NBA Central Division Preview: LeBron James, Cavaliers Out For Blood

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With the 2015-16 NBA season set to begin, NESN.com is breaking down each of the league’s six divisions. This time we’re focusing on the Central, where it’s the Cleveland Cavaliers and everyone else. Teams are listed in predicted order of finish (last year’s record and result in parentheses).

1. Cleveland Cavaliers (53-29, first in division)
Key additions: Mo Williams (free agent), Richard Jefferson (free agent)
Key departures: Kendrick Perkins (free agent), Mike Miller (trade), Shawn Marion (retired)

The question here isn’t whether the Cavaliers will win the Central Division. It’s whether this squad can stay healthy and focused enough to bring a championship to Cleveland. The parts are all there, as the Cavs re-signed big man Tristan Thompson and even brought back guard Mo Williams as an insurance policy for Kyrie Irving. LeBron James will be as motivated as ever to return to the NBA Finals, and as long as he, Kevin Love and Irving stay on the court, the Eastern Conference is the Cavs’ to lose.

2. Chicago Bulls (50-32, second)
Key additions: Bobby Portis (draft)
Key departures: None

The Bulls didn’t make any major moves this offseason outside of re-signing Jimmy Butler, and that’s just the thing: They didn’t need to. When fully healthy, this is a team that can go toe-to-toe with the Cavs for Eastern Conference supremacy. Unfortunately, that means relying on Derrick Rose — who hasn’t played more than 51 games in a season since 2010-11 — to stay on the court. Rose and Butler paired with a deep, talented frontcourt featuring Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson make Chicago one of the best teams in the conference, but health once again will be the major X-factor.

3. Milwaukee Bucks (41-41, third)
Key additions: Greg Monroe (free agent), Rashad Vaughn (draft)
Key departures: Jared Dudley (trade), Ersan Ilyasova (trade)

Unlike the Philadelphia 76ers, the Bucks are rebuilding at a rapid rate. They landed the prized big man of the free agent pool in Greg Monroe, who will form a formidable frontcourt duo alongside 2014 second overall pick Jabari Parker. Throw in the “Greek Freak” (Giannis Antetokounmpo), former NBA Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams and budding shooting guard Khris Middleton, and you have a pretty solid starting five. There’s still considerable distance between Milwaukee and the top two teams in this division, but the gap is closing.

4. Detroit Pistons (32-50, fifth)
Key additions: Ersan Ilyasova (trade), Marcus Morris (trade), Danny Granger (trade), Stanley Johnson (draft)
Key departures: Greg Monroe (free agent), Caron Butler (trade), Tayshaun Prince (free agent), Quincy Miller (trade)

With Monroe out of town, it’s now Andre Drummond’s show in Detroit. The 22-year-old big man has loads of potential, and along with re-signed guard Reggie Jackson could help lift this team out of the Central Division cellar. Outside those two, Stan Van Gundy has a ton of new faces to work with, so there might be some growing pains in the early going. But it appears the needle is pointed in the right direction.

5. Indiana Pacers (38-44, fourth)
Key additions: Monta Ellis (free agent), Myles Turner (draft), Jordan Hill (free agent), Chase Budinger (trade)
Key departures: David West (free agent), Roy Hibbert (trade), Luis Scola (free agent), C.J. Watson (free agent)

Paul George returns from injury this season, and the Pacers signed another prominent scorer in Monta Ellis. That’s the good news. The bad news is Indiana lost virtually all of its frontcourt in David West, Luis Scola and Roy Hibbert, leaving this squad pretty vulnerable on the defensive end. With a weak supporting cast, George will have to carry this team if it has any shot at the postseason. We’re not banking on a guy who just missed an entire season with a gruesome leg injury making that happen.

Other division previews: Northwest Division | Pacific Division | Southwest Division | Southeast Division Atlantic Division

Thumbnail photo via Frank Victores/USA TODAY Sports Images

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) stands at the foul line during the firs half against the Atlanta Hawks at Cintas Center.

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