(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Only in the Eastern Conference can teams six games below a .500 record get into the NBA playoffs two consecutive years. Atlanta managed to do it last season; Milwaukee, the season prior. Despite how weak the conference has been recently, there is a lone bright spot: the Central Division.

“It’s safe to say that whoever is coming out of the East (in the NBA Finals) might be a Central Division team,” Pacers swingman Paul George commented this week. “Once again we’ve got our plate full. But we like our chances.”

From Lottery Central to almost certain contenders, the Central Division has flipped the NBA on its head since free agency began.

Although they haven’t had a champion since before the league moved to a six-division format in 2004, since 2008-09, the team with top regular season overall record in the NBA has come from the Central Division five times—Miami in 2012-13 being the lone exception. Of those five occurrences, three different teams from the Central Division have held the top overall spot: Cleveland, Chicago, and Indiana. LeBron James’s decision to return to his home town of Cleveland last week certainly strengthened the Central Division’s case for most competitive tier in the league. But it wasn’t the first instance of some claiming the division’s superiority.

Since 2004, the Central Division has boasted 10 all-NBA first and second-team players, 22 all-defensive first and second-team players, three defensive player of the year awards, three most valuable player awards, one sixth man of the year award, two rookie of the year awards, two most improved player awards, two coach of the year awards, 36 all-star selections, and three All-star game MVPS.

There’s no denying that the Central Division is the top rung on the Eastern Conference ladder. In the 2005-06 season, all five teams from the division qualified for the postseason—and no other division can say the same.

Chicago, Indiana, and Cleveland look poised to be contenders in 2014-15.

Derrick Rose returns to the Chicago Bulls at full strength next season, and with the additions of Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott, and Cameron Bairstow—Chicago has cleansed their payroll of veteran Carlos Boozer’s contract, patched glaring holes by bringing in effective scorers and efficient shooters, and appears to ready to play their most formidable lineup in years.

Frank Vogel’s Indiana Pacers won 56 games a season ago, but collapsed at the finish line of both the regular season and Eastern Conference finals. They’ll bring back the league’s top defense the past two seasons, and three likely all-stars in Roy Hibbert, David West, and Paul George. Losing showman Lance Stephenson will hurt, but swingman C.J. Miles was brought on in Indiana to stretch the floor and Larry Bird will likely make more moves to solidify his second-unit or bring in someone to handle the point position. A lot of what Vogel’s system depends on Hibbert’s ability to play off of complementary big David West, and if Hibbert can get his rebounding numbers and rim protection consistent, there are few drawbacks to the Pacer lineup.

The hype hanging over Andrew Wiggins’s head will finally disperse when he begins his tenure with the league this season. Joe Harris is a new addition on the wing as is veteran shooter Mike Miller. Miller and James are reportedly looking to regroup with three-point kingpin Ray Allen if he’s willing to stave off retirement for another year. Cleveland folded without James, and he’ll definitely generate an impact on their shooting which has been disastrous since he left.

Since 2007-08, every team from the NBA’s midwestern subset has made the playoffs. With James back in Cleveland, Paul George back in Indiana, and hopefully Derrick Rose back in Chicago, the Central Division has no shortage on star power.

Josh Planos has had his work featured at Rivals, Bleacher Report, Denver Post, CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio, and ESPN Radio, and is currently a columnist for the ESPN TrueHoop Network, FanSided and The Pick and Roll. He loves interacting with readers via Twitter (@JPlanos).