NBA season preview: Central Division

Cavaliers coach Mike Brown spent three years on Gregg Popovich's staff in San Antonio, more than long enough, it seems, to expand his coaching vernacular with a few choice selections from that of his former boss.

Asked recently to assess his team's outlook for the season, Brown said he liked Cleveland's chances. Said Brown: "We have corporate knowledge."

Popovich long has preached the value of corporate knowledge, a decorative description for the more common term "experience."

Neither Brown's Cavaliers, nor the Bulls or Pistons, will be lacking experience this season, corporate or otherwise. All three teams – provided Cleveland eventually re-signs contract holdouts Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic – retain the core of their playoff-tested rosters.

As a result, the race for the Central Division – the Eastern Conference's toughest – figures to be just as tight as last season when only four games separated the three teams in the standings.

Here's the predicted order of finish for the Central:


1. Chicago Bulls

Allow us to introduce: Joakim Noah and Joe Smith.

Dearly departed: P.J. Brown, Malik Allen and Michael Sweetney.

Is that confetti in your hair? The Bulls return 10 players from one of the Eastern Conference's deepest teams, and while you still can call them young, they no longer are inexperienced. With Luol Deng poised for his first All-Star selection after averaging 22.2 points and 8.7 rebounds in last season's playoffs, Chicago could reach the NBA finals for the first time since Michael Jordan left town a decade ago.

How's Cancun in June? Drafting Noah and signing Smith strengthened the frontcourt. Tyrus Thomas' role also should expand. But the Bulls still lack a dependable low-post scorer, and they won't get much help in that area from 33-year-old Ben Wallace, whose production on both ends of the floor declined last season.

In the crosshairs: Deng. Kirk Hinrich. Ben Gordon. Take your pick. Until the Lakers ship Kobe Bryant somewhere other than the Windy City, all three Bulls had better get used to hearing their names in various Hollywood trade reports.


2. Detroit Pistons

Allow us to introduce: Rodney Stuckey, Jarvis Hayes and Arron Afflalo.

Dearly departed: Chris Webber, Carlos Delfino and Dale Davis.

Is that confetti in your hair? The Pistons have made five consecutive trips to the Eastern Conference finals, and it's too early to rule out a sixth. While Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess are on the backside of their careers – Chauncey Billups also has more than a little mileage on his own odometer – Detroit's front office has done a good job of adding young legs to the roster. If the Pistons can get quality minutes from Jason Maxiell, Amir Johnson and Hayes, they again will be a force come May.

How's Cancun in June? With McDyess moving into the starting lineup, Maxiell, Nazr Mohammed and Johnson will provide the depth up front. That isn't much insurance if Wallace or McDyess get hurt.

In the crosshairs: Flip Saunders came under fire after Detroit's collapse against Cleveland in the conference finals, and he likely will feel more of the same if the team gets off to a slow start. Patching any holes in his relationship with Wallace would be a good first step.


3. Cleveland Cavaliers

Allow us to introduce: Devin Brown and Cedric Simmons.

Dearly departed: David Wesley and Scot Pollard.

Is that confetti in your hair? The Cavaliers had a lot to celebrate last season after reaching the NBA finals for the first time. And, at least according to LeBron James, a lot more incentive to work this summer. After shooting just 35.6 percent during the Spurs' sweep, James quickly headed back to the gym. The result? He arrived at training camp in the best shape of his career and armed with a jump shot that appears steadier than ever.

How's Cancun in June? While James recently said this has the makings of his best season, he'll need some help if the same is going to hold true for the Cavaliers. Cleveland didn't do much to upgrade at point guard, and Eric Snow's current injury situation isn't helping matters. Even worse, forward Varejao and guard Pavlovic – both key members of the team's playoff rotation – still were contract holdouts at the start of the week. If both players return, the Cavaliers should be back in the mix for the division title and a return trip to the NBA finals. If not? James' patience will be tested.

In the crosshairs: The Cavaliers handed Larry Hughes a five-year, $60 million contract in the summer of 2005 in hopes he would prove a worthy complement to James. He since has battled injuries (no surprise there given his history in Washington) as well as an errant jump shot. Cleveland only can hope Hughes' work this summer with former sharpshooter Mark Price pays off.


4. Indiana Pacers

Allow us to introduce: Travis Diener, Kareem Rush, Stephen Graham and Andre Owens.

Dearly departed: Darrell Armstrong, Keith McLeod, Maceo Baston and Orien Greene.

Is that confetti in your hair? Don't tell the Pacers they're rebuilding. At least don't tell Indiana president Larry Bird that. Bird hasn't traded Jermaine O'Neal yet, and he's optimistic that new coach Jim O'Brien's up-tempo offense – along with improved contributions from last season's newcomers Ike Diogu, Troy Murphy and Mike Dunleavy – will put Indiana back in the playoff hunt.

How's Cancun in June? The coaching change had better help because Diener was the only semi-notable player Indiana added to last season's lottery roster.

In the crosshairs: O'Neal now says he wants to stay in Indiana. Provided the Pacers aren't rebuilding. Which, he claims, they aren't. For that to hold true, O'Neal will need to stay on the court. In the previous three seasons, he has played 44, 51 and 69 games.


5. Milwaukee Bucks

Allow us to introduce: Yi Jianlian, Desmond Mason, Royal Ivey, Michael Ruffin and Jake Voskuhl.

Dearly departed: Earl Boykins, Ersan Ilyasova, Brian Skinner, Ruben Patterson, Damir Markota and Lynn Greer.

Is that confetti in your hair? Looking for reasons why the Bucks didn't make the playoffs? Here are 154. Michael Redd missed 29 games. Charlie Villanueva sat out 43. Bobby Simmons never stepped on the court. So Milwaukee's first offseason objective was simple: Get healthy. With Mason returning and Yi on board, the Bucks won't be lacking for talent. Or points.

How's Cancun in June? Milwaukee hasn't been a good defensive team for nearly two decades, and, on paper, this group doesn't look capable of changing that trend. Even though the early results this preseason have been promising, the Bucks still have a lot of work left on that end of the floor if they're serious about reaching the playoffs.

In the crosshairs: After spending the summer of 2006 with Australia's national team, Andrew Bogut admitted to wearing down by the end of last season. He now claims to be healthy and rested, which has the Bucks hoping they'll see a stronger, more energetic post player this season.