Once upon a time -- back when Derrick Rose was the NBA's MVP -- the Bulls had no peer in the Central Division.
En route to posting the league's best regular-season record in the 2010-11 campaign, the Bulls lost one divisional matchup, an overtime defeat to the plucky Pacers, who would become their first-round playoff opponent. Indiana only won one game in that series, but the physical nature of the young eighth seed set the tone for what's evolved into a bit of a regional rivalry.
The next season, the Bulls again cruised to the NBA's best record and went 13-1 in the Central during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, again dropping a lone contest to Indiana. After Rose was injured in the first game of the postseason, the Bulls lost to Philadelphia in the opening round, while the Pacers gave eventual champion Miami a battle in their second-round series.
With Rose out for an entire year last season, the Pacers, even with former All-Star and leading scorer Danny Granger mostly on the shelf, seized control of the division, going 13-3 in Central games and taking another step in the postseason by advancing to the conference finals, where they again lost to Miami, this time in a seven-game thriller. The Bulls, on the other hand, went 9-7 and dropped games against also-rans Milwaukee, Cleveland and Detroit for the first time in two seasons.
Indiana has unquestionably risen to the ranks of the league's elite teams and with a solid offseason, the Pacers have only bolstered their title hopes, a remarkable turnaround for the organization since falling from the NBA's upper echelon following a long rebuilding process in the wake of the infamous "Malice in the Palace." After a one-year hiatus, the Bulls are also poised to contend for a championship, now that Rose is set to rejoin the lineup, and after grudgingly relinquishing their hold on the Central crown -- the lone regular-season game the injured point guard sat on the bench for was on the road, at Indiana, which was no coincidence -- among their goals for the upcoming season is taking back control of the division.
But although the Bulls and Pacers are still the class of the Central, there's new competition on the prowl. The Bucks, a first-round victim of the Heat in April, may have already maneuvered themselves out of the Eastern Conference playoff race (though the last two or three seeds are certainly up for grabs) with their curious summer, but the Cavaliers and Pistons made some intriguing moves and on talent alone, have to be taken seriously.
In perhaps the final major transaction of the offseason, Milwaukee and Detroit exchanged young point guards Tuesday, with Brandon Knight and essentially filler going to the Bucks, and Brandon Jennings, in a sign-and-trade scenario (the now-former restricted free agent will reportedly sign a three-year, $24-million deal) now donning a Pistons uniform in the swap between divisional rivals.
Detroit previously signed longtime Hawks forward Josh Smith in free agency, forming a frontcourt with underrated, highly-skilled big man Greg Monroe and promising 19-year-old center Andre Drummond, a monster athlete. Whether or not the trio -- which doesn't feature much outside shooting -- blends well together, is a concern, but there's no questioning their size, length and overall talent. Although Jennings, who appeared to be left out in the cold -- after turning down a contract extension from Milwaukee, the southpaw (like Monroe and Smith, who might not be well-suited to playing small forward offensively) didn't receive an offer sheet from would-be suitors -- is criticized for his shoot-first tendencies and shot selection, the point guard has shown flashes of playmaking ability and with better finishers around him than with the Bucks, his ability to be more of a traditional floor general shouldn't be sold short just yet, particularly if new Pistons head coach Maurice Cheeks elects to push the pace to take advantage of his squad's athleticism.
Meanwhile, the acquisitions of shooting guards O.J. Mayo and Gary Neal, to go along with Knight and erstwhile Bucks veteran backup Luke Ridnour, gives Milwaukee a solid -- if not spectacular -- backcourt. Project first-round draft pick Giannis Antetokounmpo, a young Greek wing, is likely years away from contributing, but another Bucks retread, veteran Carlos Delfino will give new head coach Larry Drew some experience at small forward. Milwaukee's strength, like Detroit, is its young frontcourt, led by the defensive-minded Larry Sanders, the similarly promising John Henson and Ersan Ilyasova.
It doesn't make for an overwhelmingly talented bunch, but based on Knight making strides as a scoring point guard, Mayo asserting himself as a viable No. 1 option (as he did in the first half of last season in Dallas), Sanders taking another step in his offensive development and Henson building upon his summer-league progress, it's not completely crazy to think that the Bucks could again at least compete for the final playoff spot in the top-heavy East. Whether or not that makes sense -- given a total rebuilding effort seemed somewhat logical entering the summer and with a loaded 2014 draft class looming -- is another story.
Cleveland, on the other hand, has the potential to be a force in the upcoming season, as long as new head coach Mike Brown, in his second go-around with the Cavaliers, can figure out a working rotation.
Star point guard Kyrie Irving is a good place to start, if he can stay healthy. If the All-Star takes Brown's defensive lessons to heart, he could really round out his all-around game, which already features high-level playmaking and scoring, both off the dribble and from the outside.
After Irving, however, there's a collection of talented pieces that may or may not fit together. Joining Irving in the backcourt again will be one-dimensional scorer Dion Waiters, but veteran pick-up Jarrett Jack, one of the league's top sixth men last season should help, as he did in Golden State alongside Stephen Curry.
Former All-Star center Andrew Bynum was a polarizing signing, just because he's coming off a year away from game action, though his minimal contract guarantee lessens the Cavs' risk factor. The presence of Anderson Varejao, a high-energy veteran big man, softens any potential negatives Bynum brings to the table, and 2012 first-rounder Tyler Zeller is also still in the fold.
Canada native Tristan Thompson will likely compete at power forward with No. 1 overall pick and countryman Anthony Bennett. Earl Clark, a free-agent signing, can also play the position, though he's capable of playing on the wing, where athletic holdover Alonzo Gee, Russian sharpshooter Sergey Karasev and fellow rookie Carrick Felix could also see playing time.
The individual ability and upside of Cleveland's personnel is undeniable, but it's not definitive as to whether it will translate into a postseason berth or simply a lure for prodigal son LeBron James next summer. Regardless, the Cavs are expected to be competitive and due to Irving's continued development alone, they should be in the hunt to face the likes of the Bulls, Pacers, Heat or Nets in a first-round playoff matchup.
But the potential of Detroit and Cleveland aside (and Milwaukee's refusal to either tank the season or make a push to significantly improve) the Bulls and Pacers still comprise the race for Central supremacy, even if games against the field are no longer gimmes. The Bulls' biggest addition to an already well-rounded roster was veteran swingman Mike Dunleavy Jr., while Indiana opted to revamp its much-maligned bench -- former Bulls point guard C.J. Watson, ex-Knicks forward Chris Copeland and the most recent addition, veteran power forward Luis Scola -- not to mention Granger's return, which could send emerging shooting guard Lance Stephenson to the second unit.
Both teams are equipped with Top 10 coaches (Tom Thibodeau and Frank Vogel), size on the interior (Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson vs. Roy Hibbert, David West and Scola), depth on the wing (Luol Deng, Jimmy Butler and Dunleavy vs. Paul George, Granger and Stephenson) and blue-collar approaches, exemplified by their shared status as elite defensive and rebounding teams. Rose's return gives the Bulls an edge because of the superstar factor, but if the Pacers didn't fear him in his MVP season, then now, buoyed with confidence from their postseason success, they definitely won't.
[RELATED: Derrick Rose's confidence is nothing new]
Still, even if it's probable that the division is decided by the two established squads, with the offseason momentum gained by the rest of the Central, it might not be that way in the long run.