Headlines to Watch: Central Division
It's hard to believe now, but once upon a time the Central Division was a powerhouse. As recent as 2006 it sent all five of its teams to the playoffs, and in 2007 it featured the top three records in the East. But last year? Only two made it to the postseason, including the disappointing Cavs, who followed up their NBA Finals appearance by winning five fewer games than the season before and failing to score as many points as they gave up.
Can the Central regain its luster in 2008-09? Well, the Pistons are still the Pistons, which means their ticket to the postseason is already punched, and the Cavs are tagging along for the ride so long as LeBron James is around. The Bulls, Pacers and Bucks will still bring up the rear, but at least there's honest-to-goodness hope they're headed in the right direction after making a series of offseason moves. Let's take a look at the most compelling storylines.
In Detroit, the fans want to know, What does Joe Dumars have up his sleeve? After firing Flip Saunders and putting his entire team on the block, Dumars proceeded to sit on his hands all summer long. Okay, that's not entirely true -- he worked the phones hard but in the end couldn't find a partner to give him equal value for his starters.
But while Michael Curry may have inherited 95% of the roster that lost to the Celtics, that's not to say the roster will look the same come playoff time. Consider this: Rasheed Wallace will be a free agent next summer and Rip Hamilton is expected to opt-out. All together, that's roughly $24 million of All-Star-caliber expiring contracts.
Should Dumars get the sense either player will walk, or if he thinks his team is simply "good enough" and not "great," he could deal one or both at the deadline for another elite player. Rasheed's Detroit career began by being involved in a blockbuster at the deadline that put the Pistons over the hump; who's to say it won't end that way?
Detroit may not be the only buyer at the trade deadline. The Cavs pulled off a massive three-team, 11-player swap at last year, and they might be just as active this time around. Danny Ferry has $20 million of expiring contracts in Wally Szczerbiak and Eric Snow to throw around, and it's not completely unreasonable to think he can fetch an All-Star caliber talent in return. If that happens, and if Mo Williams adjusts to his role as LBJ's sidekick, The Cavs might finally catch Detroit.
The Bulls faced a problem every team would love to have this summer: who should they take with the first overall pick? They've lacked a bona fide low-post scoring threat for years and have a glut of guards; conventional wisdom dictates they'd take Michael Beasley over Derrick Rose, right?
Perhaps, but when's the last time conventional wisdom won a championship? You don't get the No. 1 very often (well, hopefully you don't, because that would mean you're losing a lot of games), so using it simply to fill a position of need is downright silly unless you honestly expect to have the same roster once you start winning again. In other words, Chicago has a crowded backcourt now, but will Larry Hughes and Kirk Hinrich still be around once this team becomes a serious contender? Probably not.
Nevertheless, everyone's a pundit these days, so regardless of the fact that Rose may have more long-term promise, everyone will be comparing him to Michael Beasley and asking the question, Did Chicago make the right choice?
Larry Bird continues to clean up the Pacers with his no tolerance policy, letting David Harrison walk and practically giving Shawne Williams to the Mavs. But not all of his moves are made with a player's rap sheet in mind: he also rolled the dice by dealing the perpetually injured Jermaine O'Neal for the perpetually injured T.J. Ford, picking up a serviceable center for both the future (Roy Hibbert) and interim (Rasho Nesterovic) for his efforts.
Let's face it, though, the Pacers are still playing for the future, and one question will dog them all season long: What's Danny Granger worth? If he makes the jump from "best player on a bad team" to "legitimate NBA star," should the Pacers lock him up with Andre Iguodala money? Or play hardball and risk he signs the qualifying offer? Bird has all season to think about that one.
Soon after hiring John Hammond to be their GM, the Bucks hit the reset button on their future, dealing supposed cornerstone Yi Jianlian for Richard Jefferson. You don't usually like to see a team with little to no chance of making the playoffs deal an up-and-comer for an already-arrived, but if Hammond didn't believe Jianlian was the answer, there was no use keeping him around.
One guy who won't be going anywhere is Andrew Bogut, not after signing a $60 million contract. Can the Bucks build around Bogut? Or will he be the mistake that haunts Hammonds his entire time in Milwaukee? While I doubt Bogut will ever make Bucks fans forget they could have had Chris Paul or Deron Williams, he is about as close as most players come to being an automatic double-double.
More Central Division Headlines:
Larry Bird Gets Parking Ticket, Trades Self to Purge Pacers of Troublemakers
Rasheed Wallace Visits Tim Donaghy in Prison, Laughs Profusely
Scott Skiles' Scowl Traced to Ill-Fitting Shoes
Nobody Can Remember What Team Damon Jones Plays For
Joakim Noah Says Something Silly, Media Overreacts