Right now the tightest race in the NBA is in the Central Division, where the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers and Milwaukee Bucks are tied atop the standings. With 2013 coming upon us, we're going to handicap the race.
There are several things to consider. How many games are they barely winning or losing? History shows that margin of victory is a better indicator of future performance than record. Who have the teams played to get to where they are? Who do they have to play for the remainder of the season? How much of their season have they been playing at full strength?
Starting with margin of victory, the Indiana Pacers would seem to have the advantage. They have won their games by an average of 1.43 points per game, the Bulls have won by an average 1.18 points per game, and the Bucks have been outscored by 0.14 points per game.
It's worth noting that the Bucks are the only team in the Eastern Conference with a winning record who has surrendered more points than they've scored. This suggests they could be in for a reality check.
Of course, merely looking at margin of victory only counts as much as the competition you've played. When you view the strength of schedule of each of the teams, the Bulls' opponents have a winning percentage of .503 (12th toughest in the NBA), the Bucks' opponents have a winning percentage of .492 (ranked 19th), and the Pacers' opponents have a percentage of .470 (29th best in the NBA).
So, while all three teams have the same record, the Bulls have had a much tougher hill to climb to get to theirs.
There are a couple of different sites that combine the strength of schedule with the margin of victory go give a relative strength index. Basketball Reference has their SRS rankings, and ESPN has their Relative Power Index. In both cases, the order in which the teams are ranked, relative to one another, is Chicago first, Indiana second and Milwaukee third.
Considering that the three teams play very similar schedules over the course of the season overall (as they play in the same division), the remaining strength of schedule should intuitively be reversed. In other words, the Bulls should have the easiest remaining schedule, followed by the Bucks and Pacers. This is confirmed by the site playoffstatus.com.
Records, points and remaining schedules are not everything. There are intangibles to consider too. Neither the Bulls nor the Pacers have had their best offensive player play this season. The Bucks have not had significant injury issues.
The Bulls clearly have the most to gain with returning players. Among the three teams, easily the best player is Derrick Rose, and his return to the Chicago Bulls will doubtless have a bigger impact than anything that would happen with the Bucks or Pacers.
Based on the ESPN player rankings, Rose is the fifth best player in the NBA, and with him already doing everything but full-contact practicing, it's looking more and more like when, not whether, Rose returns. Considering he's their closer, and the biggest struggle the Bulls have had is a lack of one, Rose will make a strength out of their biggest weakness.
Rose is not the only player the Bulls have been without for a large chunk of the season. Richard Hamilton missed 12 games as well, returning to action just recently, against the Wizards on December 29th.
Essentially adding their starting backcourt to an easier schedule bodes well for the Bulls.
On the other hand, Rose could suffer an unforeseen setback and not come back at all this year. The Bulls could trade off Richard Hamilton for nothing to avoid the luxury tax. Such a move could take the wind out of the Bulls' sails.
The Pacers have been without their leading scorer for 2011-12, Danny Granger. While his absence is certainly noteworthy, the emergence of Paul George, whose scoring is up to 16.3 points per game from 12.1, has helped to salve the loss.
Still, that doesn't mean that the addition of Granger won't be an asset. Playing Granger and Hill at the same time, along with David West, should make the Pacers offense more potent than it's been in the Frank Vogel era. With a defense that's already rated first in the NBA, they are doing fine. Any offensive addition is what they need.
Finally, the Bucks don't really have any intangibles working in their favor. The most that could be said is that the blowout over the Heat on December 29th could be one of those season-defining wins that fills a team with confidence and vaults them to better performances.
On the other hand, the Pistons beat the Heat by double digits the night before, and that didn't mean anything.
Furthermore, there's speculation about the permanence of Monta Ellis, Brandon Jennings or both. Constant trade rumors swirling about in regards to one of them, and the actual threat of a trade, could have a deleterious effect on the psyche of the team.
Another aspect of the intangibles is that the experience factor. In each of the last two seasons, the Bulls have not only closed out the season with the division's best record but with the NBA's best record. They know how to close games down the stretch.
The Pacers had a great close to the season in 2010-11 to make the playoffs as the eighth seed. Last year they finished with the East's third best record, behind only the Heat and the Bulls. They too know how to close games down the stretch.
The Bucks, meanwhile, lost seven of their last 10 last season, finishing in a spiral which landed them out of the playoffs, after they had been in contention for a spot. Maybe the'll figure it out this year, but they haven't shown they can.
Considering all the intangibles, in order of expected improvement, the Bulls are first, the Pacers second and the Bucks third.
Here's a table combining all the different criteria.
With the Bucks schedule getting more difficult, and with two contracts expiring, the Bucks are the most likely team to be a seller at the trade deadline, especially of one of their major players. They are the most unlikely to win the title, but stranger things have happened.
With the Pacers having Granger return at some point, and with having more positive experience at jockeying for playoff positioning, the Pacers should finish second. However, with their schedule over the remainder of the season being the toughest, it's by no means a lock.
Based on the fact that Rose is returning, that they have played into a tie with the other two teams in spite of the hardest schedule and the fact that they have the easiest remaining schedule, the smart money would be on the Bulls to win the division.