scoring average off the bench now. Dumars, who was trade bait a month ago, is one of the most versatile guards in the league.
Prognosis: If the Pistons can keep their minds on business while maintaining the cocky attitude that throws opponents off stride, they should win the division. But that's only step 1. The road to the NBA Finals will no doubt pass through Boston Garden, where there are no bops. Certainly not for Atlanta, which hasn't won there since March 1, 1985, or for Detroit, whose losing streak extends back to Dec. 19, 1982.
"Right now," says Ramsay, "we're the best division in the world." It remains to be seen if that fact impresses the men in green.