The I-90 Rivalry: Chicago Versus Cleveland is a Must-Drive for NBA Fans

By Lenn Robbins | @lennrobbins

It is a five and one-half hour drive from Cleveland to Chicago. There wasn’t much interest in NBA circles last season in making that trip.

Be advised: Traffic on I-90 is likely to be a lot heavier on at least four nights during the 2014-15 season.

Free agency, along with some unforeseeable events, has made the Central Division into the most intriguing in the league.

No potential matchup is more intriguing than the Cavs against the Bulls. Call it the I-90 Rivalry.

LeBron James returned home to Cleveland after a four-year, two-championship vacation in Miami – now, that’s a snowbird.

Derrick Rose, who has missed the bulk of the last two seasons recovering from knee surgery, has looked like the spectacular Rose of old in workouts with USA Basketball.

James may find himself surrounded by the kind of talent he enjoyed in Miami. Power forward Kevin Love could be traded to the Cavaliers. Kyrie Irving will be the best point guard James has played with.

It’s good to be the king.

That doesn’t guarantee Cleveland will go from a team that finished 16 games under .500 to division champ. It will take time for James to show the Cavs how to win. But the Cavs haven’t been this excited since they moved from Richfield to downtown Cleveland.

Chicago, which went 48-34 last season despite not having Rose and trading away Luol Deng, knows how to win. The Bulls got better in free agency by adding Pau Gasol, one of the league’s most skilled big men.

Gasol, Rose, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson will take no prisoners, especially under defensive-minded coach Tom Thibodeau. Cleveland’s toughest task might be learning how to play championship-caliber defense.

Defense, of course, has been Indiana’s calling card. The Pacers won the Central Division by eight games last season. They advanced to the Eastern Conference finals where Miami sent them packing - again.

But two stunning events in recent weeks have weakened, if not broken, the Pacers.

Brooklyn’s Lance Stephenson, who led the NBA in triple-doubles, spurned a lucrative offer to remain in Indianapolis and signed with the Charlotte Hornets.

There have been mixed opinions as to whether the loss of the volatile Stephenson hurt or helped the Pacers. But there is no questioning the impact of losing the emerging superstar Paul George.

George suffered a horrific broken leg during a Team USA scrimmage. For a team that was a boa constrictor on defense but struggled at times on offense, the losses of Stephenson and George will make it tough for Indianapolis to finish ahead of Chicago and Cleveland.

The Brooklyn Nets will play each of those teams four times, twice in Barclays Center. Brooklyn fans can see for themselves which team looks like the class of the division.

Detroit, which finished 29-53, did little to get better. The signings of Jodie Meeks (three years, $19 million), Caron Butler (two years, $9 million) and D.J. Augustin don’t make the Pistons measurably better.

And the relationship between Detroit and power forward Greg Monroe went from marriage counseling to divorce court. Monroe and Andre Drummond gave Detroit a formidable frontcourt. If they lose Monroe in a sign and trade, Detroit fans will have to lean on the Tigers, Red Wings and Lions once again.

Milwaukee, the worst team in the league last season, might win that dubious title for a second straight season. They drafted a potential star in Jabari Parker who, along with Giannis Antetokounmpo, gives the Bucks two young talents. They’ll have a young head coach in Jason Kidd, beginning his second season in the first chair and his first in Milwaukee. Milwaukee fans will have to lean on the Green Bay Packers, bratwurst and beer. There are worse fates. Detroit and Milwaukee have one thing in common: With all the attention that will be focused on Chicago and Cleveland, another year out of the playoffs will be just a blip.

Memo to Bulls and Cavs fans: Make sure the tank is full.

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