The new beast of the East … the Central


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.

LeBron James' return to Cleveland looms over the entire Central Division. (David Liam Kyle/NBAE)

LeBron James’ return to Cleveland looms over the entire Central Division. (David Liam Kyle/NBAE)

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.


VIDEO: Relive the Bulls’ top 10 plays from 2013-14

38 Comments

  1. harrythehawk says:

    My only thought about this article is maybe, just maybe, I won’t need to call them the Leastern Conference anymore. But I’m still cautious…..

  2. Rose will, unfortunately, get hurt. His playing days are numbered. No way the Bulls win anything but their fans hearts. Cleveland, Indiana, Bulls, Pistons, Milwaukee. Maybe Cleveland Indy, Pistons, Bulls, Bucks.,

  3. Ryan says:

    Lance Stephenson may have been a “distraction,” but Larry Bird also called him the team’s best player. No way Indiana beats out Cleveland without Stephenson. The Cavs have too much talent.

  4. boom boom says:

    does anyone really think a championship is going to go to the East…..really? everyone should know that LBJ cant win without a supporting cast of gold medalists…hopeful for the bulls…but dont count out the raptors…..champions comming out of the west anyway…TRUTH

  5. Johnathan C says:

    Cavs and Pacers yall keep forgeting the cavs beat mvp d rose when lebron had no help at all so imagine the damage lebron will do with kyrie and all that young talent around him

    • George Y says:

      When did Cavs beat MVP DRose? Cavs were a (1) seed with 61 wins, Bulls were an (8) seed in 2010 that only won 41 games. Rose won the MVP in 2011 after Chicago was the (1) seed with 62 wins.

      Get your info correct.

  6. eX says:

    If u root for LBJ in Cleveland, u better buy his jersey with a lighter and some ash-tray

  7. Superstar says:

    Its’ close to call. No team is clear in front. A win difference may alter the standings in the East.
    When you have LBJ, its’ always an advantage. Looks to me CAVS – BULLS – INDY in that order

  8. RoyRanger says:

    The top teams in the east will have nothing to do with the atlantic division next year. Bulls, Cavs, Wizards, Heat, …maybe Pistons/Pacers. i doubt the nets/knicks or raptors will do anything incredible. and the other teams magic/bucks/celtics/76ers/hornets/hawks…are nothing to worry about.

    • DenH says:

      You seriously underrating hawks and raptors, raps are largely unchanged from the team that finished 3rd in east, hawks were gunning for 3rd before horford went down so expect them to be around 5-8 in east. Pistons another year away from playoffs especially with both j smoove and monroe on the team.

  9. OKC says:

    I know everyone is hyped on Cleveland… but honestly is Lebron and the rookie Wiggins going to be enough to lift a terrible defensive team to an elite defense? I don’t really think any team with a below 15th place defense can really be considered a contender (I did not consider Houston or Portland contenders last year, both of which had bottom 15 defenses).

    • joe frazier says:

      But the fact is that lebron an wuggins are elite defenders n varejo is as well when he is healthy so i can see them being top 5 defensive team if all 3 r healthy

  10. Daniel says:

    The Bulls aren’t only NOT number 3 in the central division and that is blasphemy to say such a thing. But they aren’t even number 3 in the conference. They’re number 3 in the league. Only San Antonio and OKC are ahead of them. The last time D Rose was healthy for a whole year the Bulls were number 1 in the East. That was with an undeveloped Joakim Noah, and Taj Gibson, and Kieth Bogan logging most of the minutes at the 2. They now have All Nba Team DPOY Noah, All Defensive 2nd Team Jimmy Butler, and a Taj Gibson that finished 2nd in Sixth Man Voting. Last season they were the 3rd best team in the East with D.J., who was nearly out of the league before the Bulls picked him up as their leading scorer. This team is easily the most talented in the league, and the most deep, and if we see 2011 Derrick Rose again (who can shoot threes) this team will be the 2015 NBA Champions.

    • The Truth says:

      I have to admit now that the Bulls amnestied Boozer, they just moved up a ton in my books.

    • Grantland says:

      Bulls fan. Last time we were number 1, we had a terrific bench. korver. asik. brewer. watson. now we don’t have that anymore. so skeptical we will be number 1 again, but its always good to hope. gasol and mirotic should provide a spark. lezz go bulls

    • Jimmy says:

      Bruh I’m a bulls fan but idk if they’re the 3rd best team in the LEAGUE. The clippers would destroy them with a healthy D-Rose :/ the bulls couldn’t even bring back D.J which should’ve been there first priority because of how he saved their season and Idc how healthy Derrick seems to be, he still is injury prone (so painful to say.) He played like 10 games last season AFTER we thought everything was okay.

  11. Unkle Daddy says:

    If Rose doesn’t come back 85-90% of the player he was before injury the Bulls won’t get past the semi-finals. Indiana won’t make it past the semi-finals. And really do the other teams matter at this point… Cleveland is the only team that grew talent wise by leaps and bounds.

  12. BullsNation says:

    Meanwhile, in the NBA.com powerrankings, the bulls are ranked 6th, the cavs 7th, and the pacers 13th.

