Central Casting

For the past few years, the Central Division has been almost an afterthought for the Wine and Gold. With the Larry O’Brien Trophy as the ultimate prize, the Cavaliers have simply had bigger fish to fry.

Before the 2008-09 season, Cleveland hadn’t taken the Central in 33 years – longer than many fans have been alive. And the Cavaliers didn’t just win the Division – they ran away with it, winning the Central by a whopping 25 games two years ago and by a 15-game spread last season.

But this offseason, the Central got a good shake-up. And although the true beasts of the East are in the Southwest and the Atlantic Divisions, the Cavaliers’ Midwest set is still a black-and-blue division.

As the new-look Cavaliers begin trickling into the Cleveland Clinic Courts to prepare for the pending Training Camp, here’s a look at the Central competition …

Chicago Bulls – No team in the Central made a bigger offseason splash than the Wine and Gold’s first round playoff opponent last spring.

The club that went 41-41 in each of the last two seasons finally looks poised to make the big leap. In the free agent market, the Bulls raided the Jazz – inking Carlos Boozer and Kyle Korver (and acquiring Ronnie Brewer just to complete the trifecta). Boozer gives the Bulls a scoring post presence they’ve been lacking. Korver – who set an NBA record for three-point marksmanship last year – is there to make teams pay for trying to double-him. (Boozer [13.2 rpg] and Joakim Noah [13.0] were also the league’s top two rebounders from a year ago.)

Chicago was already a solid defensive team, but they still brought in former Celtics assistant and supposed defensive guru, Tom Thibodeau.

These new additions – plus incumbents, Derrick Rose, Noah and Luol Deng – could make Chicago the team to beat in the Central Division. They’ve got the players and the playoff experience that they’d been missing. Now, it’s a matter of their rookie coach getting them over the top.

Players lost: F Hakim Warrick, C Brad Miller, G Acie Law, G Kirk Hinrich
Players added: F Carlos Boozer, G Kyle Korver, C Omer Asik, G Ronnie Brewer, F/C Kurt Thomas, G Keith Bogans
This year’s meetings: vs. Dec. 8, @ Jan. 1, @ Jan. 22, vs. April 8

Milwaukee Bucks – The Bulls weren’t the only Central squad to beef up their roster over the summer. Last year’s feel-good story from the East made some big moves, looking to build upon their inspiring playoff campaign.

Before Scott Skiles arrival, the Bucks were little more than venison for the rest of the Conference. But the combination of Skiles and precocious rookie, Brandon Jennings, signaled a turnaround in Suds City. And over the offseason, Senator Kohl loosened the purse strings to allow the Bucks to take the next step.

In short order, Milwaukee signed Drew Gooden and re-signed John Salmons. To shore up their backcourt, the Bucks brought in Keyon Dooling and Earl Boykins. And to improve their scoring and athleticism, they traded for Corey Maggette and Chris Douglas-Roberts. In this year’s Draft, Milwaukee landed versatile big man, VCU’s Larry Sanders, and Oklahoma’s Tiny Gallon.

Milwaukee already boasts a strong young nucleus of talent in Andrew Bogut, Jennings, Luc Mbah a Moute and Ersan Ilyasova. And just to prove how the Bucks have re-stocked their talent pool, it can fairly be said that anything that former All-Star, Michael Redd gives them this year will be considered gravy.

Players lost: G Luke Ridnour, G Royal Ivey, F/C Kurt Thomas, G Charlie Bell, C Dan Gadzuric, F Darnell Jackson
Players added: F Drew Gooden, G Keyon Dooling, G John Salmons, G Earl Boykins, F/C Larry Sanders, G Darington Hobson, F Tiny Gallon, F Corey Maggette, F/G Chris Douglas-Roberts
This year’s meetings: vs. Nov 24, vs. Jan. 21, @ March 9, @ April 9

Detroit Pistons – The big, bad Pistons – who once owned the Central Division – are currently a shadow of their former selves, despite having three major players from their glory days (Tayshaun Prince, Rip Hamilton and Ben Wallace) still in the fold.

Former Cavalier assistant and current Pistons coach John Kuester has his work cut out for him – stuck with a roster loaded with the aforementioned aging vets (add Tracy McGrady to that list), underperforming and cap-consuming former free agents (Charlie Villanueva, Ben Gordon) and unproven youngsters (Rodney Stuckey, Will Bynum, Jonas Jerebko, Austin Daye). Last year, the Pistons lost 50 games for the first time in almost a decade.

After nabbing a nice piece in Georgetown’s Greg Monroe in this year’s Draft, the summer held more bad news for the Pistons. They’re still mired in ownership issues (even Magic Johnson has talked about getting into the mix) and just recently, the organization was floored by the tragic death of long-time PR man, Matt Dobek.

Joe Dumars is looking to recapture the Midas touch from Detroit’s glory days and Coach Kuester will look to meld a diverse group into a winning team. If not, it could be another long season in the Motor City.

Players lost: C Kwame Brown
Players added: C Greg Monroe, G Terrico White, G Tracy McGrady
This year’s meetings: @ Dec. 5, vs. Feb. 9, vs. March 25, @ April 11

Indiana Pacers – One of the more intriguing teams in the division, the Pacers are likely less concerned what happens this year than what will happen when it’s over. That’s when they’ll have an opportunity to see what $33 million in cap space can acquire.

But they do have relatively high hopes for the 2010-11 campaign, especially after making a four-team deal that provides Indy their best point guard option – Darren Collison – in over a decade. The deal, which sent Troy Murphy to the Nets, brought in the dynamic Collison – who averaged 18.8 points and 9.1 assists in 37 starts while filling in for Chris Paul – to the Hoosier state.

To make the deal, the Pacers had to usurp James Posey’s contract (for a player, it’s never good when you’re referred to as a contract). But they still maintained their cap flexibility. Danny Granger and Roy Hibbert are keepers and 2010 Draft choice – Paul George – could surprise some people this year.

The Pacers are a team in flux, but could still make some noise in the Central this season. But “wait ‘til next year” aren’t the dirty words in Indy that they might be for other franchises.

Players lost: G Luther Head, F Troy Murphy
Players added: G Darren Collison, F James Posey, F Paul George, G Lance Stephenson
This year’s meetings: vs. Nov. 13, @ Nov. 23, @ Dec. 17, vs. Feb. 2