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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Division preview: Central

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The Cavs could have acted like their owner, Dan Gilbert, and launched into a panic-ridden rampage after LeBron James left his hometown after seven years. What would've been the point? Sour grapes weren't going to bring LeBron James back.

So the Cavs insist they've moved on. On some fronts, they've done it in a forced, cheesy way by announcing with much fanfare the expansion of the team's fan shop at Quicken Loans Arena. (Hurry, before the Joey Graham jerseys are sold out.) They even brought back comic sans for a Cavs.com logo on their home court after Gilbert made the awkward font famous in his post-Decision screed to the King.

But in the most important decisions they'll be making in the post-LBJ era, the Cavs are doing it the right way. They could've panicked and let that trade exception burn a hole in their pocket, using it to acquire an overpriced commodity like Andre Iguodala or Vince Carter. They could've done what the Suns did when they lost Amar'e Stoudemire and lavished $18 million on the likes of Hakim Warrick.

But they didn't. They're being patient, which is what they should do.

It took seven years for LeBron to leave Cleveland, and he can't be replaced in seven weeks. This is not to say that Gilbert won't regret his promise that the Cavs would win a title before King James, because chances are very good that he will regret that statement mightily –- and perhaps very soon.

Gilbert will have to endure the embarrassment of going from first-to-worst in the Central Division, but the payoff will come eventually if his management team –- GM Chris Grant and former Suns exec David Griffin –- continues its patient approach. After the collective bargaining uncertainty is resolved, maybe the Cavs can even ink their first marquee free agent with a contract presented entirely in comic sans.

Predicted order of finish (2009-10 records):
1. Bulls (41-41)
2. Bucks (46-36)
3. Pacers (32-50)
4. Pistons (27-55)
5. Cavaliers (61-21)

Chicago Bulls

Can Korver loosen up defenses from the perimeter? (Getty Images)  
Can Korver loosen up defenses from the perimeter? (Getty Images)  
What has to go right: Chicago needs marquee free-agent signee Carlos Boozer to do something he's always struggled to do: stay healthy. Wait, what? Boozer's hurt already? Not good. But if Boozer can stay on the floor, he should form a dynamic inside-outside duo with Derrick Rose, who desperately needed someone to share the offensive load. The Bulls never replaced the perimeter scoring they lost when Ben Gordon went to Detroit, though they tried by wooing LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Like everyone but the Heat, Chicago had to shift to Plan B. Getting Boozer to command the blocks, Kyle Korver to spread the floor, and Ronnie Brewer to replace Kirk Hinrich's defense wasn't too shabby a backup plan. Plus, if it's any consolation for their failed bid to get LeBron, Wade or both, at least James left the Cavs, leading the Central up for grabs.

What could go wrong: The Bulls performed so wildly above their potential against the Celtics in the playoffs two years ago that it's easy to forget they've been a .500 team the past two seasons. And two of the biggest keys to their epic performance against the Celtics –- Gordon and Hinrich -- are gone. The two-guard spot is held down by what can best be described as a serviceable duo of Keith Bogans and Brewer. So that means if the Bulls are going to take a big step forward, a lot of it is going to have to come from Boozer. And he only got to the Western Conference finals once in five years playing with Deron Williams, whom many (including myself) regard as the best point guard in the NBA. Just sayin'.

X-factor: Omir Asik. The Bulls signed their 2008 draft-day acquisition over the summer in hopes that he is ready to follow in the footsteps of fellow Turkish stars Mehmet Okur and Ersan Ilyasova. In his first six preseason games, the 7-footer shot 57 percent and displayed signs of being able to make an impact. How much of an impact remains to be seen.

Milwaukee Bucks

Milwaukee is looking for stability inside from Bogut. (Getty Images)  
Milwaukee is looking for stability inside from Bogut. (Getty Images)  
What has to go right: Andrew Bogut is slowly being worked back into the Bucks' plans after that horrific arm injury last spring. Once he's back to full strength, Bogut's All-Star talent will make Brandon Jennings' sophomore season infinitely easier. Not only can Bogut be counted on to carry a significant offensive load, but his presence around the basket will anchor one of the better defensive teams in the East. GM John Hammond continued his effective blueprint for building a competitive team with no resources, and he even stepped outside the box by trading for Corey Maggette. The versatile swingman is a noted killer of offensive flow, but Hammond felt strongly that Jennings needed someone else capable of getting his own shot and breaking down the defense. By adding Maggette and retaining John Salmons, Hammond assured that the Bucks will be more than a methodical team that relies solely on defense, rebounding and scrappiness. If Bogut is back and Maggette serves his purpose, the Bucks' varied attack will force opponents to worry about multiple options. And it's a long shot, but if Michael Redd can somehow make it back from yet another knee injury -- at least to contribute some deep shooting off the bench -- the Bucks will challenge the Bulls for the division title.