  13. secouille smith says:

    nice too see the big injured names back to the competition,
    nice to see the other guy back in cleveland where he can finally earn some respect and a real ring

  14. No. 1? says:

    Pacers no.1? Sekou Smith is a big homer!

  15. talldave2 says:

    Last time Bosh played without James, he missed the playoffs on a 40-win team.

    Without Thibs, Deng is at best an average NBA small forward. He took Cleveland nowhere last year, and the Bulls were actually better without him. Wade is on his farewell contract. I’d be surprised if the Heat can break 50 wins.

  16. Reese27 says:

    I know you SW division supporters love your teams, but the only team that you can say for sure could compete with the Bulls in a 7 game series next season is San Antonio, because they are the champs. Dallas best player is Dirk, and he is a defensive liability these days because of his age, although Parsons will definitely upgrade their offense. Memphis is still trying to prove they belong… and my favorite team Houston, just screwed up big time. They lost three of their top six players!! If Harden is not on the floor, they have no consistent scorer now.. They will really miss Chandler Parson. I know I will. So dream on SW Division.. Just don’t wake up!!

    • Carlo says:

      Nowitzki always was a defensive liability, for he can’t defend. But now they got Chandler back.
      I think their biggest problem will be to make Parsons play right and not acting as a superstar after his overexpensive contract. He’s got lots of talents by I suspect humility is not one of them.

  17. lacolem1 says:

    Placing Indy at the top spot is insane. Who’s the primary playmaker now? Which Hibbert will show up? Will George’s “superstar” status on offense be based on more than just dunks and making a bunch of contested 3’s every few games?

  18. hilljr says:

    I wouldn’t put the Central Divison that far behind the Southwest…….Well at least the top 3 teams in the Central. Everybody seems to think Houston and Indiana will take steps back. While I beleve so about Houston (less talent no leadership), I think Inidiana will be just as good(especially when you consider everyone is writing them off.) The Central division, for all intents and purposes should have three of the top 4 records in the East and 3 of the top 5 seeds in the East (remember, every division winner is guaranteed a top 4 seed in each conference. So theoretically it’s possible for a team like Charlotte to win the Southeast and have a higher seed than Chicago, even though Chi will probably have a better record.

  19. Flexy says:

    I think its funny how Miami isn’t even an honorable mention in the East. So Lebron left, D Wade and Bosh are still there, and they have aquired great talent as well. I think the Heat will still make the post season, and will be the team to take out the Cavs. Hold me to this statement now because of the truth and boldness, but I wouldn’t count out Miami just yet. people seem to forget D-Wade did it himself before and I think now more than ever he has a point to make before his career ends. People also forget the beast Bosh was for the Raps before going over to Miami, I think the beast will emerge once again. Trust me even though the abbreviation for Miami is MIA, they will not be MIA from that top ranking seed run

  20. Skerge says:

    Warriors and HEAT!

  21. Redball4 says:

    From my perspective the most competitive Division in the NBA remains the Southwest Division. Four of the five — San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, and Memphis made the Playoffs last year in the much superior Western Conference. While Houston may be weaker in 2014-15, in part this was because of the loss of Asik to New Orleans — the fifth member of the Division. New Orleans with Anthony Davis as a centerpiece is also predicted by some to make the Playoffs in 2015.

    Thus, a good argument could be made that three or four of the Southwest Division teams will be better than any of the Central Division teams, but also that the level of competitiveness will be higher.

    • jimmy says:

      I agree that the Southwest is the best division by far. I think the only serious contender in the Central is the Bulls!

      • IndyFan says:

        I actually don’t think the Bulls are as good as they are made out to be. They have depth, but I think that they will lack chemistry together. With the health of Derrick Rose still a question mark, I don’t think they can be set in stone contenders until we see them in action. The Pacers, while they have lost Stephenson, have the experience of going to the conference finals two years in a row, and they have played well together. Also, Hibbert has worked with Kareem Abdul-Jabaar over the summer, and I think we will see a new and improved Roy Hibbert come time for the season to start.

  22. TheKush says:

    I think Indiana is over rated! Paul George wasn’t consistent last season and now he doesn’t have reliable help. Also I don’t like Indiana’s point guard situation. Lance used to get close to a triple double on many nights and what that showed me was he was the primary ball distributor. George hill is injury prone and inconsistent. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Cleveland on top because they have Kyrie, James, and good rebounders they’re big in the middle and Lebron is their leader.

    Will everything for the cavs click right away probably not but Lebron has been to the finals 5 TIMES! I wouldn’t overestimate him but I wouldn’t under estimate him either! Indiana is NOT the same team they were when they took LeBrons Miami cavaliers to 7 games – I see regression from this season moving forward for the Indiana Pacers – unless they can find a top level point guard. David West isn’t getting any younger! granger trade was horrible when you have team chemistry for championship level team that never won it yet you should never mess that up!

    • OKC says:

      anyone that places indy above cleveland and chicago next season is delusional. Indiana was falling apart at the seams in the playoffs and now they have lost lance too. On the flip side, cleveland has 4 number one draft picks and may trade for love. Chicago has made major offseason signings and rose is looking great in USAB. indy wont even scratch top 4 next year.

      • jimmy says:

        Yea there was to much dysfunction with cleveland and indiana last year. Bulls have a edge over both.