Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers Headline NBA's Toughest Division

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Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers Headline NBA's Toughest Division
Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports
Chicago and Indiana have some tough divisional opponents now.

Over the last few years, the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers have been the only playoff teams from the Central Division, but that will change in 2013-14.

All five teams have improved by either adding new faces or developing in-house talent.

The Milwaukee Bucks and Detroit Pistons each have a new look, with the latter boasting a huge frontcourt that includes their big free-agent acquisition Josh Smith and a new scoring point guard in Brandon Jennings.

Milwaukee has a new backcourt with Brandon Knight and O.J. Mayo, a combo that could be dangerous once they adjust and learn to play off one another.

Add Larry Sanders, an elite rim protector and potential Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and the Bucks have three talented pieces to lead their team.

Kyrie Irving leads a Cleveland Cavaliers team that made a low-risk, high-reward move by signing Andrew Bynum. He’s shown that when he’s healthy, he’s one of the league’s best centers.

Tristan Thompson is also turning into a good power forward, and Dion Waiters should improve as he enters his second year.

Indiana has improved its bench and remains one of the league's best defensive and rebounding teams. Paul George leads the way as a borderline superstar, improving scorer and top-notch defender.

Derrick Rose returns to the Bulls' starting lineup, and he's surrounded with arguably the best supporting cast he's had since being drafted.

The talent is there, but each team have to make it work. What makes the Central Division so tough?

 

Rim Protection and Defense

Ron Hoskins/Getty Images
Hibbert and Sanders will challenge anyone in the paint.

This group of Midwest teams has great bigs that can clog the paint.

Joakim Noah, Roy Hibbert and Larry Sanders are all Defensive Player of the Year candidates and will be among the league leaders in blocks like they were last season.

Detroit has second-year center Andre Drummond along with Greg Monroe and Josh Smith to protect the painted area.

Smith doubles as a solid perimeter defender who can use his size and length to defend small forwards and stretch 4s.

The Cavs will have Bynum and Anderson Varejao to limit opponents' points in the paint.

It's not just size for some of these teams, though.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Deng and Butler might be the league's best defensive duo.

Chicago has a great pair of perimeter defenders in Jimmy Butler and Luol Deng.

They each can defend the opposing team's best player, allowing them to switch on and off. They both use their length and quickness to mirror their assignments' moves.

Butler is great at reading the passing lanes, constantly breaking up passes that lead to easy transition baskets. Deng does a superb job of staying grounded and staying in front of his assignment at all times.

Indiana has a similar duo out on the perimeter.

Lance Stephenson is also proving to be a tough matchup and George is one of the NBA's premier defenders.

George has incredible length that allows him to strip the ball from attacking players and is quick enough to stay in front of his assignment.

Stephenson uses his bulky frame to body up ball-handlers and uses his quick step to cut off driving lanes.

Scoring on some of these teams could be hard, especially by the rim, and the couple that have outstanding perimeter defense will only make it harder.

 

Star Power

Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports
Irving and George help form the Central's group of stars.

Kyrie Irving is a rising star at the point guard position.

He’s a great one-on-one player with elite ball-handling skills. He can attack the rim and finish or step behind the arc and convert on three-point attempts at a good rate.

Josh Smith seems to get overlooked at times, but he’s one of the league's best two-way forwards.

He can take defenders off the dribble from anywhere on the floor and is also big and strong enough to play with his back to the basket.

While he can be a frustrating shooter, on nights when he's knocking down his jumper, there's no stopping him. He's also a great help defender and weak-side shot blocker.

Paul George is one of the league’s most dynamic and versatile forwards.

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Derrick Rose is the Central Division's biggest star.

His offense continues to improve and he’s one of the league’s best defensive wings. His size and length at the 3 make him a mismatch for most defenses and his ability to shoot the three make him virtually unstoppable.

Derrick Rose is at the forefront as he possesses a unique combination of size, speed and strength that make him one of the game's best finishers.

On any given night, Rose can explode for 30 to 40 points and he can get to the line on a fairly consistent basis.

There’s no shortage of talent in the Central Division, and any night a team faces off against any of the five teams, there will be one player that demands extra defensive attention.

 

Playoff Contention

Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports
Drummond and Smith will lead the way for Detroit.

Detroit has a good chance to grab a sixth or seventh seed. Their size will be a problem for a lot of teams, especially once they gel and space the floor well with all three bigs on the floor.

Jennings gives them another one-on-one option as well as a three-point threat.

Milwaukee could potentially grab the eighth seed. Knight will have to take the next step as a distributor and scorer, and Mayo will have to become a much more efficient scorer.

Their X-factor is Ersan Ilyasova.

He has to become a 20-point scorer and maintain his solid rebounding numbers. This would give the Bucks a defensive stopper in Sanders and a scorer in Ilyasova, giving them a well-balanced frontcourt.

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Cleveland will see improvement from Irving, who might make the leap from All-Star to superstar this season, and if Bynum can stay healthy, their two-man game could be a highly effective weapon, and even more so in the postseason.

If the Cavs can get good campaigns from Thompson, Waiters and get solid production from their No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett, the Cavs could challenge for a No. 6 seed.

Indiana and Chicago are the favorites to make some noise during May and possibly June.

Both teams have a chance to dethrone the Miami Heat and have both played against them in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Their size up front allows them to exploit the Heat's rebounding weakness and challenge LeBron James and Dwyane Wade drives to the hoop.

With Rose and George, the Bulls and Pacers have someone that can match one of Miami's stars scoring performances.

It has been a sudden turnaround for the Central Division.

After only two teams were over .500, there's now a possibility that all teams will finish at or over that mark and take part in some playoff basketball.

Chicago and Indiana will remain the top two teams, but the Bucks, Cavs and Pistons are no longer teams that can be taken lightly.

 

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