Free agency is now on day 12, and already we’ve seen moves that have changed the landscape throughout the league. Among the divisions that have improved the most, perhaps the Central Divison of the Eastern Conference has the arrow pointing up higher than anyone else’s.
The Cleveland Cavaliers just added Andrew Bynum, who should finally be healthy after missing all of last year with knee problems with the Philadelphia 76ers. Pairing him with Kyrie Irving for at least the next two years (and likely more if it works out) gives the Cavs a duo of All Stars who can easily carry a team into the playoffs. Especially when you consider how weak the bottom few seeds in the conference will be this upcoming season. And heck, if the notion out there that LeBron James could come back after this year ends up being true, this will be a truly dominant team.
In Motown, the Detroit Pistons also made a major acquisition with the signing of former-Atlanta Hawk Josh Smith. He’s going to give them a big — very big — three moving forward between him, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. If they can gel quickly, the Pistons will have be one of the most formidable rebounding and rim-defending teams in the league.
How much Smith will play the three or the four, depending upon how they want to work the rotation, is unknown at this point. But I imagine they’ll initially try to play all three of them at the same time a lot. That means whoever is playing at the two guard spots need to be consistent deep shooters to space the floor. If the Pistons can find that right lineup, over the next few seasons, they should become a relatively strong playoff contender.
Of course, there are two teams that are already at the top of the conference. The Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers will likely be at the top of the conference this upcoming year, and for many years to come. In fact, in the 2013-14 season, I wouldn’t be surprised if they take two of the top three seeds in the East, with the other obviously going to the defending champion Miami Heat.
The Pacers bring back a squad that took the Heat to seven games, and very nearly made the almost unfathomable upset. While it didn’t come to fruition, they have a budding superstar in Paul George as well as extremely effective bigs in David West and Roy Hibbert. If they can find some consistency in their guard play, they may have what it takes to make it to The Finals in any of the next few seasons.
As for Chicago, the Bulls and their fan base could not be more anxious to see Derrick Rose return. The 2011 MVP will obviously give them a huge boost and the deadly go-to offensive force they missed last year. The losses of Nate Robinson (though there is still a small window of opportunity) and Marco Bellinelli hurt their bench, but adding Mike Dunleavy and likely another player at some point will help. The toughest challenge for this team is being healthy come playoff time. If they can do that, the Bulls will be in contention to reach The Finals as well.
Now, there are four of the five teams in the Central Division. All of which could easily be in the playoffs next year, and certainly moving forward. The only team that I’m definitely unsure of is the Milwaukee Bucks. They don’t really seem to have a direction, at least not a good one.
High-scoring, but inefficient guard Monta Ellis appears to have zero interest in returning. It seems they may end up swapping Brandon Jennings for Jeff Teague, who is almost the same player, except for Teague’s better shot selection — which at the very least is a good thing as Jennings shot under 40 percent last year, a terrible effort.
They also have a couple bad contracts in Drew Gooden and Ersan Ilyasova‘s, though the latter is still a young player who could improve on last year. Yes, they did add O.J. Mayo, but he’s underachieved everywhere he’s been before. At the moment, they don’t look like a playoff team, but who knows? In a couple of years, maybe we’ll be saying something different.
To say the least, four out of five teams having the potential to make the playoffs with two as true NBA Finals contenders is impressive. And considering how young all of them are, we should only see improvement with time.