The Central Division, once the Detroit Pistons' own personal playground, has become a war zone for the team from the mitten.
The Chicago Bulls and the Indiana Pacers now reign supreme in the Central, with the Milwaukee Bucks and Cleveland Cavaliers fighting it out with Detroit for the second tier. And while some divisions enjoy a relative amount of parity, there is a huge difference between the first and second tiers in the Central.
But Cleveland seems to be trending in the right direction with a couple of excellent drafts and offseason moves, and Milwaukee brought some excitement last year with the addition of Monta Ellis, although it is too soon to know if the Bucks are moving forward or still just treading water.
The Pistons are certainly the wild card in this division. Like Cleveland, the Pistons have had some very good drafts of late and, provided some of their veterans play like they are capable of playing, they could make things interesting in the Central.
Here is how the Pistons stack up against the rest of their Central Division rivals.
The Bulls at a glance
Chicago was the best team in the league record-wise two years ago. With explosive MVP point guard Derrick Rose leading the charge, the Bulls seemed to be a team on the rise, and destined for post-season dominance.
But a disappointing playoff run followed, and although the Bulls went on to have another great year last season, Rose got injured and now is not expected to rejoin his teammates until late in the year if at all.
The rest of the Bulls lineup is fairly young and talented, with the strongest frontcourt in the division and a strong veteran presence in the backcourt between Richard Hamilton and Kirk Hinrich.
The Bulls absolutely cannot replace Rose, but should still have a good year with a renewed focus on frontcourt scoring and great rebounding.
Where the Bulls have the advantage
The Bulls, when Rose is healthy, are better than Detroit at just about every position aside from shooting guard and maybe center. They are big, physical and strong up front with great length and incredible defensive instincts. They will likely crush Detroit in the rebounding department and can stifle the Pistons with pesky defenders on the perimeter like Luol Deng and Hinrich.
Where the Pistons have the advantage
Organizationally, the Pistons have a lot more monetary flexibility. The Pistons are younger, cheaper and largely more athletic. If the Pistons develop their young guys like Andre Drummond and Brandon Knight properly, they are definitely better constructed long-term with few bad contracts until they need to lock up the kids with big contracts.
On the court, however, they have to rely on Greg Monroe hopefully getting the best of Joakim Noah, although the Bulls big man can frustrate even the most professional players. Rodney Stuckey should be able to get some easy looks against the Bulls, and use his athleticism to get by aging vets like Hamilton.
Before Rose returns, Knight may also have some good looks against this team.
This year figures to be the most likely time for Detroit to get some competitive games with the Bulls before Rose returns.
For the future, the Bulls' future is tied to how well Rose recovers. If Rose comes back as good as he was, the Bulls will compete for the next decade; if he doesn't, then the future could be bleak given the Bulls dearth of big and lumbering contracts.
Personally, I think the future looks brighter for Detroit.
Pacers at a glance
The Indiana Pacers took a major step forward last year. A team that seemed to be in a rebuilding mode for the better part of the last decade finally had a great season in which many of their young guys stepped up.
The Pacers not only are built to win this year, but they have set themselves up to win in the future. They locked up their talented center Roy Hibbert to a long-term deal, they have a very good and young nucleus in George Hill and Paul George, and Danny Granger remains their best player.
Financially speaking, only Hibbert's deal is overly big, but it is a good one for a player of his age and talent. Granger only has one more year after this one on his deal, and David West's contract expires after this season.
The Pacers also have good depth with D.J. Augustin, Tyler Hansbrough and Gerald Green plus a nice addition through the draft in Miles Plumlee.
That being said, they are still a perimeter-oriented team that needs to find more ways to score in order to succeed in the playoffs.
Where the Pacers have the advantage
Indiana is long and athletic on the wings and up front, and can flat-out shoot. They hustle for loose balls and rarely get outplayed in the effort department.
Position-wise, they probably have the advantage over Detroit at just about every position with perhaps the exception of point guard. Granger and George will score relatively easy against Detroit unless new addition Corey Maggette can play Granger physically which generally gives the forward trouble.
Up front, West is always a handful with his tremendous lower body strength and excellent post moves. Hibbert is still developing offensively, but makes up for it with great shot-blocking chops on the defensive side of the ball.
Where the Pistons have the advantage
In all honesty, the Pacers are really well built to beat Detroit. Knight and Stuckey will have to rely on their quickness and athleticism to get scoring opportunities, and Detroit will have to get the Pacers frontcourt into foul trouble in order to have a chance.
The Pacers are better defensively, but not by a ton. They have length and Hibbert can block shots, but they are quite a bit below Chicago on that side of the ball.
They also struggle offensively if the jumpers aren't falling, so Detroit could potentially use long rebounds to fuel a full court transition game.
