We are just two weeks away from the start of the 2013-14 NBA season. It’s time to step up the preview coverage as preseason action and training camps help to build a clearer picture of how the upcoming season is likely to play out. The Central division already looks like the ‘beast of the East’ in terms of strength in top end talent and depth as well. The Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers are viewed as the main in-conference challengers to the Miami Heat, while the Cleveland Cavaliers and Detroit Pistons are both looking at returning as playoff contenders this season.
Picking the Bulls to win the division in the regular season doesn’t necessarily mean that they are being favored to enjoy more success in the playoffs than the Pacers. However, the consistent scoring that the returning Derrick Rose is expected to provide should ensure that the Bulls pick up a few more regular season wins. This is a team with a very strong starting line-up. Luol Deng is a great defender and strong secondary scoring threat. Joakim Noah has emerged as a serious player on the inside and will be the heart and soul of this team once again this year. Jimmy Butler emerged last season as well, while Carlos Boozer is obviously a strong veteran presence. Taj Gibson, Mike Dunleavy, Kirk Hinrich and Marquis Teague provide one of the NBA’s elite coaches in Tom Thibodeau a pretty decent supporting cast too. Ultimately this team’s success will come down to Rose and how strong he is in his return, and how well he meshes with a team that really came together and found great success last year.
The Pacers were just one win away from reaching the NBA finals last season. That’s pretty close and it’s worth mentioning that they definitely had their opportunities to beat the Miami Heat in those Eastern conference finals as well. They return pretty much the same starting line-up with All-Star forward Danny Granger hopefully returning after missing most of last season due to injury, and a stronger group of depth players. Head coach Frank Vogel is in the same class in Thibodeau as a defensive mind and motivator of a very tough, aggressive roster. Roy Hibbert, David West, Paul George, Lance Stephenson, Danny Granger and George Hill form one of the better six-men groups in the NBA. The George-Granger combination should make this a better scoring team. Add in Luis Scola and Chris Copeland and the front court has useful extra depth. The weakness is undoubtedly at point guard, but there are some promising signs that maybe Hill is ready to step up and at least perform solidly in a half court offense with some good scoring options.
Detroit might just be ready to re-emerge as a competitive franchise in 2013-14. The offseason additions of Brandon Jennings at point guard and Josh Smith on the front court should give this team more depth and better scoring options. Don’t under-estimate the importance of the return of shooting guard Chauncey Billups either. He may no longer be the elite scorer who was apart of the recent Pistons’ successful era, but he is a tough, dogged leader and that will be valuable. Detroit’s eyes should be on their front court where it is officially time for Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond to emerge as a powerful, physical tandem as well. The Pistons are still missing pieces in the long-term, but this is a team that should find enough chemistry to be pretty competitive this season at least.
The Cavaliers probably still are not a playoff team unfortunately. Kyrie Irving is fast emerging as one of the game’s superstars and should be a real draw for potential free agents next summer. He has some good back court support with Dion Waiters and veteran addition Jarrett Jack. Tristan Thompson, Anderson Varejao and Tyler Zeller are a pretty front court trio even if Andrew Bynum is once again prevented from getting involved in the action by injury. If Bynum does manage to play at any sort of level, then suddenly Cleveland looks like a legitimate playoff contender.
The Bucks are pretty close to the Cavaliers and Pistons in terms of depth, talent and potential. They could easily jump above both and claim another playoff berth. However, the transition in the guard spots to O.J. Mayo, Luke Ridnour and Brandon Knight is a bit of an unknown as of yet. Meanwhile, Larry Sanders is a defensive demon and Caron Butler is a good veteran pick up, but there are still more questions than answers on Milwaukee’s front court. This is a team that figures to finish in the borderline #8-11 spots once again in what is still a comparatively weak Eastern conference.