What could go wrong: Jennings will have to carry a bigger load than he did as a rookie, which is the natural progression for a point guard. Scott Skiles relied on Luke Ridnour to handle a lot of the playmaking duties last season, but Ridnour is gone and Jennings has to be ready to expand his game. That's not to say he can't, but Jennings might find a whole new set of pressures piloting a playoff team with expectations.

X-factor: Skiles isn't counting on Redd until sometime in 2011. If he can make it back for part-time duty in the playoffs, he could provide a deep-shooting luxury that might've been enough to push Milwaukee past the Hawks in the first round last season.

Indiana Pacers

Is Collison the long-awaited answer at the point for the Pacers? (Getty Images)  
Is Collison the long-awaited answer at the point for the Pacers? (Getty Images)  
What has to go right: The Pacers are counting on strong comebacks from Tyler Hansbrough and Mike Dunleavy Jr. to return to the playoffs for the first time since Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson were on the roster. So far so good; both have enjoyed impressive preseasons. Plus, the Pacers have been pleasantly surprised with center Roy Hibbert's improvement. Add the fact that GM David Morway was able to import his long-sought point guard by trading for Darren Collison, and it's easy to see why the Pacers believe they've finally turned the corner in their long journey back to respectability after the brawl at the Palace in 2004. The Pacers look like a playoff team to me, but in small-market land, everything has to go perfectly. That means Hibbert has to translate his preseason performance to the 82-game grind, Hansbrough and Dunleavy have to remain healthy, and Collison has to hold up as a starting point guard.

What could go wrong: If Collison isn't up to the task of being a starting, playoff-caliber point guard -- and/or if the injury bug strikes Danny Granger for the third straight year -- that would be too much for the Pacers to overcome.

X-factor: Hibbert could make or break the Pacers. If he's consistently effective, they'll be fun to watch and a threat for the eighth seed.

Detroit Pistons

Detroit's $35 million man, Charlie Villanueva. (Getty Images)  
Detroit's $35 million man, Charlie Villanueva. (Getty Images)  
What has to go right: Unfortunately for the Pistons, what has to go right never will. What has to go right is, the three-guard rotation of Rodney Stuckey, Rip Hamilton and Ben Gordon has to work, and Charlie Villanueva has to be worth $35 million. If those things happen, and if Austin Daye can play, and if Ben Wallace walks into a time machine and comes out the other side in the year 2001, the Pistons might just be OK. But few, if any of those things will happen, so look for the Pistons to be in tear-down mode. The team is for sale, and soon Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince will be, too.

What could go wrong: Let's make that what could go really wrong, because plenty will go just plain old wrong. But a glimmer of hope for the Pistons comes in the form of first-round pick Greg Monroe, who appears to be the low-post force they've been lacking. But it's conceivable that either A) he isn't ready, or B) he's ready but the Pistons will be so dysfunctional that his contributions will be muted by turmoil. Take your pick.

X-factor: I'm just going to assume that Hamilton will be traded, and at that point, this can finally be Stuckey's team. A backcourt of Stuckey and Gordon will be spectacular one way or another -- spectacularly good or bad. Either way, I want to see it.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Ramon Sessions gets a shot for the punchless Cavaliers. (Getty Images)  
Ramon Sessions gets a shot for the punchless Cavaliers. (Getty Images)  
What has to go right: Expectations are low. Really low. So Byron Scott gets a free pass to instill his defensive-minded, full-court, conditioning-oriented approach without worrying about veteran backlash. In the meantime, someone has to absorb all the offensive responsibility that used to belong to LeBron. The candidates to get some of LeBron's touches and shots from the small-forward spot are Joey Graham, Jawad Williams, Jamario Moon and Anthony Parker. More likely, the Cavs will become more perimeter-oriented and it'll be a chance for free-agent acquisition Ramon Sessions to shine.

What could go wrong: Nothing, and I mean nothing, could possibly go more wrong than what happened this summer. That was enough wrong for the franchise's entire history -- indeed, the city's sports history. But despite the loss of their franchise cornerstone, the Cavs' brass still believes the team will compete hard for Scott, defend ferociously, and make up for the loss of LeBron by pushing the tempo and being better conditioned than the opponent. It could be a tough sell for veterans like Antawn Jamison, Mo Williams and Anderson Varejao, who will have to adjust from competing for conference titles to just trying to be respectable.

X-factor: J.J. Hickson. With LeBron dominating the offense and Shaq eating up space, Hickson only got to show what he can do on the blocks in cameo appearances. He'll be showcased more on this team, and should benefit from the notion that somebody has to put up numbers on a bad team -- and from the confidence Scott has shown to start him over Jamison.


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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