April 9, 2013; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving (2) drives to the basket against Indiana Pacers guard George Hill (3) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Indiana defeats Cleveland 99-94. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

An Early Look at the 2013-14 Central Division

With the Cleveland Cavaliers new draft picks and free agent signings, there is renewed enthusiasm and optimism for what the 2013-14 season holds for the team. Out of the playoffs since 2009 when LeBron James defected to the Miami Heat, general manager Chris Grant and team owner Dan Gilbert have worked hard to re-tool and put a competitive squad on the floor of the Quicken Loans Arena. There has been much discussion about the various new additions to the Cavs, but it is time to take a look at what and whom they will be up against in the Central Division this season.

Detroit Pistons

The Detroit Pistons aggressively completed a sign and trade with Milwaukee for highly regarded point guard Brandon Jennings. The team already sports an interesting front line of Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and newly signed free agent Josh Smith. To acquire Jennings, the Pistons sacrificed Brandon Knight; the 2011 eighth overall pick who wasn’t developing as quickly as the Pistons had hoped. Highly regarded small forward/shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope from the University of Georgia was the first selection in the 2012 draft for the Pistons. Caldwell-Pope will bring athleticism and scoring potential to the team. Rodney Stuckey, Chauncey Billups, Jonas Jerebko, Corey Maggette, Kyle Singler, Tony Mitchell and Charlie Villanueva round out the roster. The Pistons have talent and, even though they are a long shot, could be a dark horse if all the pieces come together under new coach Mo Cheeks.

Milwaukee Bucks

The Milwaukee Bucks will have an entirely new look in 2013-14, as the team literally cleaned house starting over from scratch. You will definitely need a program when taking in a Bucks game this season.  Gone are Monta Ellis, Brandon Jennings, J.J. Reddick, Drew Gooden, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Marquis Daniels, Gustavo Ayon, Samuel Dalembert, Mike Dunleavy and Joel Przybilla. Larry Sanders and last year’s first-round pick John Henson are the two lone holdovers from last seasons 38-44 team that sputtered into the final playoff slot in the Eastern Conference.

New faces include Brandon Knight, who came over in the sign and trade in the deal for Jennings. O.J. Mayo, Luke Ridenour, Zaza Pachulia, Carlos Delfino, Gary Neal, Khris Middleton, Viacheslav Kravtsov, Nate Wolters and Giannis Antetokounmpo are all new to the squad, so look for this team to finally get their act together under coach Larry Drew some time around mid-season.

Indiana Pacers

The Indiana Pacers entered the offseason invigorated by their long and successful foray into the Eastern Conference Finals last season. The Heat narrowly escaped being upset by the Pacers in seven hard-fought games. The Pacers definitely smelled blood the entire series and exuded a newfound confidence in themselves. The playoff experience and the boost to their mojo will go a long way in driving this team throughout the season. Indiana is the favorite to win the Central Division, at least until Derek Rose shows what he is capable of after sitting out all of last season after knee surgery. The Pacers roster returns nearly all of their weapons from last season, as well as drafting 6-7 small forward Solomon Hill in the first round. They also added Luis Scola and Chris Copeland to the mix, while losing Tyler Hansbrough to the Raptors via free agency and Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee to Phoenix for Scola. The Pacers, under coach Frank Vogel, should be considered armed and dangerous this season.

Chicago Bulls

The question on everybody’s mind is how will Derek Rose be affected by the knee surgery and subsequent year-plus of rehabilitation? Without Rose, they finished second to the Pacers in the Central Division, good enough for fifth place in the Eastern Conference playoffs. According to coach Tom Thibodeau, Rose was tireless and relentless in his rehab, putting in an enormous amount of work. The question is: How much of his former explosiveness was he able to retain? He wouldn’t be the first player to have had his career track shifted from superstar to contributor by a serious knee injury.

The Bulls did not need to make any marquee acquisitions, as they return a solid core group of players in Rose, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler, Carlos Boozer and Nazr Mohammed. They drafted 6-7 sharp-shooting small forward Tony Snell out of New Mexico with the 20th pick overall, and a “pick and pop” big man in Florida Gator Eric Murphy with the 49th selection. Additionally, they signed free agent Mike Dunleavy for extra offense, replacing shooting guard Rip Hamilton, who they bought out and waived.

The Central Division should be an interesting playground this season. The Cavs are well stocked with plenty of young talent plus Andrew Bynum in the middle. However, young talent can take time to develop potential fully, so patience is advisable while these young players get used to a new coach, a new system and new faces early on. Even if the Cavs do falter, I look for there to be a lot of growth in terms of maturity, experience and confidence in the coming season. With the 2014 draft comes the opportunity to improve with yet another talented prospect, so even the worse case scenario for the team can be a stepping stone in the right direction.

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