2011-12 Preview: Central Division

2. Indiana Pacers

Last Season: 37-45, 2nd Central

This Season: On any given night the Pacers can beat any team. After several years of basketball purgatory, it’s time to welcome the Indiana Pacers back to relevancy with the additions of David West and George Hill in the summer. The Pacers look like a team that is going to be a middle-tier Eastern Conference squad this year, fighting for the fourth seed with the likes of Atlanta, Orlando and New York.

The Pacers were able to hang with the top-ranked Bulls in their first round match-up in the playoffs. In the first two games in Chicago, the Pacers were in control of both games before the Bulls clamped down defensively in the second half. While the Pacers didn’t really have any chance of upsetting the Bulls to advance but they’re a damn good team. Head coach Frank Vogel shed the interim label after delivering on his guarantee to lead the Pacers to the playoffs. Remember their offensive showcase against the Denver Nuggets last year when they shot 20-21 in a quarter? That was when they had no post presence. Since then they have added David West. Scary.

The Pacers will climb the Eastern Conference standings, I promise you that. How high they’ll climb is dependent on a host of external factors. Will Dwight Howard stay in Orlando? Can Boston’s aging big three withstand the grind of back to back to back games? How good is Atlanta now that Jamal Crawford is a Trail Blazer? With Tyson Chandler, can the Knicks be taken seriously when they only have six rotation players?

This is the perfect season for the Pacers to gain membership into the Eastern Conference cool kids club. Their extremely young nucleus will be able to withstand the compressed schedule. The Pacers have had their roster ready for months now (adding West is gravy) while some teams in the east are still trying to fill out their rotation.

1. Chicago Bulls

Last Season: 62-20, 1st Central

This Season: For starters, the Bulls won’t win 62 games again this year, that’s for sure. Still, I don’t need to tell you why the Bulls will win this division again handily. After being dominated by the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, no one on the Bulls was wearing a “Central Division champions” t-shirt into training camp. Unlike last season, the Bulls won’t be sneaking up on anyone anymore.

Miami added Shane Battier and an in-shape Eddy Curry to bolster their defense. To counter, the Bulls signed Rip Hamilton. The reason the Bulls couldn’t beat the elite teams last year is simple: when push came to shove, everyone in the building knew who was going to make a play for them – Derrick Rose. Playing one on five becomes increasingly difficult in Rose’s second season as a one man show. We’ll see if signing Hamilton bandages that problem (Ronnie Brewer and Keith Bogans were both erratic offensive options last season).

The solution to the Bulls’ crunch time woes is someone they already have. When Carlos Boozer played alongside Deron Williams in Utah, he was a 20 PPG scorer. If Rose is able to make Boozer into more of a threat, a la the pick and roll, he’ll make things a lot easier for himself.

The Bulls are years ahead of schedule in terms of success. Keep in mind, Rose is still only 23. If Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah are able to stay healthy for the full 66 game season the Bulls will be just fine, especially in the Central Division where the idea of parity is practically non-existent.

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