By Ben Fisher
From an Atlantic Division wherein a hierarchy appears firmly established, we move to a Central division thrown into flux thanks to the King’s abdication of his throne.
If Cleveland Cavaliers fans thought “The Decision” was bad, when former hometown hero LeBron James ripped their hearts out on national television, wait until they get a load of “The Fall-out”. As much as owner Dan Gilbert may be saying all the right things in terms of how the team will rebound from the loss of James, it’s hard to foresee a scenario in which it isn’t a long and arduous climb for the Cavs.
Sure, J.J. Hickson has shown promise, Byron Scott is a nice coaching addition and veterans Antawn Jamison and Mo Williams can still serve as reliable scorers even without the presence of the NBA’s premier superstar. But this is, at best, a fringe play-off team, much less the 60+ win juggernaut of the past two seasons which has outdistanced itself from the Central pack by an average of 20 games. It goes to show the power that one player can have in what is a superstar-driven league.
So who benefits from the sudden fall of the Cavs?
Looking at the rest of the division, the Chicago Bulls are the obvious choice to supplant Cleveland atop the Central. While the Cavs were losing a star, the Bulls were gaining one in free agent power forward Carlos Boozer. While a core group of Boozer, Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng is impressive, it was the players added to build around that group that have really helped Chicago appear formidable, at least on paper.
Their pillaging of the Utah Jazz started with Boozer and came to include Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer. They also added youth in former Warrior CJ Watson to go along with second-year talents James Johnson and Taj Gibson. If new head coach Tom Thibodeau can balance the demand for minutes and help the team gel, this team should be a constant inside-outside threat and rise comfortably to the top of the Central.
Or, perhaps, they could find themselves embroiled in a divisional struggle with one of last season’s surprises, the Milwaukee Bucks. In a summer rife with round-the-clock free agent speculation and rumours, the Bucks quietly went about their off-season by adding some intriguing, complementary pieces while not losing a significant contributor to last year’s 46-36 club.
Joining Brandon Jennings and the re-signed John Salmons are scorers Chris Douglas-Roberts and Corey Maggette, along with big man Drew Gooden. But bigger than any new face could be the return to health of an old one, as Andrew Bogut should be ready for training camp after months of rehabilitation following a gruesome elbow injury last season.
Bogut, Gooden, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and budding Ersan Ilyasova will get the bulk of the front court minutes, while Jennings, Salmons, Maggette, Douglas-Roberts and Carlos Delfino will claim plenty of back court minutes. Meanwhile, Scott Skiles, last season’s NBA Coach of the Year runner-up, is back to ensure there is no drop in intensity or on the defensive end from his charges.
After the Bulls and Bucks, it will ultimately fall to Cleveland to ensure there isn’t a steep drop-off, as neither the Indiana Pacers nor the Detroit Pistons appear positioned to muster much of a fight this season.
The Pacers appear to be slowly heading in the right direction, as evidenced by the addition of Darren Collison from New Orleans. Collison, Danny Granger, Roy Hibbert, Brandon Rush and first-round pick Paul George form a young core that may be primed to challenge for the division soon, but they aren’t ready yet. In the meantime, a 32-win team from last season that lost its second-leading scorer (Troy Murphy) could be in for another long season.
While the Pacers are young and improving, the Pistons are simply in disarray.
For one thing, they are still on the hook for a total of eight more years and $72 million for free agent busts Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva, neither of whom started 20 games or averaged 15.0 points last season. This off-season, they added the oft-injured and aging Tracy McGrady and drafted Greg Monroe, a big man with a questionable motor who doesn’t have a strong crop of mentors to choose from (put his locker far away from Villanueva!).
So if anyone will challenge Chicago for the division crown, it will have to be Milwaukee ensuring that other teams fear the deer. Poor Cleveland.