Indiana should be the building plan for Detroit. They are building around a talented young center and have been wise with draft picks, trades and free agency alike.
Indiana, not Chicago, is built to be the class of this division over the next decade.
The Bucks at a glance
The Milwaukee Bucks have undergone a bit of a facelift over the last couple years.
Once a team built around talented yet injury-prone big man Andrew Bogut, Milwaukee dealt the big Australian to Golden State last year for the supremely gifted scoring guard Monta Ellis.
Add to that the underrated Ersan Ilyasova, athletic big men Samuel Dalembert and Ekpe Udoh as well as mercurial point guard Brandon Jennings, and you have an intriguing mix of talent.
Salary-wise, the Bucks are on solid ground. Only Ellis makes more than $8 million per season, and only Ilyasova is signed past 2015. They have some young guys who are going to need to be re-signed to decent deals going forward, but this roster is mostly young and flexible financially.
Where Milwaukee has the advantage
The Bucks boast one of the most dynamic, if slightly built guard tandems in the league. Ellis and Jennings are loaded with talent, but it is too soon to tell if they can play together for an extended period of time. Both guards are shoot-first guards who are both closer to combo guards than true point or shooting guards.
They also are so small that physical guards could give them trouble.
Up front, the Bucks should struggle to score. Gone are the days of Bogut dominating the post and stretching the court with his range. Ilyasova can score and rebound, but Dalembert and Udoh are mainly defensive players with limited offensive chops.
Where Detroit has the advantage
When going head-to-head with Milwaukee, the Pistons have numerous advantages. Up front, Greg Monroe should be able to have his way with either Dalembert or Udoh, especially if he takes them to the high post.
Additionally, the Pistons backcourt should be able to bully the diminutive Milwaukee guards. Knight isn't exactly a beast physically, but he has a considerable height advantage over Jennings, and Stuckey has the strength to push Ellis around. As long as they can keep the Bucks out of the paint, they should be able to hold the advantage.
It's hard to gauge exactly what the plan is going forward for Milwaukee. Are they rebuilding or just re-tooling? And if they are just re-tooling, what is the long-term plan? Ellis is not signed long term, yet he remains their best player.
The frontcourt is loaded with potential but has plenty of questions, and the small forward spot is being manned by an aging Mike Dunleavy. There is young talent on this team, but very few answers to very many questions.
Cavs at a glance
I have to admit, I generally dislike Cleveland teams. They usually underachieve to an almost comedic level, and their sports landscape is littered with cautionary tales.
That being said, there is a lot to like about the direction that this team is heading. They have their point guard of the future in Kyrie Irving, one of the top five young floor generals in the league. They have a very good shooting guard prospect in Dion Waiters, and Tristan Thompson showed some real potential last year.
Their last couple drafts have been inspired, and their free-agent moves have been measured yet excellent. C.J. Miles was a great pickup, Alonzo Gee has turned into a very nice gem and their combination of athleticism and activity in the frontcourt should make for an exciting team.
Their long-term financials are excellent, with only Anderson Varejao on the books for more than $9 million per season. They have some young guys who will need to be paid eventually, but those are a couple years away.
This team has financial flexibility and some real prospects for future growth.
Where Cleveland has the advantage
Cleveland has some really talented and defensively active big men. Varejao and Thompson anchor the defense, and Miles and Gee are very physical small forwards.
I think that Waiters is going to be a very good pro, but he really is the wild card in this group. He could hit the ground running if he is aggressive to the hoop and works on his defense. But if he struggles with his shot and plays the type of nonexistent defense that he played as a freshman at Syracuse, he could be in for a long season.
Irving remains the key to this team. If he is able to continue to develop as a distributor, he could be special. This year, however, he will need to score a ton in order for this team to be successful. Some have knocked his athleticism and durability, but I think he will surprise some people this year.
Where Detroit has the advantage
The Pistons have a better center, small forward and shooting guard. Stuckey should give Waiters serious trouble, and Prince's length should frustrate Miles and Gee. Varejao and Thompson will have their work cut out for them with Monroe, especially in the high-low post game.
Knight isn't nearly as talented as Irving right now, but this year should be a preview of some future epic battles between the two sophomore point guards.
These two teams are largely in the same boat. Detroit has the better future frontcourt with Monroe already leagues beyond Thompson, and any contribution from Drummond should be a bonus. True, the Cavs also have Tyler Zeller who should contribute right away, but you still have to like the Pistons up front going forward.
The Cavs are very talented yet incredibly undersized at small forward and somewhat so in the backcourt, but you have to love what they are doing as a team.
And if Waiters develops into have the player I think he could be, this team could contend for a playoff spot right away.
You have to put Cleveland a hair above Detroit right now in development based simply on how much better Irving is than Knight.