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One of the many positives going for Chicago is that the core of its team is returning intact.
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Central Division: Bulls still looking down from the top

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
Posted Nov 30 2011 12:52PM - Updated Dec 2 2011 9:31AM

The last time the NBA came out of a lockout, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and their supporting cast were essentially gone from Chicago and the Bulls plummeted from 62 victories and the franchise's sixth NBA championship to a doormat that won 13 games out of 50 and missed the playoffs for the next six years.

Don't expect a similar drop this time. The Bulls exit the lockout as 62-game winners again, but they might win 13 by the end of January. Unlike Jordan, the 1998 NBA MVP, Derrick Rose is back to defend his crown. So is Tom Thibodeau as the league's Coach of the Year (Phil Jackson was replaced by Tim Floyd after the 1998-99 lockout). A playoff berth is a must, with Rose, Thibodeau and the rest focused more on the big boys of the Eastern Conference -- Miami, Boston -- than their rivals scattered about the Great Lakes.

Once you got beyond Chicago last season, this division went from Park Avenue penthouse to Zuccotti Park tent city. The Pacers, Bucks, Pistons and Cavaliers combined for a .369 winning percentage, finishing a collective 207 games under .500. The Bulls won the Central by the league's widest gap, 25 games in the standings, although things cinched up nicely when the Pacers pushed back in the playoffs' first round.

Indiana has even higher hopes this season. Milwaukee would like to find the game and intangibles that helped it win 22 of 30 down the stretch in 2009-10. Detroit has new ownership and a new head coach, two reasons it might forget (if not forgive) last season's player insubordination. Then there's Cleveland, which has a prize rookie -- and a remarkably good chance at landing another one by the time 2011-12 is logged into the books.

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2010-11 record: 62-20

Finish: First in Central Division

Playoffs: Defeated Indiana in Eastern Conference first round (4-1), defeated Atlanta in Eastern Conference semifinals (4-2), lost to Miami in Eastern Conference finals (4-1)

Strengths: Derrick Rose, the youngest MVP in NBA history, presumably is getting better (and definitely getting wealthier via new "Derrick Rose" rule for contract extensions). And the Bulls have two other commodities that should prove valuable in this hurry-up, shortened season: Continuity and defense. Most of the players from their 62-victory squad will be back, so they won't face the "Hi! My Name Is..." learning curve of other teams. And offense is where teams struggled coming out of the 1998-99 lockout -- which will be right up the Bulls' and Thibodeau's alley.

Challenges: Chicago beat the odds in a couple of ways last season while compiling the NBA's best record. First, Rose didn't get broken on one of his risky drives to the hoop. Second, it got unexpectedly stellar backup work up front from Kurt Thomas and Taj Gibson, easing the injury absences of Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer. Change is needed on both fronts. Rose needs more help offensively and Noah and Boozer need to produce big, for their own reputations but more so for what the Bulls need. They were lackluster, and that won't be good enough again.

Outlook: With a schedule likely weighted toward in-division games, the Bulls would benefit from frequent clashes with their Central rivals. The focus in the East remains on Miami, Boston and perhaps New York now, so Thibodeau will still be able to pound the underdog drum. But they won't win 62.

This could make a difference: Finding that backcourt mate for Rose would be huge, though he might not be out there this month. Jason Richardson? Jamal Crawford? Arron Aflalo would be a terrific fit but he's a restricted free agent and the Nuggets could block.

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2010-11 record: 37-45

Finish: Second in Central Division

Playoffs: Lost to Chicago in Eastern Conference first round (4-1)

Strengths: A core of young talent took a major stride in the playoff series against Chicago, Indiana's first taste of the postseason in five years. It responded to then-interim coach Frank Vogel, who is back now with a strong staff of assistants (Brian Shaw, Jim Boylen, Dan Burke). They have added Indianapolis native point guard George Hill and are said to be interested in free agent power forward David West, a piece that was missing last spring. The Pacers' cap space also could facilitate a three-way trade.

Challenges: Indiana ranked 28th in assists and 25th in field-goal percentage, both attributable in part to former coach Jim O'Brien's devotion to 3-pointers. But they still need to move the ball more and not settle. Center Roy Hibbert was a preseason candidate for Most Improved Player based on his offseason in 2010 but wound up highly inconsistent and largely unchanged.

Outlook: The Pacers won't be happy slinking into the playoffs as a sub-.500 No. 8 seed this time. They're set up to take a giant step this season, at least into the 43-48 victory range. Point guard Darren Collison should be better with more familiarity with Vogel and with Hill as competition/sidekick. Oh, and Paul George is going to draw more Scottie Pippen comparisons this season -- he's a versatile gem and still only 21.

This could make a difference: This team needs a leader as much as it needs positional or strategic help on the floor. Danny Granger tried to show some of that at the end against Chicago and might do more this season, but it doesn't come naturally to him.

