NBA's Central Divison no longer a pushover

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NBA's Central Divison no longer a pushover

One of the keys to the Bulls finishing with the NBAs best record last season was their dominance of division opponents. The Bulls went 15-1 against Central Division foes, the only loss coming late in the season at Indiana.

Unfortunately, things will be a lot tougher this season, as both the Pacers and Bucks appear to be much improved. Dont forget, Indiana gave the Bulls a battle in their first round playoff series last spring, and theyve made some significant improvements to their roster. Armed with some serious cap room, Pacers President Larry Bird signed former All-Star power forward David West to a two year contract, and hes trying to bring in former 6th man of the year Jamal Crawford, who was one of the Bulls targets early in free agency.

Bottom line, Indiana figures to be a much stronger team this season. Theyll have plenty of offense with Danny Granger, West, possibly Crawford, point guard Darren Collison, promising second year man Paul George and 72 center Roy Hibbert. The Pacers also have quality depth with Tyler Hansbrough, George and combo guard George Hill, who was acquired in a trade with San Antonio before the lockout. Hill averaged 11.6 points for the Spurs last season, and hes started 48 games over the last two years in place of the often-injured Tony Parker. Look for Indiana to make an upwards move in the Eastern Conference playoff field, possibly challenging for a 5th or 6th seed.

Ninety miles to the north in Milwaukee, Scott Skiles should also have a much-improved team this season. The Bucks made a good trade just before the draft in June, acquiring Stephen Jackson, Shaun Livingston and Beno Udrih in a three-team deal with Charlotte and Sacramento. Jackson will provide a veteran influence and consistent scoring from the wing, something the Bucks didnt always get from former Fenwick H.S. star Corey Maggette last season.

The Bucks were decimated by injuries a year ago, losing point guard Brandon Jennings, power forward Drew Gooden and center Andrew Bogut for long stretches of the season. Bogut was considered one of the best young centers in the league before that terrifying fall late in the 2009-2010 regular season. Now that hes had another year to rehab that gruesome elbow and wrist injury, he should be closer to his pre-injury form. Dont forget, Bogut averaged 16 points, 10 rebounds and 2.5 blocked shots in the season he was injured. And, Milwaukee added another shooter by signing free agent Mike Dunleavy, Jr. to a two-year contract.

The Pistons and Cavaliers dont look like playoff contenders, but Detroit will be better with Lawrence Frank running the show. Former coach John Kuester was extremely unpopular with the players, and everyone should benefit from a fresh start. There is talent on the roster with veterans like Tayshaun Prince, Ben Gordon, Rodney Stuckey and second year forward Greg Monroe, who came on strong late in his rookie year. The Pistons also added one of the top young guards available in the draft in Kentuckys Brandon Knight.

Clevelands roster is still a work in progress, but the Cavs did add the top player in the draft, Duke point guard Kyrie Irving. They are a long way from returning to playoff contention, but should be a lot more competitive.

So, how many wins can the Bulls come up with over a 66 game schedule? Im thinking somewhere in the 42-45 range, which should be good for a Top 3 seed in the East. What are your thoughts? Please post your comments in the section below.

Dont forget the Bulls start their pre-season schedule against Indiana Friday night. Well have the re-match against the Pacers on Comcast SportsNet Dec. 20th.

New teammates, new changes put Jimmy Butler at ease

New teammates, new changes put Jimmy Butler at ease

The earrings were gleaming from Jimmy Butler’s ears, as he was his usual-disarming self with a playful smile and wink during his question-and-answer session with the Chicago media.

At a point, he took a deep breath as he looked around the Advocate Center with some of his new teammates walking around, some of whom had to carry nameplates because they weren’t recognizable faces in this new setting.

And because new faces are in town, it means two things: some faces left town and for Butler’s sake, the new ones will only know him as “Jimmy Butler, All-Star”, not the guy who was a late first-round pick, not the player who couldn’t get off the bench.

Butler didn’t bring up his comfort level, but when asked, he didn’t deny things appear to be a bit easier this time around.

