You've heard most of the arguments for why the Bulls are 58-20. Derrick Rose is having an MVP-like season. Tom Thibodeau has a great defensive system that the team has bought into. Luol Deng has returned to his near All-Star level of play.
Here's one that's so obvious it goes unsaid: The Bulls play in the weakest division in the entire league.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are in turmoil after losing LeBron. The Detroit Pistons have problems of their own, with insubordination among Rodney Stuckey, Rip Hamilton and other unsatisfied players. Milwaukee couldn't even score 60 points against the Boston Celtics.
Which leaves the Indiana Pacers. As the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference with a few nice young players and a massive amount of cap room, this team is extraordinarily similar to last year's Bulls squad. So, if Indiana wants to make the jump from the eighth seed to the elite, they need to mimic what Chicago did last summer.
For the Bulls, it would obviously be nice if the Pacers got swept in the first round like the Bulls did in last year's postseason. That seems likely, considering Chicago won the season series and Rose will be out to get the Pacers after losing a tight game in Indianapolis.
Take what the Pacers have right now. Darren Collison at the point, Danny Granger at small forward and Roy Hibbert at center. They also have nice pieces like Tyler Hansbrough and Paul George. Sounds a lot like the Bulls, who had Rose, Deng and Joakim Noah, with a solid piece in Taj Gibson.
Well, the Pacers' five aforementioned players are good enough to be a starting five in the NBA (which, in fact, they are). It's not good enough to be a contender, though.
With Mike Dunleavy, T.J. Ford and Jeff Foster all coming off the books this offseason, Indiana has an opportunity to upgrade at several positions and add depth. Just like the Bulls did.
The problem is the lack of star free agents in 2011. Nene and Zach Randolph are two of the biggest names that could potentially relocate. Both would certainly improve the Pacers, though not enough to catapult them into contention.
The advantage Indiana has with the cap room could be in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, though. If a hard cap is imposed, teams may look to dump salary, which could net the Pacers a high-level player.
Either way, Larry Bird and the rest of the Pacers' front office need to be prudent through this summer to make the best long-term decision for their franchise. Overspending on a player like Randolph is detrimental to a small-market team like the Pacers. Large contracts are part of the reason they haven't made the playoffs since 2006.
I don't make it a habit to dissect the options of other teams, particularly those in the Bulls' division, but with a roommate from Indiana, these things come up. Indiana was once Chicago's biggest competition back in the Michael Jordan-Reggie Miller days. Then, when Jordan retired, the Pacers made it all the way to the Finals.
I'm not saying the Pacers are certainly going to rival the new-look Bulls. But keep an eye on Indiana during and after the playoffs. Their record doesn't tell the whole story since part of that was under Jim O'Brien, and they are in position to jump up the standings if all goes well in the summer.
In other words, the Central Division won't be quite the cakewalk it was this year.
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