Amongst all of the offseason rumors, trades, and free agent signings, one trend has become apparent for the summer of 2013: The Central Division is becoming the NBA's best. Think back to the 2010-2011 NBA Season. The Chicago Bulls were the East's best team. The only other team from the Central Division that made the playoffs was the Indiana Pacers - the then 8th seed with a below .500 record. Fast-forward just three seasons later, and take a look at the 2013-2014 Central Division:
1. Indiana Pacers:
Notable Additions: Luis Scola, C.J. Watson, Chris Copeland, Solomon Hill, and Danny Granger (return from injury). As all of these additions indicate, the Pacers main goal was to strengthen a second unit that, oftentimes, struggled to score.
Other Notables: The Pacers are the reigning Central Division champions. They are fresh off pushing the Miami Heat to Game 7 of the ECF. Paul George, Luis Scola, Frank Vogel, Larry Bird, Nate McMillan, etc. have all made it clear that the goal for this season is to win an NBA Championship.
2. Chicago Bulls
Notable Additions: Mike Dunleavy. The Bulls added Dunleavy to stretch the floor and make more space for their returning former MVP, Derrick Rose.
Other Notables: Jimmy Butler. Butler's development was so rapid and unexpected last season that some analysts have questioned if the Bulls should look to move two-time all-star, Luol Deng. Also note, that the Bulls willingly allowed Marco Bellinelli, Nate Robinson, and Rip Hamilton to look for new teams.
Notable Additions: Andrew Bynum, Jarrett Jack, Earl Clark, Anthony Bennett, and Anderson Varejao (return from injury). It is clear from these moves that the Cavs have no interest in returning to the NBA draft lottery next season.
Other Notables: The Cavs have added an all-star center, return a double-double machine, added a #1 draft pick, signed a possible Sixth Man of the Year, and boast a budding superstar point guard. The Cavs have come a long way from losing LeBron James in 2010.
Notable Additions: Josh Smith, Brandon Jennings, Kentavius Caldwell-Pope, and Chauncey Billups. The Pistons flashy, free agent signings are a signal that the Pistons are not interested in tanking for Wiggins in 2014.
Other Notables: Marc Stein and Adrian Wojnarowski reported today that the Milwaukee Bucks and Detroit Pistons were in the process of finalizing a sign and trade to bring Brandon Jennings to Detroit. On paper, this is a much improved Pistons squads. However, spacing could be a big problem with this roster. Smith's shooting struggles are obviously well documented. Additionally, while Jennings averaged 17pts and 6 assists per game last season, his field goal percentage leaves a lot to be desired.
5. Milwaukee Bucks
Notable Additions: Brandon Knights, Luke Ridnour, OJ Mayo, Gary Neal, Carlos Delfino, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Zaza Pachulia. After rumors surfaced that Jennings was interested in playing for a large market squad and Ellis opted out of his $11 million player's option, the Bucks had to regroup quickly adding some quality assets for the future.
Other Notables: Although the Bucks were not able to reach agreement with Brandon Jennings and elected not to resign Monta Ellis, they were still able to make some solid signings this offseason. The Bucks added solid role players with playoff experience (i.e. Neal, Delfino, and Pachulia), while quickly replacing two backcourt players that vocalized that they were not interested in staying in Milwaukee.
So what does all of this mean for the Pacers? It is possible to argue that all 5 of the Central Division teams have improved this offseason (with the Milwaukee Bucks being the biggest question mark). This indicates that each of these teams are going to be facing tougher competition throughout the regular season. While the Heat will be matching up with the Bobcats, Magic, Wizards, and Hawks, Indy will be in a real battle to repeat as division champs in 2014. According to NBA rules, each division's champion is guaranteed no less than the four seed in playoff rankings - and as we saw this postseason, home court advantage in a Game 7 can really matter (note: if a division champion has a worse record than the fifth seeded team, the then, technically, 5th seeded team still will have home court advantage in the playoffs). Of course, rather than just winning the Central Division, it would be in the Pacers best interest to play for the top spot in the East Conference. In so doing, the Pacers would be able to avoid the reigning champion Miami Heat until the ECF - and who knows, maybe the Bulls or Nets would manage to beat the Heat in an earlier round. Therefore, a tougher Central Division is a roadblock not only to raising another Division Championship banner, but it is also a hindrance to earning a preferred playoff spot. Hopefully, with the front office's shrewd offseason additions and roster tweaks, the Pacers can match-up with anyone in the postseason in 2014 and seeding will be irrelevant. Nevertheless, one thing is sure, the improving Central Division does not make becoming the 2014 NBA Champions any easier for the Indiana Pacers.