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Ranking the NBA’s Central Division

The Central Division is loaded, with four of the five teams seeming poised for the playoffs next season.

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As far as the Eastern Conference goes, the Central Division is where a lot of the excitement will be next year. With two of the top three teams in the East last season coming from the Central and other up-and-coming teams in that division having made some nice additions in the offseason, it sure does look like four of the conference’s eight playoff seeds will come from these five teams.

All that said, here’s a look at how the teams in the Central Division stack up following the draft and big free agency moves. If you missed it yesterday, Basketball Insiders kicked off this series by ranking the Pacific Division teams.

#5 – Detroit Pistons (32-50 last year)

Key Additions: Stanley Johnson, Ersan Ilyasova, Marcus Morris, Aron Baynes

Key Subtractions: Greg Monroe

From the moment that Greg Monroe took the qualifying offer a year ago rather than agree to an extension, it seemed pretty clear that he was not planning on a long-term future in Detroit – even with the team jettisoning Josh Smith’s massive contract midway through last season to help clear up the frontcourt logjam. It didn’t work out well that Monroe ended up in the Central Division with another team, but Stan Van Gundy did a reasonable job restocking the frontcourt in the wake of Monroe’s departure.

Ilyasova is the likely starter at power forward alongside Andre Drummond, while Morris and Baynes are the kind of versatile bigs who should make Detroit’s frontcourt reasonably effective even if it doesn’t pack quite as much star power as a year ago.

Still, Drummond has the chops to be an All-Star if the Pistons are able to stay in the playoff hunt (and they should), while re-signing Reggie Jackson gives them the promising young point guard they’ve coveted for a while and makes the news that Brandon Jennings could miss the start of the season considerably less interesting. Also, Stanley Johnson looks like he’ll be an All-Rookie first-teamer with his combination of talent, maturity and swagger, while Kentavious Caldwell-Pope should make another step in the right direction this season as well.

There are promising young pieces on this roster, but the Central is an incredibly tough division in which to play. Considering all the youth and new faces, they seem like the most likely team to fall to the bottom of the conference next season.

#4 – Indiana Pacers (38-44 last year)

Key Additions: Monta Ellis, Myles Turner, Chase Budinger, Jordan Hill

Key Subtractions: Roy Hibbert, C.J. Watson. Luis Scola

First of all, getting Paul George back healthy is a massive addition for this team. The fact that Indiana flirted with .500 and making playoffs last year even though George missed almost the entire season is a credit to how hard those guys worked (and how bad the Eastern Conference was).

One thing to keep an eye on this upcoming season is Larry Bird’s desire to see George play more power forward. Trading away Hibbert and bringing aboard guys like Ellis and Budinger help to turn this team into a quick, small-ball group that outruns people and knocks down a ton of three-pointers.

It was an interesting (and fast) rebuild for the Pacers, who easily could have traded away Hibbert and gone toward gutting the team and starting over, but instead they’ve reloaded with respected veterans who should bring some stability to the team offensively, and Turner looks like he’ll be one of the better rookies from this class eventually. He’s huge, athletic and only scratching the surface of his potential. As always, the Pacers found a gem late in the lottery to slide in among a group of hard-working veterans with an eye toward getting back into the playoffs.

Assuming Ellis doesn’t cause issues with the locker room chemistry (and he shouldn’t), that goal isn’t an unreasonable one.

#3 – Milwaukee Bucks (41-41 last year)

Key Additions: Greg Monroe, Rashad Vaughn, Greivis Vasquez

Key Subtractions: Jared Dudley, Ersan Ilyasova

Had the Milwaukee Bucks done absolutely nothing except get Jabari Parker healthy after ACL surgery, the entire world would be talking about them as this year’s next big sleeper team. Adding Monroe, however, turns this roster into one of the most exciting (and longest) in the entire NBA.

It’s crazy to think that two years ago the 15-win Bucks were the joke of the league after having finished with the worst record in franchise history, and then a year ago they were involved in the Jason Kidd scandal, only to finish last season with a promising first-round loss to the Chicago Bulls despite not having Parker.

To add two players capable of scoring 20 points a game is a major coup for a good defensive team that simply had no identity offensively a year ago. With Michael Carter-Williams’ deficiencies on that end, they’ll need to find other ways to score, and Monroe, Parker and even rookie Rashad Vaughn should help with that. Khris Middleton isn’t a top option offensively, and Giannis Antetokounmpo still isn’t quite there yet, but he’s inching closer.

The arrow was pointing up for the Bucks by the end of last year, but the Monroe addition and the return of Parker makes them look like the conference’s most likely upstarts. They aren’t quite on par with the Bulls and Cavaliers, but it should only be another couple of years before they get there.

#2 – Chicago Bulls (50-32 last year)

Key Additions: Fred Hoiberg (head coach), Bobby Portis

Key Subtractions: None

It’s not often that you see a team bring back almost an identical team, but Chicago already had most of their important guys locked up for this season, and by re-signing Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy Jr. and Aaron Brooks, they essentially guaranteed that they’d return the same group as last year, even though that was a team that didn’t make it out of the second round of the playoffs.

That’s not entirely bad, however, as the Bulls were a team trying to work Derrick Rose back into shape in the playoffs and who were playing a grinding brand of basketball that, after five years under former head coach Tom Thibodeau, finally had taken its toll on the players.

There’s reason for optimism because this is still a very loaded team. A lot will depend on the health of the veterans, as Pau Gasol enters his twilight, Taj Gibson deals with ankle issues and Joakim Noah fights off a whole host of injuries, but Portis has looked great in summer league and Nikola Mirotic seems primed for a much bigger role in his sophomore campaign. In other words, the frontcourt is way too deep not to be fine.

New head coach Hoiberg should make the biggest difference though, as he’s a guy who should figure out how to get Rose and Butler playing exciting, symbiotic basketball together. And with sharpshooters like Mirotic, Dunleavy, Butler, Tony Snell and Doug McDermott on the team, there’s the potential for this group to shoot (and knock down) a ton of three-pointers.

Maybe the defense drops off a bit, but the Bulls should be energized by the new leadership, not only because Hoiberg will play his ailing veterans fewer minutes, but because sometimes a new boss makes life at work a whole lot more enjoyable. And everybody works better when they’re happy.

#1 – Cleveland Cavaliers (53-29 last year)

Key Additions: Mo Williams

Key Subtractions: None (yet)

So far, the Cavaliers have spent a ton of money keeping the band together after they made the NBA Finals this past June, and just by retaining LeBron James and Kevin Love they’ve kept themselves among the upper echelon of the division and the conference, especially considering Kyrie Irving will be a whole lot healthier by the start of next season as well.

The only problem with the Cavaliers is that they really haven’t done a whole lot in terms of making additions to their team this offseason, which wouldn’t typically be necessary when you’ve got James, Love and Irving on the roster, but the reality is that there are some concerns that those three guys just aren’t enough to beat Golden State or San Antonio in next year’s Finals.

Re-signing Iman Shumpert was well-done, even if the contract was criticized by some, and getting Mo Williams to jump aboard on the cheap was a nice move for them as well. Still, J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson (who is restricted) – two of the team’s biggest contributors in this past postseason – do not have contracts, and their losses would hurt Cleveland’s depth when they don’t have a whole lot of depth in the first place.

Getting those two players re-signed would a big help in keeping them in the conversation for next season’s best team, but even with all the work they’ve done, they still have more to do.

Keep your eyes peeled for the rest of Basketball Insiders’ “Ranking the Division” series, which will run through the next week. The Pacific Division got done yesterday, and the rest are soon to come!

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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