“Does it make me feel more comfortable? I mean, to an extent, yeah, because then you can never say how you may have think that I’ve changed,” Butler said.

Butler’s ascension rubbed some the wrong way last season, and it’s been spoken about ad nauseam, whether it was true or not. But the moment of honesty wasn’t so much a shot at Derrick Rose or Joakim Noah, who departed for the Knicks in various forms; however it was an admission to his level of security, one that perhaps can lead to a more peaceful existence with all the core pieces.

The one way he’s always lead and will always speak to, is by example and work ethic. It’s one that turned him into an All-Star and Olympian.

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“I think everybody that’s on this roster now just knows how hard that I’ve worked to get to this spot that I’m at,” Butler said. “They’ve seen it. They’ve witnessed it. All they’ve been around for me is this point of my career. I don’t know if it sounds bad. But I think that all these guys look at, ‘If Jimmy works like that and if I work like that, I’ll be in the same position that he’s in.’ I’ll be more than happy to let you have that position because I think hard work can get you anywhere that you want to get to.”

So with that, Butler volunteered himself to Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg, to be the sacrificial lamb of wrath if need be. Easy to say if he doesn’t actually believe Hoiberg is capable of going from nice guy to madman at a moment’s notice but Butler laid it out for the record.

“I told Fred, ‘As much as you can, use me as an example. I want you to really get on my tail about every little thing.’,” Butler said. “Because if Doug or Tony or whoever it may be is watching coach talk to me like that, it’s going to be like, ‘If he can talk to Jimmy like that, I know he’s going to come at me a certain way.’ That’s what I try to remind him every day. I think he’s ready for that. I’m a player. I’m coachable like everybody else. I want that. I need that.”

The additions of Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo add championship receipts to a locker room that needs it, considering the Bulls want to play their young pieces. Wade and Rondo, the Bulls privately believe, will help Butler deal with everything that comes with a new role of leadership — and by proxy, Butler’s relationship and expectations of Hoiberg.

“He was put in a position last year he wasn't familiar with and I think we'll see growth from it,” Bulls general manager Gar Forman said. “The great thing about Jimmy is you know he comes in each and every day and gives 100 percent. He gets better every year and I think we'll continue to see that growth in his game and him as a person. I think that experience with USA basketball was real positive for him.”

Whether the trio lives up to the “Three Alphas” nickname remains to be seen, but after having a locker room with too many low-pitched voices, perhaps the change in pace — any change in pace — will be a welcome one for Butler.

“The Alpha thing, I think we’ll be just fine. Everybody is going to have something to say,” he said. “As long as everybody is listening and is willing to take some criticism if you’re doing something wrong, just like if you’re doing something right I’m going to tell you, there’s good and bad in everything you do. At the end of the day, as long as we win games, it won’t matter.”

Bulls' Jimmy Butler wants tough coaching from Fred Hoiberg this season

Bulls' Jimmy Butler wants tough coaching from Fred Hoiberg this season

 

Much was made of the Jimmy Butler-Fred Hoiberg dynamic last year.

As the duo head into Year 2 together with a very different Bulls roster, Jimmy Butler was very clear about one thing he wants out of his coach this season.

“I told Fred, ‘As much as you can, use me as an example,’” Butler said during the team’s media day on Monday. “I want you to really get on my tail about every little thing because if Doug (McDermott) or Tony (Snell) or whoever it may be, if watching coach talk to me like that he’s going to be like ‘If he can talk to Jimmy like that I know he’s going to come at me a certain way.’ So that’s what I try to remind him everyday. I think he’s ready for that. I’m a player. I’m coachable like everybody else, but I want that. I need that.”

Butler’s show of confidence in his coach didn’t stop at his belief that Hoiberg could follow through on Butler’s desire to be coached hard. The All-Star believes Hoiberg has improved as a coach heading into his second year on the job.

“It was his first year last year and I think he studied himself and us and the way we were up and down in so many areas of the game last year,” Butler said. “He’s trying to correct it. That’s just like anybody going into the offseason. He didn’t just not work. He studied and got better at what he needed to get better at. I think he’s ready moving forward.”