The departure of LeBron James has changed the balance of power in the Eastern Conference. Instead of powerhouses in Miami and Indiana, the East now looks more open than ever, and perhaps even weaker than it was last season. As teams have scrambled to snatch up free agents over the last week, the most impactful piece of James’ decision is that we can’t even be sure how the power out East has shifted.
Last season, the Heat and Pacers were head-and-shoulders above their competition in the Eastern Conference, with surprises from Toronto, Chicago and Brooklyn highlighting the final playoff standings. But the real story was just how terrible the bottom and middle-tier teams were. Indeed, six of the bottom 10 teams in the NBA last season were from the East, and 11 wins separated the No. 8 seed in the West (Dallas) from their counterpart in the East (Atlanta).
Indiana figures to be a contender even after losing Lance Stephenson to Charlotte via free agency, though their late-season implosion, Roy Hibbert’s ineffectiveness and the murmurs of locker room discord could prove to be a fatal, irreversible flaw. Without Stephenson to dribble the ball for George Hill, how much worse is that offense going to be? And where a nagging injury could have explained Hibbert’s lack of ability to get a single rebound or point in some games, there have been no indications this offseason of the sort. No one is sure where Indiana is headed, and even though they bumbled their way to the Eastern Conference finals last year, their free agency period doesn’t inspire certain confidence.
In Chicago, defense and total reliance on Joakim Noah to run their offense last season earned them a playoff berth, but what’s next? Yes, they grabbed Pau Gasol, but without knowing what Derrick Rose can provide, they aren’t a lock for contention. The injured point guard has quietly slipped out of the equation, with writers moving him as an afterthought to their considerations and analysis over the last six months. Noah, Taj Gibson and now Gasol will dominate discussion around the team, with ‘a healthy Rose’ added as the caveat and calling card to any column about the Bulls. With Rose, Chicago might be a favorite in the East. Without him you’re gambling that Tom Thibodeau will create offensive magic from the low post for the second year in a row.
That leaves us with Brooklyn. Jason Kidd is gone, and no one is sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing in terms of on-court production. The Nets were awful through the end of 2013, and one of the best teams in the NBA after January 1. What certainly does matter is that Paul Pierce is now in Washington, where he showed last season in the playoffs that he still has the ability to impact a series. Brooklyn, like Chicago, has to rely on an oft-injured point guard but couldn’t afford the luxury of adding a star like Gasol. Is anyone confident that the Nets don’t entirely crumble out of the gates like last season, much less after a potential injury to Deron Williams’ ankle?
The point here is that in the East, every top team has the potential for abject failure in addition to a top seeding in the playoffs. That’s in stark contrast to the West, where no one expects the Clippers, Spurs or Thunder to step on their own feet.
Now, we can finally get to LeBron.
Cleveland is the outlier, with nobody sure what to make of them. Even if the Cavaliers do decide to include Andrew Wiggins in an offer for Kevin Love (which is being discussed as I write this column) a core of Kyrie Irving, James and Love hasn’t quite convinced everyone that their inefficiencies on defense would lend them a shot at a ring. Then again, there’s no guarantee that a core of Irving, Wiggins and James would be any good on defense, either.
The Cavaliers are in an odd position in that, even with the best player on the planet on their roster, they are in the exact same spot as all the other pseudo-contenders in the East. Anderson Varejão might be the weakest link for Cleveland, where a serious injury would render the Cavaliers defense all but useless outside of James and maybe Wiggins. That’s a legitimate concern as the Brazilian center has played in just 146 of an available 312 games (47%) over the last four years.
So if we’re set in that we’re split over Cleveland, what are we to make of the East? The most consistent team after James’ decision appears to be the Toronto Raptors, and that’s after they used their first round pick to draft a player so obscure media outlets were fractured about how to spell his name.
Let’s consider that in a weak East, it has always been James that has prospered. Wiggins or Love, the fact that Irving and another potential star player is by his side this time around in Cleveland should make them favorites. While any Cavaliers team fielded is unlikely to be a staunch defensive squad like we saw in Miami, their offensive dynamism should at least carry them through.
As it has been for nearly a decade, the East looks to be LeBron and everyone else. But without the presence of a superpower, it’s not entirely clear what being the favorites in a second-tier conference means.