Friday, Sept. 24, 2010
By Aggrey Sam
A historic summer for the NBA has passed and for the Bulls, while they didn't acquire quite the star power many expected andor hoped for, optimism runs high, both within the organization and throughout the team's fan base. With the offseason coming to an end, the time to fully delve into the upcoming NBA season is here. Instead of a traditional season preview, issues both throughout the league and in Chicago will be probed daily here on CSNChicago.com up until the squad officially convenes for training camp toward the end of September.
17. How will the Central Division race play out?
Over the past few months, a lot has changed in the Central Division. Obviously the departure of LeBron James from Cleveland shook things up a bit, but offseason moves by the Bulls, Milwaukee and, to lesser degrees, even Indiana and Detroit, have also had some influence.
By acquiring Carlos Boozer and bringing in six other new additions, Chicago completely re-shaped its roster, while keeping the core of forwards Luol Deng and Taj Gibson, center Joakim Noah and All-Star point guard Derrick Rose intact. Add to that an expected emphasis on defense from new head coach Tom Thibodeau and it's easy to see why many observers expect the Bulls to be an upper-echelon Eastern Conference team.
But their neighbor to the north, the Bucks, also had a busy summer. After a surprising regular season that resulted in a playoff berth in which they took favored Atlanta to seven games in the first round, things were already looking up for Milwaukee. Australian center Andrew Bogut had a breakout season--albeit abbreviated, as a horrific season-ending injury sidelined him for the team's stretch run and postseason--and point guard Brandon Jennings was one of the league's top rookies, first gaining attention for a remarkable early-season 55-point outing, then gaining accolades, as he showed his game had some substance to go along with the flash.
Of course, the Bulls had something to do with Milwaukee's success. Not only was former Bulls head coach Scott Skiles responsible for the team's grittier mentality, but a trade-deadline deal that shipped former Bulls swingman John Salmons to the Bucks was a big reason for their success, as Salmons flourished in his role as a go-to scorer.
Milwaukee made Salmons an offseason priority, re-signing him in free agency, then making shrewd deals to acquire scoring swingman Corey Maggette, banger Jon Brockman and promising young wing Chris Douglas-Roberts from Golden State, Sacramento and New Jersey, respectively. Another wing player, Carlos Delfino, also re-signed with the team, well-traveled power forward Drew Gooden and veteran backup point guard Keyon Dooling were picked up in free agency, and high-upside power forward Larry Sanders--who subsequently justified his status as a potential rookie sleeper with his summer-league play in Las Vegas--was then selected in the draft (with a pick acquired from Chicago in the Salmons trade). With low-profile yet valuable role players like versatile forward Ersan Ilyasova and defensive stopper Luc Richard Mbah a Moute still in the fold, there's no reason the Bucks can't surpass what they achieved a season ago.
The Pacers, who seemingly still have yet to recover from the notorious "Malice in the Palace"--despite having no players on the roster who were active participants (longtime Pacer Jeff Foster took a peace-making approach) in the infamous brawl--were also active this summer.
A late-offseason four-team trade that netted Indiana young point guard Darren Collison and veteran small forward James Posey, with starting power forward Troy Murphy sent to New Jersey, was the source of optimism for fans in the Hoosier State. Collison, who had an outstanding rookie campaign in New Orleans with Chris Paul injured for much of the season, is regarded as the team's point guard of the future, a position at which Indiana has had much turnover in recent seasons. The team also drafted two promising youngsters in unheralded athletic swingman Paul George and scoring guard Lance Stephenson.
The loss of Murphy hurts--the organization hopes Tyler Hansborough, who showed signs of potential as a rookie, is fully recovered from a debilitating bout with vertigo last season--but along with center Roy Hibbert has improved every season he's been in the league. Although star forward Danny Granger appeared to regress last year, it's hoped that a humbling USA Basketball experience will result in a motivated, productive and better all-around season.
It's a been a steep decline in Detroit, as the former perennial-contending Pistons have been reduced to a shell of their former selves. Yes, Tayshaun Prince, Rip Hamilton and Ben Wallace are still on the team, but the latter two look to be on the downside of brilliant careers, while Prince has struggled with health issues.
The Pistons were mostly quiet in the offseason--with the exception of acquiring former All-Star Tracy McGrady in free agency. Regardless of whether "T-Mac" can recapture his past form, he joins a crowded wing rotation with the aforementioned Prince and Hamilton, along with former Bull Ben Gordon and the super-slender Austin Daye, who showed flashes of promise as a rookie.
Forward Charlie Villanueva, like Gordon, was regarded as a disappointment in his first year in Motown, after coming over as a free agent the previous summer. Villaneuva will share frontcourt minutes with Wallace, holdover Jason Maxiell, first-round pick Greg Monroe and Jonas Jerebko, who was one of the team's bright spots as a rookie. In the backcourt, Rodney Stuckey, Chicago native Will Bynum and sleeper second-round pick Terrico White provide some youth.
As for the reeling Cavaliers, James wasn't the only player to leave Cleveland, as veteran centers Shaquille O'Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas also left in free agency. That could turn into a bright spot, as minutes in the post are freed up for defensive specialist Anderson Varejao and highly-regarded youngster J.J. Hickson.
Perhaps the team's biggest offseason move was the acquisition of guard Ramon Sessions, which says it all about the state of affairs for the Cavs. Veteran scorers Antawn Jamison and Mo Williams are back, but this will clearly be a rebuilding season, with new head coach Byron Scott patrolling the sidelines and a new front office in place.
Central Division predicted finish:
1. Milwaukee: The Bucks' combination of experience, chemistry built over last season and savvy offseason moves make them the front-runner.
2. Chicago: It will take time to build chemistry and adapt to a new system, but that's not necessarily a bad thing, especially if Thibodeau's Bulls jell by the playoffs.
3. Indiana: If Granger is focused, Hibbert continues to make progress and Collison is truly the answer at point guard, things will be looking up.
4. Detroit: Figuring out a set rotation and solidifying post and point-guard play could be issues.
5. Cleveland: Little reason for optimism.
Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.coms Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.