The Derrick Roses...er...Chicago Bulls: 2013-2014 Record: 48-34
Key Additions: Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott, Aaron Brooks
Projected Division Finish: 2nd
Snippet: Sooooo ... Derrick Rose is back. Where does that leave us? The second? Third? Twenty-fourth comeback yet? I mean, who keeps track of'em all besides Adidas, Rose's handlers, and surly Bulls' fans?
As usual, when it comes to projecting a healthy season for the former MVP, the folks at ESPN and elsewhere are giddy at the prospect of Chicago rediscovering its contender status. It had to be disappointing, then, to watch Rose sputter at the FIBA World Cup; but never fear, NBA games aren't played in early September, which gives us plenty of time to forgive and forget before the real season starts. Lord knows we're well-practiced at it by now.
None of that, however, detracts from the fact that when right, Derrick Rose is a top-10 NBA player. And whether you believe it's even possible or not, he claims to be healthy and ready to prove it. The acquisitions of Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic offer additional reasons to be bullish on the Bulls, but the question still lingers: are they championship contenders? I lean toward, yes, but in a Pacers-of-the-last-two-seasons kind of way. Why not become a full-fledged believer? It comes down to a heaping pile of ifs: if Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah stay healthy ... if an aging Pau Gasol doesn't wear down ... if Taj Gibson accepts a bench role yet again ... if Doug McDermott and Mirotic can acclimate themselves to NBA-level competition. Chicago may very well be LeBron's stiffest competition in the East, but expecting more than a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals might be flirting with myopia.
Cleveland Cavaliers: 2013-2014 Record: 33-49
Key Additions: LeBron James, Kevin Love, Shawn Marion, Mike Miller, James Jones
Projected Division Finish: 1st
Snippet: The Prodigal King returns, bringing with him his all-world talents and dreams of delivering a ring to one of the sports world's most tortured cities. As far as upgrades go, you can't do better than LeBron James. He's indisputably the best player in the world. What gives his do-over in Cleveland some extra spice are the surrounding pieces. Say hello to fellow star Kevin Love, emerging young players, Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters, the dirty-work duo of Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao, and wily bench pieces, Shawn Marion and Mike Miller. Even if the Pacers had re-signed Lance Stephenson and boasted a healthy Paul George, toppling Cleveland would have been a daunting task. If they can stay healthy, expect the Cavs to contend for a title in 2014-2015 and beyond.
Detroit Pistons: 2013-2014 Record: 29-53
Key Additions: Jodie Meeks, Caron Butler, D.J. Augustin, Aaron Gray
Projected Division Finish: 4th
Snippet: I confess, the Pistons were one of the five teams I chose to follow on League Pass last season. I had grand visions of watching Andre Drummond and Josh Smith dazzle with their above-the-rim goodness, Brandon Jennings randomly go off for 50, and Greg Monroe "moose" opposing big men. Predictably, however, the Pistons quickly devolved into a whirlwind of rim clanks and dimwitted play without a coach capable of managing the misfit roster. In steps Stan Van Gundy to pick up the pieces. Should we expect to see improvement? Probably not. While Stan Van's a fine coach, he still has to contend with BBIQ delinquents in Smith and Jennings, a rumored malcontent in a contract year (Monroe), and not having nearly enough floor spacers to plug into his space-the-floor system. Despite all that, the Pistons do have one thing the Pacers' don't: Andre Drummond, a potential superstar, who's healthy to boot.
Milwaukee Bucks: 2013-2014 Record: 15-67
Key Additions: Jabari Parker, Jerryd Bayless, Jared Dudley, Kendall Marshal
Projected Division Finish: 5th
Snippet: These aren't your mired-in-mediocrity Bucks any longer. Nope, they finally made the leap into rebuild mode, starting up top with the arrival of a new ownership group, and the hiring of a new voice on the sidelines. Jason Kidd's charades aside, you could do a lot worse as far as beginning-stage rebuilds go. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker represent the present and future, and should by themselves give Bucks' fans reason to tune in nightly. How Coach Kidd plans to use their oozing talent is a bit of mystery. We've heard rumblings of Giannis playing point guard and Jabari spending most of his time at the four, but when it comes down to it, the particulars don't really matter. What matters is that the Bucks have two young building blocks who they can begin to chisel and mold into franchise players. Add another lottery pick or two, continued development of existing pieces (Brandon Knight, John Henson, etc.), a smart trade/signing here or there, and Milwaukee may stake claim to the brightest long-term future in the division.