Grand Central

July 11, 2005, By Tony Mejia, CBS Staff Writer

As a result of last week's free-agency looting, the NBA has a new king in terms of division strength. Once the moratorium on league business ends July 22, the Central will become an absolute beast.

Larry Hughes instantly makes Cleveland a better team. (Getty Images)
Sure, the Southwest houses league champion San Antonio, 50-game winners Dallas and Houston and playoff participant Memphis, but all four fattened their win totals by going a combined 14-2 against New Orleans, which will remain locked in rebuilding mode next season.

Can you spot the weak link in the Central?

The easy answer would be the Bucks, who went 30-52 last season, but they've rapidly upgraded their roster. Within a two-week period, Milwaukee drafted Andrew Bogut, potentially a Top 10 center in the league from Day 1, agreed to re-sign coveted shooting guard Michael Redd and came to terms with Bobby Simmons, the top small forward available on the market.

GM Larry Harris got lucky that the Bucks snatched up the No. 1 pick, but fortune has had nothing to do with his other strong moves. He and his staff identified the players who would help the franchise win immediately and wasted no time setting things in motion. There have been reports the five-year, $47 million dollar deal that Simmons accepted was originally offered to Portland's Shareef Abdur-Rahim, the top power forward available.

"This originally started out as talks in case Michael left, but as we talked more and more, it started to make sense for Bobby even if Michael stayed," Simmons' agent, Mark Bartelstein, told the Associated Press. "So, we just kept talking, and they had enough cap room. It worked out well for both."

How well remains to be seen, but the move likely pushes Desmond Mason back to a sixth-man role, strengthening Milwaukee's bench. If T.J. Ford can come back healthy and form a solid point guard tandem with the promising Maurice Williams, the Bucks promise to not only be good, but good for a long time. The nucleus of the team is young and emerging and should grow collectively under new coach Terry Stotts. They have penetraters, strong mid-range shooters on the wings and a capable young 7-footer. On paper, they sound pretty good, and certainly not worthy of a last-place finish.

How about Cleveland? The Cavs finished fourth in the division last season, collapsing down the stretch and missing the playoffs after losing a tiebreaker with New Jersey.

Try again.

Under new coach Mike Brown, they'll be better defensively, especially after the addition of reigning steals king Larry Hughes.

Hughes will also make them better on offense, giving the Cavs another ball-handler who can create his own shot. LeBron James is only going to be a stronger force in year No. 3, especially with teams unable to key solely on him. If they can hang on to Zydrunas Ilgauskas as well, Cleveland has a "Big Three" on par with any in the league.

There are nice role players around them as well, rebounders Drew Gooden and Anderson Varejao, solid perimeter defender Eric Snow (a capable defender himself) and a potential breakout wing in Sasha Pavlovic. On paper, they sound pretty good, and they certainly are expected to make the playoffs.

Indiana, which finished third last year despite throwing together one makeshift lineup after another, gets Ron Artest back, will have Jermaine O'Neal playing with two healthy shoulders and Jamaal Tinsley running on two healthy feet. Considering how disciplined the Pacers are under Rick Carlisle, they have to be considered a championship contender if all their pieces are back in place. Reggie Miller will be missed, but Stephen Jackson and top pick Danny Granger should find ways to make up for his production. If healthy, they should easily top the 50-victory mark considering they managed to piece together 44 last year.

Chicago comes off its breakout season, and after bringing back Scott Skiles and likely re-signing Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry, they should have their young base back in place. Don't forget, Ben Gordon, Andres Nocioni and Luol Deng were all rookies last year, while Kirk Hinrich played All-Star-caliber ball during the latter part of his second season. Bulls fans have every reason in the world to be excited.

Even if they lose Larry Brown as coach, Detroit is obviously not the weak link, returning the bulk of a squad that was a poor fourth quarter away from repeating as league champion.

Only the fact these teams will have to beat up on one another will keep all five teams from making next year's playoffs, but at this point, it's hard to identify who will wind up staying home.

Consider that even though Milwaukee was clearly the worst team in the division last year, they still finished 8-8 against Central competition. The Pacers actually had the best mark against their divisional brethren, finishing 9-7. These teams are used to competing hard against one another, and the stakes have just gotten higher.