Bird is Pacers’ savior…but Pistons are still on top

The Central Division of the Eastern Conference is going to be defined by adaptation. Six of eight teams are learning new systems under new head coaches and whoever adapts the quickest will be the most successful.

I have a feeling that one of the top three teams in this division will oust the Nets in the conference championship, but that will almost certainly result in a four-game NBA Finals, dominated by the West.

Perhaps the most compelling story line in the Central this year will be the battle for the basement. The bottom three or four teams have a chance to be among the worst in league history, and that, if nothing else, will give them something to play for. Full of champs and chumps, here’s how the Central breaks down.

1. Detroit Pistons

After losing to New Jersey in the Eastern Conference finals last season, GM Joe Dumars had seen enough of head coach Rick Carlisle, so he fired him in favor of Larry Brown. Brown’s job will seem easy now that he doesn’t have to deal with super-ego/talent Allen Iverson, but the demands placed on him by management will provide adequate pressure.

Luckily for Brown, he has plenty of talent to work with, and plenty more to develop on the best all-around team in the East. Rip Hamilton and Chauncey Billups make up one of the best backcourts in the league, and both should flourish in Brown’s system.

Ben Wallace, who snagged 2.5 rebounds for every shot he took, is an indispensable player for the Pistons. He provides energy, toughness, great defense and almost all of the rebounds.

The Pistons will likely get additional scoring from Tayshaun Prince, who emerged in the postseason as a scoring threat and an elite defender. He is 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot wingspan, and is capable of guarding almost anybody because of his quickness.

The Pistons should be a well-rested team by playoff time and I predict they will end the Nets’ run as finals losers.

Predicted Finish: 55-27

2. Indiana Pacers

Despite a tremendous core of young talent, the Pacers haven’t won a postseason series since Larry Bird coached them to the finals in 2000. Fully aware of this, Pacers brass reacquired Bird to run the whole show this offseason.

Bird wasted no time in proving that he deserves the nickname “Basketball Jesus” (coined by ESPN columnist Bill Simmons). His first move was to sign franchise player Jermaine O’Neal to a seven year deal, giving the franchise a cornerstone to build on. As an encore, Bird fired coach Isiah Thomas, who couldn’t seem to win games after January.

With Isiah out of the picture, the Pacers actually have a legitimate shot at advancing to the finals. Jamaal Tinsley showed promise at the point in his second season, and should improve markedly this season under the tutelage of veteran Kenny Anderson, Carlisle and President Bird. (Damn, I like the sound of that.)

The Pacers will have a mediocre start while they learn a new system, but will come on strong at the end of the season and contend for a trip to the finals. But give Jesus one more year, and they’ll definitely be there.

Predicted Finish: 53-29

3. New Orleans Hornets

The Hornets return all of their starters from a year ago and, barring injuries, will make the playoffs again this year. I say barring injuries because last year, Jamal Mashburn and Baron Davis both missed a lot of games because of injuries, and both were hampered in the playoffs.

Davis took measures this offseason to prevent injury by intensifying his workout regiment and changing his diet. This should pay major dividends unless his new chiseled look causes Davis to fall in love with himself even further and forget about his teammates while on the court.

The players seem happy with new head coach Tim Floyd, so expect this team to gel in the second half as it has for the past 10 seasons.

Predicted Finish: 50-32

4. Chicago Bulls

The Bulls have the potential to be the surprise team of the year with more untapped potential than any other team in the league. This also means they could have another disappointing season if that talent remains undeveloped.

Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler have two years of experience now, and both showed flashes of brilliance last season. Jamal Crawford also proved that he can play last year, and should improve drastically this year.

Although the Bulls don’t really have a point guard now that Jason Williams’ career is likely over, they don’t really need one with Crawford, Jalen Rose and Scottie Pippen all capable of leading the offense. I doubt Kirk Heinrich will see much time, if any.

The Bulls could very well make the playoffs this year, but I hope they don’t because it would likely mean the Celtics will be golfing by mid-April. If I had to bet on it, though, I would go with the Bulls to return to the postseason thanks to coach Bill Cartwright and his ability to get the most out of Curry and Chandler.

Predicted Finish: 43-39

5. Cleveland Cavaliers

For those of you who expect immediate results from this team because of a certain offseason acquisition-don’t.

Remember, the Cavaliers only won 17 games last season.

The Cavaliers are a team of the future with tons of young talent including that kid they just got in the draft. With Ricky Davis, Dajuan Wagner, Darius Miles and LeBron James all still learning the NBA game, it should be interesting to see how many times the Cavaliers turn the ball over.

The real reason to watch Cavaliers games this year will be to see how James reacts to the immense pressure that has befallen his 18-year-old frame.

Will he crack? Or will he excel in a system with no point guard and a bunch of selfish scorers?

One thing’s for sure-you will see plenty of Cavaliers basketball on SportsCenter this year, but you will not see them in the playoffs until they get somebody to distribute the basketball.

Predicted Finish: 32-50

6. Toronto Raptors

The Raptors are nothing without Vince Carter, which is why the Raptors will be nothing this year.

This season, Carter will undoubtedly be inducted into the Grant Hill Club, which is exclusively for players whose bones and ligaments aren’t meant for professional sports.

Carter’s supporting cast includes Alvin Williams at the point, a 6-foot-9 Antonio Davis at center, and 89-year old Michael Curry, who averaged an earth-shattering three points and 1.5 rebounds per game last season.

With no scorers aside from Carter, no defense at all, slim rebounding ability and a new coach, the Raptors will remain a Canadian excuse for an NBA franchise. (I’m sorry-I really do like Canadians.)

Predicted Finish: 20-62

7. Atlanta Hawks

How do you improve on a 35-47 record? According to the Hawks, you dump your leading scorer for Terrell Brandon (who promptly retired), then you get rid of the only player who tried on defense.

The Hawks will be pathetic this year, which is an indication of how bad Utah’s situation is.

After the Jazz offered Jason Terry $22.5 million over three years, he was relieved when the Hawks matched the offer for fear of having to move to Utah. Watch the Hawks play this year, Jazz fans, and you will wonder if the Jazz will ever attract decent players again.

Predicted Finish: Worse than the Jazz…much worse.

8. Milwaukee Bucks

“And starting for your MIIIIILLLLWAAAAUUUKEEE BUUUUUUCKS! At point guard, rookie T.J. Ford! At shooting guard, Desmond Mason! At forward, Tim Thomas! At the other forward, Joe Smith! And at center…Dan Gadzuric!”

Predicted Finish: 0-82

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