Bulls

NBA's Central Divison no longer a pushover

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NBA's Central Divison no longer a pushover

One of the keys to the Bulls finishing with the NBAs best record last season was their dominance of division opponents. The Bulls went 15-1 against Central Division foes, the only loss coming late in the season at Indiana.

Unfortunately, things will be a lot tougher this season, as both the Pacers and Bucks appear to be much improved. Dont forget, Indiana gave the Bulls a battle in their first round playoff series last spring, and theyve made some significant improvements to their roster. Armed with some serious cap room, Pacers President Larry Bird signed former All-Star power forward David West to a two year contract, and hes trying to bring in former 6th man of the year Jamal Crawford, who was one of the Bulls targets early in free agency.

Bottom line, Indiana figures to be a much stronger team this season. Theyll have plenty of offense with Danny Granger, West, possibly Crawford, point guard Darren Collison, promising second year man Paul George and 72 center Roy Hibbert. The Pacers also have quality depth with Tyler Hansbrough, George and combo guard George Hill, who was acquired in a trade with San Antonio before the lockout. Hill averaged 11.6 points for the Spurs last season, and hes started 48 games over the last two years in place of the often-injured Tony Parker. Look for Indiana to make an upwards move in the Eastern Conference playoff field, possibly challenging for a 5th or 6th seed.

Ninety miles to the north in Milwaukee, Scott Skiles should also have a much-improved team this season. The Bucks made a good trade just before the draft in June, acquiring Stephen Jackson, Shaun Livingston and Beno Udrih in a three-team deal with Charlotte and Sacramento. Jackson will provide a veteran influence and consistent scoring from the wing, something the Bucks didnt always get from former Fenwick H.S. star Corey Maggette last season.

The Bucks were decimated by injuries a year ago, losing point guard Brandon Jennings, power forward Drew Gooden and center Andrew Bogut for long stretches of the season. Bogut was considered one of the best young centers in the league before that terrifying fall late in the 2009-2010 regular season. Now that hes had another year to rehab that gruesome elbow and wrist injury, he should be closer to his pre-injury form. Dont forget, Bogut averaged 16 points, 10 rebounds and 2.5 blocked shots in the season he was injured. And, Milwaukee added another shooter by signing free agent Mike Dunleavy, Jr. to a two-year contract.

The Pistons and Cavaliers dont look like playoff contenders, but Detroit will be better with Lawrence Frank running the show. Former coach John Kuester was extremely unpopular with the players, and everyone should benefit from a fresh start. There is talent on the roster with veterans like Tayshaun Prince, Ben Gordon, Rodney Stuckey and second year forward Greg Monroe, who came on strong late in his rookie year. The Pistons also added one of the top young guards available in the draft in Kentuckys Brandon Knight.

Clevelands roster is still a work in progress, but the Cavs did add the top player in the draft, Duke point guard Kyrie Irving. They are a long way from returning to playoff contention, but should be a lot more competitive.

So, how many wins can the Bulls come up with over a 66 game schedule? Im thinking somewhere in the 42-45 range, which should be good for a Top 3 seed in the East. What are your thoughts? Please post your comments in the section below.

Dont forget the Bulls start their pre-season schedule against Indiana Friday night. Well have the re-match against the Pacers on Comcast SportsNet Dec. 20th.

Bulls coach Jim Boylen stumps for Rudy Tomjanovich's Hall of Fame bid

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USA Today

Bulls coach Jim Boylen stumps for Rudy Tomjanovich's Hall of Fame bid

In case you forgot, Jim Boylen once worked for Rudy Tomjanovich. In fact, the former Rockets coach gave Boylen his NBA start, hiring him as an assistant coach and video coordinator way back in 1992.

Boylen saw first-hand the coaching chops and commitment Tomjanovich displayed as the Rockets won back-to-back NBA titles while Michael Jordan was playing baseball in the mid-1990s. So it's beyond loyalty when Boylen says he believes, like many others, that Tomjanovich belongs in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. The organization named Tomjanovich a finalist over All-Star weekend in Chicago.

[RELATED: Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett highlight Hall of Fame finalists]

"He's deserving," Boylen said. "I don't know why he's not in there yet. It doesn't make sense to me. Two championships, a gold medal."

That's a reference to Tomjanovich coaching USA Basketball's gold-medal winning team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Tomjanovich is an occasional visitor to the Advocate Center to watch Boylen.

"What he did with those Rockets teams and his playoff games — sixth seed in '95 — nobody's duplicated that. To win it from the sixth seed, play on the road like we did," Boylen said. "He has an unbelievable record in elimination games, which I think is a true test of your coaching and being able to communicate your message. I think he's getting in."

Does Boylen possess inside information?

"No," Boylen said, smiling. "He's due."

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Injury notes: Latest on Wendell Carter, Otto Porter, Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn

Injury notes: Latest on Wendell Carter, Otto Porter, Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn

Jim Boylen, Wendell Carter Jr. and Otto Porter Jr. spent the majority of their time speaking to media after the team’s first post-All-Star break practice laying a trail of injury-related tea leaves.

Carter has been sidelined with a high ankle sprain since Jan. 6, and Porter hasn’t played since spraining his foot on Nov. 6. Both took part in practice (which featured “some contact” according to Boylen) and are inching closer to respective returns, though nothing is official as of yet.

"Otto participated in practice and got his legs underneath him. Wendell, we kinda put him in for two possessions, then take him out for two and kinda getting him back comfortable," Boylen said.

“Just taking it one day at a time,” said Carter, who said on the Friday of All-Star weekend that he was shooting for a return this Thursday (Feb. 20) against the Hornets. “I practiced today and it felt okay, so I'm just taking it slow. Don't want to rush anything, and end up hurting again, so that's where I'm at right now.

“Depending on the coaching staff, depending on how I'm feeling come game time, of course I want to play Thursday, but I'm [going to] do what's best for the team and for myself."

Boylen declined to say officially whether Carter will be available Thursday, also taking a “we’ll see” approach. Carter is about six weeks into his initial four-to-six week recovery timeline.

Porter, who said he’s “close” to 100 percent, doesn’t yet know when he’ll be back and that “time will tell” how many practices he needs before sliding back into the Bulls’ lineup. He remains without a timetable, and said he is unsure if he’ll be eased back in on a minutes restriction when he is able to return.

“I was able to do everything. I feel good,” Porter said. “I’ll continue it a day at a time, making sure my pain is free."

When asked, Boylen said he doesn’t yet have a clear idea of when Lauri Markkanen (who has been out with a pelvis injury since Jan. 24) might return to practice. This Friday marks four weeks into Markkanen’s initial four-to-six week timeline

There was also no update on Kris Dunn on the two-week anniversary of his initial two-week re-examination timeline for a sprained right MCL suffered against the Nets on Jan. 31.

[RELATED: Bulls preparing for possibility of losing Kris Dunn for rest of season]

Still, things are moving in the right direction for the Bulls on the injury front. The team entered the All-Star break on a six-game losing streak that ties a season-high, but Boylen maintained playing competitive basketball down the stretch remains a goal. At 19-36, they will resume play five games behind the Magic for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference.

“I think doing both, I think that's what our challenge is this year,” Boylen said of the team’s dual objectives of winning and developing. “Part of development is you hope to play in some meaningful games, and we've had a couple of those situations this year compared to last year, and I'm hoping we can have more. I'm hoping.

"Health is part of that and just getting better. I got a good group of guys that play hard, and we gotta continue to do that, and hopefully improve as we go down the stretch here.”

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