NOT MILWAUKEE (BUT CLOSE), Nov. 21, 2006 What in the wide, wide world of sports has happened to the Central Division: "Quite possibly the toughest division" in the NBA?



"Who was dumb enough to call the Central Division, 'The best division in the NBA?' And why?"

Actually, I said: "quite possibly the toughest division" in the NBA. Note the qualifier. And after all five teams made the playoffs last season (albeit, the Bucks made it last season as a sub-.500 team), a feat no other division matched, crawling out on that proverbial limb seemed to be a safe thing to do.

Yet, here we are, three weeks into the season and that limb sways violently in a division rocked by the winds of change. One Central team, the 7-3 Cavs, has played above average basketball so far. The rest of the division is a combined 16-24 a .400 winning percentage. (Compare: The Pacific has a combined winning percentage of .604, while the Southwest has .596 winning percentage.) That's hardly worthy of such lofty, but measured, praise.

No team epitomizes the division's sudden reversal of fortune like the Chicago Bulls.

Creators of a 42-point shellacking of the defending champion Miami Heat on the season's opening night, the Bulls picked by some (Who, me?) to win the Central Division looked primed to be a force.

Behold the danger of judging a team after one game. The Bulls have gone 2-7 since then. Not only that, the Bulls have been evicted from their own building for seven games by elephants. Yes, the Bulls have taken their own three-ring circus on the road to make way for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

True to their recent tradition, the Bulls haven't played well during their circus trip, starting 0-4. Considering they are 4-36 out from under the big top since the 2000-01 season, the Bulls slow start shouldn't be surprising.

But with the addition of defender extraordinaire, Ben Wallace, Chicago hoped to avoid the slow starts that have plagued them since You Know Who stopped wearing the red and black. Mission not accomplished.

Surprisingly it's the defense that has failed the Bulls so far. Scott Skiles, who has forged some tough-as-steel defensive units the past couple seasons, believes the new mix of players has been slow to congeal.

"Signing Ben, historically a low-foul player, we thought we'd be a great defensive team," Skiles told the Chicago Sun-Times. "At this point, we had plans to be moving on, mixing up our defenses and getting into other areas, which we haven't been able to do because we haven't mastered the fundamentals of what we're trying to do yet.''

That's not good news for a team that has to match up against the league's leading scorer, Carmelo Anthony, on Tuesday night.

Meanwhile, 90 miles to the north of the Windy City, my boys have also struggled to a 3-7 record. It won't help, either, that Charlie Villanueva will miss at least four weeks with a torn ligament in his elbow. In the interim, coach Terry Stotts has started Brian Skinner and Ersan Ilyasova, who passed up a potential game-winning three in Milwaukee's lost to Indiana on Saturday in Charlie V's place.

"We were all holding our breath," Rick Carlisle told the Wisconsin State Journal. "It looked like Ilyasova had a shot and turned it down."

(Um ... aaaaaaaaaaaargh!)

Regardless of Villanueva's injury, the Bucks have had trouble stopping people. Opponents are shooting .486 against the Bucks. Only the Sonics are worse. The Bucks are also 25th in the NBA in defending the three (opponents are shooting .379). In their most recent setback, the Bucks allowed the Pacers to fight back from a 15-point deficit as Indiana hit a season-high 11 threes. It was the Bucks' third consecutive loss at home.

"It's crazy losing all these games at home," Ruben Patterson told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "It's still early, but you can't do that."

Nope, you can't do that. Neither the Bulls nor the Bucks can afford to fall further behind James' Cavs or the improving Pistons, who are now 5-5 after scoring impressive wins over the Rockets and the Wizards.

"I think when you win so much, you forget what got you there," Richard Hamilton told Detroit News after the Pistons' win over Houston. "Our biggest thing, no matter who is on the floor, we've got to play hard.

"Sometimes you can be out there feeling (good about) yourself a little too much and you forget that it was the grinding and getting to loose balls and helping each other out on defense that got you a world championship."

For the Pistons, a couple of floor burns may do the trick. For the Bucks and the Bulls, they need to leave a lot more on the floor to get the high rate of return many, including myself, were expecting of them.


We do, but this week we're going to hold off. We're headed back to Wisconsin for the holidays (see the dateline above).

We'll get to your missives next week, including the tongue lashing I got from a Badger.

In the meantime, got something smart to say? Mail us!