VIDEO: New Beast of the East
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Any reasonable conversation about the balance of power in the NBA starts with the world champion San Antonio Spurs, the rest of the rugged Western Conference and spreads from there.
But no region of the NBA has seen the sort of influx of talent and energy that the Eastern Conference’s Central Division has this summer. From LeBron James coming home to team up with Kyrie Irving in Cleveland to Pau Gasol joining Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah in Chicago to the top two picks in the June Draft — Andrew Wiggins in Cleveland, for now, and Jabari Parker in Milwaukee — things have changed dramatically.
The Indiana Pacers won the Central Division and finished with the best record in the East last season, but they have garnered more attention this summer for a player (Lance Stephenson to Charlotte) that they lost in free agency than they did for anything else they have done. They’ve been usurped, in the eyes of many, by both the Cavaliers and Bulls, before the summer/free agent business has been finalized.
If the Cavaliers can find a way to secure Kevin Love via trade from Minnesota, they will not only enter the season as the favorites to win the Central and the East, they’ll rank right up there with the Spurs as the favorites to win it all. (And had Carmelo Anthony chosen the Bulls over remaining with the New York Knicks, the Bulls would be in that mix as well.)
You have to wonder what Stan Van Gundy, the new team president and coach in Detroit, and Jason Kidd, who takes over as coach in Milwaukee, are thinking now. A rebuilding task in Detroit, whatever gains are made during the 2014-15 season, will likely be overshadowed by what goes on elsewhere in the division. Kidd’s shocking move from Brooklyn to the Bucks, and the ensuing fallout, lasted a couple of days before taking a backseat to all things LeBron and Love.
“It’s hard to rank them right now, before we know exactly what happens with Love and Cleveland. But I don’t think it takes any stretching of the imagination to assume there will be no more competitive division in the league than the [Central], and that’s based on just those top three teams alone,” a Western Conference advance scout made clear to me. “The Cavs, Bulls and Pacers are all going to be legitimate contenders. And I think the Pistons, with Stan running things, could be one of the more improved teams in the entire league. And there’s a chance no one will notice because of what the Cavs, Bulls and Pacers are doing.”
The most intriguing part of the entire transformation of the division is going to be watching if the Pacers, a fragile bunch by the time their season finished in the Eastern Conference finals against LeBron and the Heat, can get back on track with the increased competition. Frank Vogel and his crew took advantage of the opportunity to step into the void when Rose and the Bulls slipped from their top spot the past two seasons. Tom Thibodeau kept the Bulls among the East’s best without Rose available. Now he’ll have an energized Rose, whose confidence is soaring as he attempts to earn his spot on USA Basketball’s roster for next month’s World Cup in Spain, and the Windy City twin towers of Noah and Gasol to build around.
The key for the Bulls, of course, is a healthy Rose.
“I’m there. I’m not worried about that,” Rose told our John Schuhmann when asked how close he was to regaining his superstar form. “My confidence is very high. And that’s the only thing you might see this year, that my confidence level is through the roof.”
I don’t know that Rose’s confidence is enough to convince me that the Bulls are truly ready to reclaim that top spot in the division. And I’m not completely sure LeBron’s arrival in Cleveland means the Cavaliers push past the Pacers for that No. 1 spot. But it’s clear that the Central Division is where we could see the best power struggle in the league next season.
The July 2014 ranking of the Central Division (based on what each team has on the roster as of July 29, 2014):
1) Indiana — Paul George, David West, Roy Hibbert and the crew won’t give up the banner without a serious fight. They’ve learned from last season’s mistakes and won’t have to worry about whatever distraction Stephenson might have been. A clean slate for 2014-15 is exactly what this team needs.
2) Cleveland — Sorry Cleveland, but LeBron coming home doesn’t automatically make you the top dogs in the division or the conference. Not around here. The pressure isn’t just on LeBron, either. New coach David Blatt, Kyrie Irving and that supporting cast are all shouldering that load as well.
3) Chicago — Derrick Rose is feeling good. And that can’t be anything but a great thing for the Bulls. But we need more than good vibrations to push the Bulls up the food chain. If Rose lights it up in Vegas during USAB training camp and later in Spain, an updated evaluation will be in order.
4) Detroit — Greg Monroe‘s future with the Pistons remains a bit uncertain. But the rock for the future is Andre Drummond, who is also on the USAB roster, working to earn a spot on the World Cup team. Van Gundy’s system requires shooters, which the Pistons added in Jodie Meeks, and to an extent Caron Butler and D.J. Augustin. Josh Smith remains the wild card.
5) Milwaukee — It’ll be fun watching Parker’s game evolve under a young coach like Kidd. But the Bucks are still at least two years away from being a factor. They simply don’t have the personnel to compete with the top teams. And there is a learning curve the entire organization will have to undergo before the Bucks get back into the mix.