The Central Division is comprised of a rough-and-tumble bunch defined more by its blue-collar mentality than it's true stars (Derrick Rose aside). Defense, key sixth-mans and relentless hustle are how teams win games in this grouping in the Eastern Conference.
After a chippy hard-fought battle between the top-seeded Chicago Bulls and the eight-seeded Indiana Pacers, a new rivalry has emerged. Can the two sides carry that momentum into this season or will the lockout washout the growing feud?
With rosters still unsettled and no glimpses at top rookies, seeding the Central Division is no doubt a futile enterprise. However, with the first two weeks already cancelled, non-negotiations related material is desperately needed.
Here is a list that can get the competitive juices flowing and distract from the lockout misery.
What? There is a worse team than the Cleveland Cavaliers and they are in the same division?
Perhaps. It depends more on Cleveland's two new rookies than it does on Milwaukee.
If Kyrie Irving and/or Tristan Thompson pan out, then expect the Bucks to occupy the undesirable division cellar. Cavs fans know how dark and lonely it can get down there.
A small-market team with little cap room and fewer trading pieces, the Bucks roster is probably somewhat settled after their blockbuster draft moves which landed them Stephen Jackson, Shaun Livingston and Beno Udrih for John Salmons, Corey Maggette and Chris Douglas-Roberts (left for Italy)—so essentially the same thing.
The biggest swap was Jackson for Maggette, two almost identical players who score a lot and create a lot of buzz, but take a ton of terrible shots and don't actually help you win.
Tobias Harris as the 19th pick could be a steal. He probably should have stayed in school and developed a bit more, but he does provide the Bucks with the scoring wing threat they've lacked.
The fundamental problem with Milwaukee—besides the fact that they are one of the NBA's lowest grossing teams and should/could be contracted—is that they have built their offense around Andrew Bogut and Brandon Jennings.
Bogut has missed huge portions of the last three years with various injuries while Brandon Jennings is streakier than Windex. He's great when he shines, but creates a royal mess when he's off.
Unless Bogut can stay out of street clothes and Jennings can find some consistency (actually a definite possibility), matching their 35-47 from last season may be tough.
The Pistons are a team that could fluctuate the most and could easily finish second in the division or last.
Individually, they have talent, but collectively they do not fit together as a team like the championship-caliber Piston rosters of the early 2000s did and remain in a state of transition.
The core issue is trying to find an identity. Do they want to keep their veterans or should they rebuild?
Last year's group had a completely un-Piston-like vibe to it with individuality trumping fundamental team basketball. Their demise has been quickening for a few years now even with their group of talented veterans because they haven't been able to figure out how to make the pieces fit.
Bringing in Coach Lawrence Frank will add some cohesion (after the standard adjustment period of course). Center Greg Monroe is the real deal at center and is primed for a monster year while Brandon Knight will look to establish himself as the point guard of the team from the get-go.
With veterans, Tayshaun Prince, Richard Hamilton, Ben Wallace and Charlie Villanueva along with Ben Gordon there is no shortage of talent, especially at guard. Depth at center behind Monroe (Wallace may face suspension for a DUI) is a major concern as is the ability to rebound the basketball.
They should definitely top last season's win total of 30, but don't expect much higher than 35.
After such a terribly disappointing year in Cleveland last season, things are looking up for owner Dan Gilbert.
With the additions of the No. 1 and 4 picks in the draft in Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson and Omri Casspi whom they acquired from Sacramento in a trade for J.J. Hickson, the Cavs have a talented, young and athletic core that will immediately improve the fortunes of the franchise.
Are the Cavs ready to really compete for a playoff spot? No, most likely not yet. However, with their new core of young guns coupled with wily vets Baron Davis and Antawn Jamison, the Cavaliers have a solid foundation.
In a weak draft, scouts are nonetheless especially high on Irving. If Cleveland has found their point guard of the future, everything else should fall into place.
Expect Alonzo Gee, Daniel Gibson and even Semih Erden to vie for major minutes and contribute as the Cavs spend much of the year trying to forging their style and identity.
With Erden, Thompson and Casspi, the Cavs finally have size and athleticism up front to go with Anderson Varejao. The question is whether these guys along with Irving and others can provide enough scoring?
Expect a lot more wins than a season ago. Even doubling their 19 victories is not out of the question.
Of all the teams in the division and even the whole Eastern Conference, the Pacers have the best chance to make the most noise and the biggest move up the rankings.
Going into the season, Indiana still needs to address the missing piece by finding a quality power forward who can take some of the scoring load off of Danny Granger. Otherwise, the Pacers have all the makings of a complete and fundamentally sound team.
Starting at center, the Pacers have 7'2'' Roy Hibbert, who after steadily and rapidly progressing each of his first three seasons has a chance to really assert himself as one of the best centers in the league. Look for him to win Most Improved Player of the year.
At small forward, you have NBA All-Star Danny Granger, who is a dangerous scorer from the wing and one of the league's most underrated players (and leaders).
At point guard, Darren Collison is a young explosive dual scoring and passing threat who in his second full year in the offense should have a solid command of the players and system coach Frank Vogel will run.
Complementing those three will be a mix of Paul George, another young Pacer brimming with potential and destined to have a monster season, George Hill, a proven veteran brought over from San Antonio to back up Collison/George and Tyler Hansbrough, a relentless energy player who provides the Pacers with a toughness and determination they had been lacking in years past.
The biggest question mark remains power forward. If the Pacers can land a guy like David West (Collison's former teammate) through free agency, his addition would immediately catapult the Pacers into the discussion of being a top-four team in the East.
If not, the question becomes, do the Pacers breakup the core group and trade Granger for a more proven scoring power forward, or do they rely on Hansbrough?
With a healthy David West, the Pacers are a 50-54 win team. Without him, the Pacers are still a playoff team and win 44-48 games.
The class of the Eastern Conference, the Chicago Bulls are a legitimate title contender with Derrick Rose alone. Throw in Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng and you have a lethal combination.
Like the Pacers, the Bulls are a complete team missing one key ingredient: a quality shooting guard. Unlike the Pacers, the Bulls have one of the top players in the game, which separates them from the rest of the Central Division.
While Deng and Rose shot the ball from deep much more often, a mix of Ronnie Brewer, Keith Bogans and Kyle Korver didn't get it done.
It was LeBron and D-Wade's ability to key in on and stop Rose and the Bulls' inability to spread the floor with shooters that led to their defeat in the conference finals.
Rookie Jimmy Butler should help in the shooting department, but look for the Bulls to look elsewhere as well.
Down low with both Noah and a hopefully healthier Boozer, the Bulls should be as dominant and balanced as ever. In the end, as long as MVP Derrick Rose is healthy, the Bulls should feel little pressure from any of its fellow division rivals.
While the others have their sites set on a potential low-seeded playoff berth, Chicago is focused on bringing another championship back to Chicago.
Expect another year of around 60 wins.