The Central division is home to the two best teams in the Eastern Conference, as well as arguably the brightest young team in the NBA. Lets take a look at the lay of the land as things sit heading into the season.
1st - Cleveland Cavaliers
But for a couple of poorly timed injuries, the Cavaliers may well be the reigning NBA champions. LeBron James continues to push his case for being one of the top 10 players in NBA history, and was super-human last season as he fought the Golden State Warriors with as average a supporting cast as any player has ever had. He will welcome having Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love back from injury, as well as the underrated Anderson Varajeo. The core of last season's team remains, and the additions of Mo Williams and Richard Jefferson should allow James to manage his minutes throughout the season.
It is difficult to fathom the Cavaliers finishing anywhere other than the top seed in the East, and anything less than another NBA Finals performance will be considered an abject failure. The ongoing contract holdout of Tristan Thompson may be a distraction, but he may well be surplus to requirements given their front-court depth.
Likely starters - Irving, J.R.Smith, James, Love, Timofy Mozgov
Key reserves - Williams, Iman Shumpert, Thompson, Varajeo, Matthew Dellavedova
2nd - Chicago Bulls
This looks to be the second most talented team in the Eastern Conference, and new coach Fred Hoiberg will need to hit the ground running to give the Bulls any chance of contending with Cleveland. Former MVP Derrick Rose will look to return to the form that saw him one of the league's most explosive player, but is only the third best player on this team. Shooting guard Jimmy Butler is set to take a leap into stardom as a quality two-way player while veteran Pau Gasol remains among the elite big men in the league.
Rose and Joakim Noah have the potential to make or break this team, as both are injury-prone but are top-line players when healthy. When you add role players Taj Gibson and Aaron Brooks and potential offensive difference makers Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott, it becomes apparent that the Bulls are a real chance at taking the #1 seed in the East. A playoff series against the Cavaliers would be a tough challenge, but if they remain injury-free they are by far the best placed contender in the conference.
Likely starters - Rose, Butler, Dunleavy, Gasol, Noah
Key reserves - Gibson, Mirotic, McDermott, Brooks, Tony Snell
3rd - Milwaukee Bucks
The young Bucks look certain to rise up the rankings in the East, as they have added Greg Monroe and Greivis Vasquez to a very talented nucleus playing under coach Jason Kidd. No team in the league can match the raw talent of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker, Michael Carter-Williams, Khris Middleton and John Henson.
While the talent is there, the Bucks will likely struggle with inconsistency and make mistakes at both ends of the floor, and will struggle with outside shooting outside of first round draft pick Rashad Vaughn. Being able to space the floor with five outstanding athletes will be a benefit, but they will need to find a way to punish teams if they are dared to shoot from outside. With a team that ranked 5th in opponent shooting percentage and 9th in points conceded per game last season, the improvement on the offensive end of the floor will ultimately determine how far the Bucks rise.
Likely starters - Carter-Williams, Parker, Middleton, Antetokounmpo, Monroe
Key reserves - Vasquez, Monroe, Vaughn, Henson, O.J.Mayo
4th - Indiana Pacers
The Pacers have turned over a number of players in an effort to revive a flagging franchise. Star Paul George should return to somewhere near his best after a horrific broken leg and Monta Ellis, first round draft pick Myles Turner and Jordan Hill look to add to this team. The loss of David West, Roy Hibbert and Luis Scola robs the Pacers of their best three rebounders from last season, and coach Frank Vogel has experimented with George at power forward in an attempt to find the right formula.
George has publicly criticised the move, which is a bad sign but when your best big man is Hill that is a real concern. Turner will get all the burn he can handle in his rookie season while role players Lavoy Allen and Ian Mahinmi will be relied upon far more than either ever has been in their careers.
The East figures to be strong at the top end, and the Pacers will need everything to go right to be in contention for the eighth playoff seed.
Likely starters - George Hill, Ellis, George, Hill, Mahinmi
Key reserves - Rodney Stuckey, C.J.Miles, Turner, Chase Budinger, Glenn Robinson
5th - Detroit Pistons
The Pistons let Greg Monroe go in the off-season, in effect placing the franchise in the hands of Andre Drummond. As far as young players go, there are few with as much raw talent as Drummond who should flourish and become an elite NBA big man. Depth was an issue last season, and Detroit addressed that by adding Aron Baynes, Steve Blake, Danny Granger, Erfan Ilyasova and Marcus Morris and drafting small forward Stanley Johnson with the #8 pick in the draft.
Their point guard combo of Brandon Jennings and Reggie Jackson will be intriguing to watch, as neither is a true floor general but if they can co-exist then the Pistons could be better than most expect. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Jodie Meeks will provide outside shooting, and this team could be very effective offensively if Drummond stays on the floor and their additions can mesh. While plenty needs to go right for the side to flourish and play consistently all season, few teams will be better to watch.
Likely starters - Jackson, Caldwell-Pope, Johnson, Morris, Drummond
Key reserves - Jennings, Baynes, Granger, Blake, Ilyasova