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2010-11 record: 35-47

Finish: Third in Central Division

Playoffs: N/A

Strengths: Brandon Jennings hit a plateau in his sophomore season, disrupted by a broken foot. We'll consider last year to be serious motivation now and, with the arrival of Beno Udrih, Jennings has a competent backup not unlike Luke Ridnour in 2009-10. Center Andrew Bogut has had an extra-long offseason to recover from additional elbow surgery; the big Aussie was never quite healthy last season after his ghastly April 2010 spill. Scott Skiles is one of the best in-game coaches and gets the Bucks to play defense (Top 3 in NBA).

Challenges: Stephen Jackson with the green light? That might be what it takes, if Milwaukee -- ranked last in points per game (91.9) and in offensive rating (101.6) -- is going to avoid undermining its defensive work. If Bogut is less than 100 percent or, crikey, gets hurt again, backup in the middle is a problem. Ersan Ilyasova was having a tricky time exiting his Turkish League contract but then, he has disappointed during his Bucks deal. Re-signing restricted free agent Luc Mbah a Moute seems a must, given his ability to guard three or four spots in Skiles' defense.

Outlook: Michael Redd's max contract has cleared the books, so that chapter -- and excuse -- is gone. Milwaukee needs offensive pop and it needs a Type A leader. Corey Maggette failed to provide enough of the former last year and, with John Salmons, seemed to weigh on team chemistry. Getting to .500 would be progress.

This could make a difference: Maybe Drew Gooden has something left, after his injury-marred lost season (35 games). It wasn't that long ago he was a 12-point, eight-rebound guy. Then again, maybe Milwaukee high school product (and free agent) Carl Landry could get it done.

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2010-11 record: 30-52

Finish: Fourth in Central Division

Playoffs: N/A

Strengths: Center Greg Monroe was a bright spot, with bigger things predicted this time. The No. 7 pick from Georgetown in 2010 was one of the steadiest rookie big men in a decade or longer. He logged 21 double-doubles, 10 of them after March 1, including -- in back-to-back April games -- 22 points and 14 rebounds against Washington and 20 and 10 against the Nets. Vet Tracy McGrady came with low expectations and, to his credit, surpassed them. Forward Austin Daye's offense ticked up with his playing time, though he still is a defensive liability.

Challenges: There are all sorts of embarrassments to make up for from last season. Hard to believe now that Rodney Stuckey is the guy basketball boss Joe Dumars voted on in shedding Chauncey Billups -- Stuckey fought with former coach John Kuester, got benched and has a star that has dimmed considerably. There was the player revolt, with Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince getting soiled by that episode. Shooter Ben Gordon's production was down (11.2 ppg) beyond a dip in minutes. And even though the Pistons aren't expected to use the amnesty clause, Hamilton and Charlie Villanueva should take it personally that numerous media outlets cite them as logical choices.

Outlook: Lawrence Frank has his hands full, after spending last season with a far more mature, adult, self-policed Boston team. The Pistons are heading for their third straight season missing the playoffs, something that last happened in the post-Bad Boys dip. Dumars might not be held accountable by new ownership but he owns this.

This could make a difference: Forward Jonas Jerebko, a hard-nosed 6-foot-10 Swede, missed last season with a ruptured Achilles tendon but he was a rookie surprise in 2009-10, averaging 9.3 points and 6.0 rebounds in about 28 minutes and making the all-Rookie second team. He's a restricted free agent and the Pistons are determined to match any offers.

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2010-11 record: 19-63

Finish: Fifth in Central Division

Playoffs: N/A

Strengths: Well, there's Anderson Varejao, who arguably is the thinking man's favorite among the returning Cavaliers. He's a defensive-minded energy guy whose greatest strengths, alas, are squandered on a lottery team. There's excitement about Omri Casspi, the newly acquired small forward from Sacramento. And there is depth at point guard, with No. 1 draft pick Kyrie Irving, veteran Baron Davis, Ramon Sessions and Daniel Gibson under contract at the moment.

Challenges: There has been so much tumult with this franchise, in terms of personnel changes and the elevator-shaft drop from title contender to bottom dweller. Big man Semi Erden broke his thumb in late November in a European Cup game. Antawn Jamison is another guy who is a luxury and a liability on a team of this caliber. And when you glimpse the stats -- 29th in FG percentage, 25th in scoring, 28th in blocks, 22nd in rebounding, 20th in assists -- you quickly realize the Cavs need to improve in too many areas all at once.

Outlook: Ted Stepien is not walking through that door, which means, there won't likely be any shortsighted trades for quick but modest improvement. The Cavaliers seem fine with losing for the long haul, the better to position themselves for Harrison Barnes, Anthony Davis or some other top rookie next summer.

This could make a difference: Davis, an alleged amnesty target, might be better off kept by the Cavs. They would have to turn around and pay someone, if shedding Davis' $14 million salary dropped their payroll by too much. And he could be helpful mentoring Irving, rather than force-feeding the rookie through what will be a tough enough pro transition.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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