Crystal Ballin': Central Division

Chauncey Billups

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On Wednesday, we looked at the most compelling storylines in the Central, but what does it all mean? How will it all come together? Let's make some educated guesses, shall we?

First up, I'm

going out on a limb

playing it completely safe by saying Detroit wins the division. No, Joe Dumars didn't shake up the roster like he said he'd try to do, but let's not ignore that this is essentially the same team that won 59 games last season, second-most in the league and fourth-most in franchise history. To suggest they no longer have the firepower to win at least one more game than the Cavs, who won just 45 games last year, is ludicrous.

But while I take for granted that Detroit will win their seventh division title in eight years, I'm still not sure what their roster will look come playoff time. Will Dumars move Rasheed Wallace at the deadline? Only time will tell, but I asked Natalie Sitto of Need4Sheed what she thought. So Natalie, is this Sheed's last year in Detroit?

My money is on yes. Forget the "Rasheed has worn out his welcome in Detroit" statement that people have been tossing around for two seasons, it should play out one of two ways.

  • If Detroit starts off slow you can bet Rasheed will be the first piece of the core to be offered up or packaged before the trade deadline. Sheed has an expiring 13 million dollar contract that teams salivate for to alleviate cap room, not to mention the help he can give a team that's in contention come playoff time.
  • Dumars keeps Sheed for another run at the title. Not only does he have him on court to jack up threes, play down low or spread the defense, he's great sideline help for the up and comers like Amir Johnson and Jason Maxiell.

I would be shocked if Dumars gives him another contract if he's still with Detroit come June, but anything can happen in the NBA. For goodness sake Brian Scalabrine has a ring.

Am I being too hard on Cleveland by etching into stone Detroit's division crown? After all, it's not like they've been completely sitting on their hands. Not only did they shake up their roster at the deadline last year, they also have $20 million worth of expiring contracts (Wally Szczerbiak and Eric Snow) to make another deal this year.

Plus, they were active this summer, acquiring a new starting point from the Bucks. Can Mo Williams help the Cavs make up the 14-game gulf that separated them from the Pistons last year? I decided to ask BrewHoop proprietor Frank Madden, who's watched the ups and downs of Williams' career with the Bucks:

He could be the missing piece that helps the Cavs finally dethrone the Pistons in the Central--I've been going back and forth on this lately--but I also don't think he's shown the pedigree to suggest the Cavs are now running with the Celtics and Lakers. I'm not going to use the "he's not a winner" excuse because the guy is still only 25 and he's never had an ideal situation in Milwaukee: poor coaching, another scorer next to him in the backcourt, and a roster full of poor defenders who couldn't hide his own defensive shortcomings. Still, the Bucks were consistent underachievers and won only 30, 28, and 26 games in Mo's three years as the starting PG, so he clearly has to adapt his game a bit if he's going to be more than a stats guy. Could the Cavs win 55-60 games this year? Sure, it's possible. But that's banking on Mo not being the same Mo we saw in Milwaukee.

Either way, the Cavs are always the ultimate wild card with LeBron--watching him carry a team full of scrubs every postseason seems like a rite of spring at this point--and Mo's explosive scoring should only heighten that. His ability to start raining jumpers on any given night means that LBJ has a little more margin for error offensively, and the guys playing next to Mo should better mask his defensive inadequacies as well. On paper it sounds pretty good. Heck, Mike Brown could even rest LeBron for a few minutes at a time come April and May.

Then again, given the way Chauncey Billups has owned Mo the past few years, LeBron might not want to rest too long.

Williams is hardly a pure point guard (in all fairness, no one is anymore), prompting some to question how he'll fit in next to LeBron James, to which I'll point out: dude, Michael Redd got this points, relax. I think Williams will be a welcome addition in Cleveland, but it won't be enough for a division crown.

So what about Mo's former team? Will they manage to escape the basement for the first time in five years? That's a tall order, but at least there's hope they're going in the right direction. New GM John Hammonds, who was Joe Dumars' right-hand man in Detroit, wasted little time putting his stamp on this team, shipping out Mo and Yi Jianlian, giving Andrew Bogut a huge extension and hiring a no-nonsense coach in Scott Skiles to bring it all together.

Scott Skiles

Is Skiles the right man for the job? I figured no one would know better than a Bulls fan, who watched Skiles the last four and a half years. I asked Ryan Corazza of MOUTHPIECE Blog what Bucks fans need to know about Skiles:

1) He preaches defense and will get the most out of his players ... until they all quit on him a few years later.

2) He once fought Shaq.

3) Don't, under any circumstances, ask for his picture.

Thanks for the tip, I'll keep the camera phone holstered. Ryan's first point is interesting, though. Looking at Skiles' track record, he has a history of experiencing initial success before losing his team. He won 51 games with the Suns in 2000-01 before getting fired midway through the next season with a losing record (25-26). In his first year coaching the Bulls in 2003-04 he won just 19 games before posting the third-best record in the East the following season. By his fifth year, though, his players had all but tuned him out as he won just nine of his first 25 games before gettign canned.

What's the lesson for Bucks' fans? This is the guy who can turn around a roster, but maybe not the best guy to maintain success. Fortunately for him, the Bucks have a long way to go before they get fat off their success. I'm still expecting a fifth-place finish, but they'll be playing the right way by the end of the season.

As for the Pacers, they're stuck in that gray area of "not good enough to get into the playoffs" and "too good to win the lottery." It was time to deal Jermaine O'Neal -- he's too expensive and too unreliable to be the cornerstone to this rebuilding project -- but T.J. Ford is hardly the missing piece.

That said, if Ford stays healthy, Mike Dunleavy keeps it up, Danny Granger takes the next step and someone else emerges from the woodwork (Marquis Daniels? Brandon Rush? Roy Hibbert? Jarret Jack?), this team just might challenge for the eight-seed ... at which point they'll be eliminated in the first round and denied a lottery pick. The Pacers are squealing their tires. There's just enough reason not to complete hate on them but there's no real reason to get excited about the future. They're just ... there.

Derrick Rose

After drafting hometown hero Derrick Rose with the first overall pick, there's no lack of optimism for the future in Chicago, especially after Rose's dominant performance against the Mavs this week that had Matt from Blog-a-Bull dabbling in hyperbole:

Derrick Rose is already the best player on the roster. He was getting to the paint at will, finishing over shotblockers and opening up shooting opportunities for teammates. Had 30 points and 7 assists in 37 minutes, and eventually had the Mavericks gameplanning to stop him. He showed both confidence and poise.

[...] It was almost at the point where I viewed the team as Rose, and everybody else. Either you're helping Rose, or you're taking away a shot that could be his, dropping an assist that should be his, or handling the ball when it should be his.

It's an admittedly exaggerated way to look at the team, but it's not that far off.

It seems the basketball gods agree that Rose should be a starter: Larry Hughes was stuck down with a dislocated shoulder that will keep him out of action for at least the next six to eight weeks, if not longer. There are still questions as to how the rest of Chicago's backcourt will shake out (Kirk Hinrich may start over Ben Gordon? Really?) but the goal of this season sould be to get Rose as many minutes as possible to expedite his development. Point guard is the most difficult position for a young player to learn, but if Rose can get his feet on the ground this year, he'll be able to hit the ground running next season ... if not sooner.

So, to recap, here's my big bold predictions:

1. Detroit
2. Cleveland
3. Chicago
4. Indiana
5. Bucks

Division MVP: LeBron James
Division Rookie of the Year: Derrick Rose

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