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Central Division presents new challenges for Pacers next season

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A talent infusion has turned the NBA's Central Division into a far more challenging neighborhood for the Pacers to deal with next year.

Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

It has been a pretty exciting offseason so far, huh? Well, not necessarily for the Pacers, but the teams surrounding them in the Central Division have made some moves to make things a little more interesting. Indiana has owned the Central for the past two seasons, but that may not be--and probably won't be--the case next season.

LeBron James announced to the world a couple weeks ago he would return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team who drafted him in 2003 and the team he played on for the first 7 seasons of his career. James noted in his announcement essay on that the main reason for his return to Cleveland was because it is his "hometown team", as he grew up in nearby Akron.

But I'm sure you know this already, as it has been talked about, well, everywhere ever since the historic announcement.

As the Cavs do reside in the Central Division, the Pacers will see a familiar opponent. James has represented the Miami Heat for the past four years, a team Indiana faced and lost to in three of those postseasons.

The Pacers should be happy James returned to Cleveland, as they are not as capable as the Heat were with LeBron. They are undoubtedly contenders, as any team with James is, but Cleveland's roster consists of a younger core, as Miami's was filled with tested veterans who "had been there before".

No one on the Cavs really knows how to win, as starting point guard and former first overall pick Kyrie Irving has yet to make the postseason. In fact, Cleveland hasn't made it into the playoffs since James' departure in 2010. James also noted in his letter that he vows to teach the young Cavaliers, and I'm sure he'll do just that.

If we take a step back before all this free agency craziness, there was a draft. The top two picks in the draft were held by Central Division teams, with No. 1 going to the Cavs and No. 2 going to the Milwaukee Bucks.

With the first overall selection, Cleveland took Andrew Wiggins out of Kansas. At No. 2, Milwaukee nabbed Jabari Parker out of Duke. Parker seems to be the more NBA-ready player, but the Cavs took a gamble on Wiggins for his superstar potential. Wiggins should be able to handle NBA competition on the defensive end, but his offensive game definitely needs some assurance.

Wiggins was drafted to pair up with Irving and lead the young Cavs into a prosperous future, meaning the former Jayhawk would probably need to fix his offensive flaws quick in order to keep up with the rest of the league, but with LeBron around, he won't be relied on as much, taking some of that initial pressure off.

For the Bucks, they got a great player in Parker, but they were still a 15-win team last season, so we don't really need to worry about them too much.

Now, let's talk a little Pistons. Detroit hasn't done too much, but they've improved, I guess. First off, getting Stan Van Gundy at coach was a good move, so there's that.

After getting Jodie Meeks and Cartier Martin to kick it off, they nabbed D.J. Augustin and Caron Butler. All four are capable of scoring, but we'll see what these moves do for them. Their main priority of the offseason should have been re-signing big man Greg Monroe, but he's still on the market. No one really knows what's going on there, to be honest.

Then, there's the Bulls. Chicago may have been scaring Pacer fans for a little bit there, as they were in the running for Carmelo Anthony, who has decided to re-sign with the Knicks. With 'Melo and a healthy Derrick Rose, the Bulls would have easily been favored to win the East, and they still may be after signing veteran center Pau Gasol.

Gasol, who will sign a 3-year, $22 million deal according to reports, will team up with Joakim Noah to form one of the best front courts in the NBA. Gasol's passing and post game will surely be good for a Chicago team who's offense has struggled--tied for 27th in offensive efficiency in 2013-14-- in recent years.

So, things are looking tough, or at least tougher, for the Pacers next season. Losing Lance Stephenson to Charlotte will make it an even tougher race, but let's give Rodney Stuckey a chance, who Indy did sign to replace Born Ready. Stuckey may be suspect on defense and lacks a consistent perimeter shot, but he also can make plays at the rim and hates losing more than anyone, so maybe he can do an OK job at replacing (or attempting to replace) Stephenson.

Heading into the 2014-15 season, it doesn't look like there will be a favorite in the East, meaning things are wide open. As is, Indiana is not a title contending team. I know that, you (probably) know that, and Larry Bird has to know that. And sometimes that's just the way it is. But we are looking at a team on paper right now. Maybe the reports of Stephenson being selfish and ruining the team's offensive flow were true, and Stuckey comes in and really makes a difference in a winning environment, which is something he hasn't been apart of since his rookie season in Detroit.

Also, with C.J. Miles around, there's no excuse for the bench to play any worse--if that's possible--than last season. And maybe, just maybe, Frank Vogel finally gives in and let's Chris Copeland get some minutes this season. I mean, he has put in some work this offseason.

So there's hope. Who really knows what to make of this team right now. On paper, like I said, it's not going to the Finals, and it's probably not even going to win the division. But in what looks to be a toss-up conference this year, Indiana may just get lucky and get a top seed. Let's not forget, by the time the season rolls around, Paul George has had another summer to get better. His ceiling is high, folks, and maybe his improvement is the difference maker for this team.

By the looks of it right now, the Central should be pretty tough. It will get even tougher if Kevin Love makes his way into it, with both Chicago and Cleveland currently bidding for him. It's hard to tell how things will play out, and who will be on top, but all I know is it will be fun as hell watching the 82-game battle.