NBA Central Division: Title Contenders and Young Bucks

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LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers and Derrick Rose’s Chicago Bulls began the season with higher goals than merely scrapping for the NBA’s Central Division title. Toronto’s hot start aside, most people south of the border are anticipating an eventual meeting between these two divisional rivals in the Eastern Conference finals.

The return of two former league MVPs headlines an intriguing collection of squads in the Central Division. After two successive losses to LeBron in the Eastern Conference finals, as well as claiming the last two divisional crowns, the Indiana Pacers appeared doomed to take a step back when Paul George suffered his unfortunate, gruesome injury.

In contrast

Meanwhile, optimism abounded in Detroit, with Stan Van Gundy returning after a two-year break from coaching to take over the reins at the Pistons. The Milwaukee Bucks had their own incoming new head coach with Jason Kidd taking over, and hopes were high that No. 2 draft pick Jabari Parker could help the franchise fight back after finishing 2013-14 with the league’s worst record, 15-67.

Five weeks into the season, Jabari and the young Bucks are flying – but Stan must be wondering what he’s gotten himself into.

Remaining Contenders

Chicago Bulls: Chicago leads the way after being listed among the NBA title favourites at the start of the season, but it’s been far from flawless. Rose is firmly under the media microscope, and he will be managed carefully in the hope of finally having him available for a full playoff series for the first time since 2011, the year he was crowned league MVP.

Jimmy Butler has looked fantastic in the early going, elevating his offense (21.9ppg after 15 games) to approach the level of his already fearsome defense. Aaron Brooks has been a pleasant surprise, stepping into the backup guard slot well after replacing D.J. Augustin in the summer.

Milwaukee Bucks: Sitting a half-game ahead of the Cavs on December 1st, the Bucks are back! Truth be told, last season might well have been the aberration – the Bucks finished as the East’s eighth seed in 2012-13, and the team’s slump last year has ultimately allowed them to add the talented Parker to a decent roster.

Brandon Knight has been running the team well in the early going, and Giannis Antetokounmpo continues to blossom as an exciting prospect. It’s been good to see Larry Sanders return this year after a disastrous 2013-14 campaign, and the roster is filled with solid backups like Jerryd Bayless and Jared Dudley who can help the future stars to develop.

Cleveland Cavaliers: So far, so predictable. New coach, new team thrown together – it was inevitable that there would be some teething problems.

It was strange, though, to see LeBron looking a little lifeless and drained in the early stages of the season. His return brings massive expectations, with the fans desperate to celebrate a championship, but the burden of such hope can be crushing. LeBron has plenty of experience by now and he will no doubt know how to turn it up a notch later on in the season, but can he bring the other players with him?

A lot has been made of how his new sidekicks, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, have not even played a playoff game yet, despite 575 games of NBA experience between them. And with three brilliant players, there is always the issue of sharing – Love has suffered so far, averaging only 17 points and 9 rebounds per game, his lowest totals since 2010.

Indiana Pacers: Head coach Frank Vogel spoke bullishly of how his team would still be fighting for the playoffs despite the losses of George and Lance Stephenson, and his charges have rallied well so far.

Wily veteran David West has now returned from injury to take up the load on offense, although six other players have averaged better than 10 points per game in keeping opponents honest.

The playoffs are still an attainable target with big center Roy Hibbert patrolling the paint, and Indiana will continue to make teams fight for every victory. Vogel led the troops to impressive road wins in Dallas and Chicago, showing that the Pacers have no interest in tanking.

Detroit Pistons: Van Gundy is seen as one of the few genuine difference-makers among the coaching fraternity, but he’s yet to make an impact on this wretched Pistons team.

There were high hopes that Stan would find a way to make the combination of expensive free-agent signing Josh Smith and talented young big men Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond work, but early attempts at mixing up the rotation have been fruitless. Smith, in particular, has failed to establish himself in Motor City, struggling to recapture the form that had him talked about as a potential All-Star only a couple of years ago.

When Van Gundy arrived, he was also appointed as the president of basketball operations, and while some people were surprised that he didn’t make more significant changes to the roster last season, he certainly will be looking to move on from the current squad as soon as he can, with Smith and Monroe likely looking for new homes.