When Tom Thibodeau praises the competition, it's become natural (at least for reporters who regularly cover the Bulls head coach) to regard his plaudits as lip service.
But when he recently spoke to Bulls.com about the greatly improved Central Division -- excluding Indiana, which seized the divisional crown during Derrick Rose's season-long hiatus -- Thibodeau was on the money, as former also-rans Detroit and Cleveland, both of whom have made ambitious maneuvers through the summer, should certainly be taken seriously.
Trading for Brandon Jennings, signing free-agent hybrid forward Josh Smith and drafting shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (not to mention the continued development of young big men Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond) have some observers penciling in the Pistons as a lower-seed Eastern Conference playoff team, while the high-risk, high-reward signing of center Andrew Bynum, acquisition of veteran sixth man Jarrett Jack and promising forward Earl Clark in free agency, to go along with the No. 1 overall selection, UNLV product Anthony Bennett, puts the Cavaliers in a similar position.
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But when Thibodeau included the Bucks, who saw the talented, but incompatible backcourt of Monta Ellis and the aforementioned Jennings -- their leading scorers -- walk, it appeared as if the basketball purist was reaching. Not anymore, though, as Wisconsin native Caron Butler was brought into the fold this week.
The veteran small forward, traded from the Clippers to the Suns with youngster Eric Bledsoe in July in a three-way deal involving J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley, isn't the same player he was during his prime for the Wizards a versatile and rugged 20 point-per-game scorer for postseason qualifiers in Washington during the heyday of Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison.
But he's still a viable spot-up shooting option and for the retooled Bucks, he more importantly fills a void at small forward -- veteran Carlos Delfino is coming off a broken foot and is probably better suited to a backup role, while it would be heaping far too much responsibility upon raw 18-year-old Greek first-round draft pick Giannis Antetokounmpo to expect him to start as a rookie -- and with his renowned toughness and leadership qualities, Butler's biggest contributions could come in the locker room.
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Milwaukee, instead of opting to completely rebuild, added the likes of young scoring point guard Brandon Knight (in exchange for Jennings), free-agent pickup O.J. Mayo, shooter Gary Neal and center Zaza Pachulia -- not to mention new head coach Larry Drew -- to go with holdovers such as reserve floor general Luke Ridnour, stretch power forward Ersan Ilyasova, promising second-year big man John Henson and emerging shot-blocking force Larry Sanders, the recent recipient of a long-term contract extension earlier this month.
By no means is it a flashy roster -- the likely starters are Knight and Mayo in the backcourt, Butler and Ilyasova at the forwards and Sanders holding down the middle -- especially when compared to the improvements made by divisional foes Cleveland and Detroit, let alone legitimate title contenders in Chicago and Indianapolis. But while the Bucks' overall talent level might rank last in the Central, it's no stretch to imagine them seriously competing, along with the Cavs, Pistons and Wizards, for the bottom-three playoff spots in the top-heavy East.
Thus, although Thibodeau wasn't blowing smoke when he praised the Bucks prior to their acquisition of Butler, what once seemed like coach-speak could very well be prophetic, as no team in the Central, barring significant injury, should be a pushover, and it should surprise no one if all five teams in the division make a run at the postseason.
All because a prodigal son (Butler is from Racine, between Chicago and Milwaukee) came home.