Edit: Major facepalm, folks. I wrote Rashard Lewis when I meant Hedo Turkoglu. My bad.
That was the lead topic in a recent ESPN 5-on-5 debate about the Central Division.
Of course, the question assumes there will be a 2011-12 season.
It also flies in the face of many unknowns. Like what effects the new CBA will have on team salary structures, how free agency will pan out, and what trades will be made. And there are always in-season injuries.
Still, given the over/under option, everybody who was asked ranked Chicago’s chances of returning to the ECFs as either a “push” or “under.”
David Thorpe of Scouts Inc. said: “Under, mostly because the East has LeBron and Wade on the same team, plus Dwight Howard and Stan Van Gundy, and throw in a Boston team that can fill the center void with a real player and not a brand name. Miami should lock down one spot, which leaves three teams for the other. And don’t forget how Chicago struggled last season once saddled with high expectations.”
Thorpe certainly has a point about the Heat. But the Magic? Howard’s supporting cast is awful and Orlando’s salary cap is a mess. Unless somebody trades for the ungodly contracts of Gilbert Arenas or Hedo Turkoglu — which I rate somewhere between “highly unlikely” to “bwahahahaha!” — the Magic won’t be better than the Bulls.
As for the Celtics, who’s to say they have any better chance of filling their void at center than the Bulls do of upgrading at shooting guard? Plus, I understand the trio of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen have earned “Never Bet Against Us” credentials over their careers, but those guys are in their mid-30s with plenty of miles on their legs. Maybe they have one more big run in them, but it seems more likely their time as legit championship contenders have passed.
Beyond those two teams, what do we have? The defenseless Knicks. The never-gonna-be-ready-for-prime-time Hawks. The Sixers should be pretty good and the Nets will likely improve, but will either of those teams be ECF-worthy? Doubtful.
As I see it, assuming no major personnel shakeups occur between now and whenever the next season starts, about the only thing that (in theory) should prevent the Bulls from reaching the Eastern Conference Finals again would be a playoff bracket in which they were forced to face the Heat in the second round. Because that’s the only team I see beating them in the postseason.
I mean, think about it. The Bulls are young. Deep. Play unbelievable defense. Have a fantastic coach and one of the best players in the league. When healthy, four of their five starters rank in the top 10 at their respective positions. From all accounts, they’re committed and driven, not to mention exceptionally tightly knit.
Will they win 61 games again? That I may take the under on. But as far as a return to the ECFs? I’ll take the over.