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.

Five Things to Watch: Bulls try to snap skid against Spurs on CSN

Five Things to Watch: Bulls try to snap skid against Spurs on CSN

Watch as the Bulls take on the Spurs tonight on CSN and streaming live on CSNChicago.com, the only place where you can get the hometown call from Neil and Stacey.

Coverage begins at 8 p.m. with Bulls Pregame Live. Then stick around after the final buzzer to watch Bulls Postgame Live for highlights and analysis.

Click here to watch the game or download the NBC Sports App, your home for live streaming coverage of the Bulls.

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH

1. Attempting to end perfection. The Spurs have been absolutely electric outside of San Antonio this season, winning each of their first 13 road games to begin the year. That's the second longest streak in NBA history, and the Bulls have actually lost two of three at home. The Bulls will be home underdogs as the Spurs look to make it 14 in a row. The good news is the Bulls have defeated the Spurs at home each of the last two seasons.

2. Battle of the two-way studs. There's a real argument to be made that Thursday's matchup will tout the two best two-way players in the NBA. Kawhi Leonard, the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, is having his best offensive season to date, averaging 24.5 points on 46 percent shooting, 1.9 triples, and averaging nearly 91 percent from the free-throw line. Expect Jimmy Butler and Leonard to be on each other's rear most of the night in what should be one of the most fun 1-on-1 matchups in the NBA.

3. Questions at the point. For the Spurs, Tony Parker is questionable to play with a knee injury. If he can't go, it would be Nico Laprovittola and Patty Mills running the point. For the Bulls, Rajon Rondo is coming off a pair of ugly performances in Bulls' losses to the Mavericks and Pistons (and his suspension against the Blazers). Someone needs to step up at the point, and it could decide Thursday night's winner.

4. Pau returns to the UC. Though it didn't result in much success, Pau Gasol enjoyed two highly successful seasons in Chicago. The stat-stuffer was named an All-Star in both seasons, averaging 17.6 points, 11.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists in 150 games. He's now in San Antonio, filling Tim Duncan's role in the starting lineup. And though his numvers are down from a year ago, he's still capable of putting up numbers, especially against a Bulls' interior that has struggled of late.

5. Getting Doug McDermott back. Dougie McBuckets has been activated to the Bulls roster, and not a moment too soon. Since McDermott suffered a concussion on Nov. 12, the Bulls bench ranks 26th in 3-pointers per game (2.5) and 30th in 3-point field-goal percentage (23.5 percent). Getting McDermott back, even in a small role as he gets his legs under him, will be a major factor against a Spurs team whose offense continues to heat up in December.

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Bulls: Rajon Rondo calls incident with assistant coach 'part of the game'

Bulls: Rajon Rondo calls incident with assistant coach 'part of the game'

AUBURN HILLS, MICH—Rajon Rondo almost made it to the quarter mark of the season without incident, but his frustrations got the better of him in Dallas last weekend in a situation with Bulls assistant coach Jim Boylen.

He returned from his one-game suspension in a light mood, but didn’t take things lightly when addressing questions from the media after the Bulls’ 102-91 loss to Detroit.

Rondo admitted that he feels so strongly about things that he doesn’t let them go as easily as he should, which could have been the case with Boylen. Rondo threw a towel after an exchange with Boylen during the Bulls’ blowout loss to the Mavericks.

“That’s a good way to put it. Me as a player, a point guard, I have to handle a situation better,” Rondo said. “But when I feel a certain way, I’m gonna speak on it. My whole thing is always for the betterment of the team.

“If it comes off wrong or a certain way I’ll try to work on that. But for the most part I’m not a selfish individual, I try to do what’s best for the team, try to watch film with my teammates. That’s just part of the game, who I am.”

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When asked if he actually threw a towel at Boylen, Rondo quipped, “You gotta look at the film,” and tried to downplay the situation as best he could, noting the timing of the event in question.

He apologized to the coaching staff and his teammates and believes there won’t be lasting effects, although the Bulls are in the midst of a three-game losing streak.

“Hopefully it’ll be the last three-game losing streak,” Rondo said. “It’s about how you handle adversity. We usually handle it well as far as bouncing back.”

Calling the incident “part of the game,” Rondo didn’t want to address specifics but given his history of instances such as these in Boston, Dallas and Sacramento, this one makes it a little harder to shake the reputation of being difficult to deal with.

“I have a good relationship with my team and I take pride in being a great teammate,” Rondo said. “I think we’re still on the same page. When you lose, things get blown out of proportion. When you win, it covers everything up. So we have to get back to winning basketball.”

His teammates have been supportive both behind the scenes and publicly, and were happy to have him back despite not being able to quell the losing streak.

“It was good. That's our starting point guard. We need veteran guys on this team,” Bulls guard Dwyane Wade said. “We need our bodies. He's our leader today so when we got down early he was the one who kept talking to us defensively. He's so smart out there on the floor, takes certain things away, get out in open transition. The reason we got back in the game, he did a good job of leading us in those moments.”