When LeBron James decided to sign with Cleveland, it caused a seismic shift in the power balance of the Eastern Conference. Had LeBron returned to Miami, the Heat would have been the favorite for the Eastern Conference crown. However, his departure (or return, however you want to frame it) sent the Heat down a peg, while elevating the Cavaliers, though nominating the Cavaliers as the favorite not just for the Eastern Conference title but the NBA championship was premature. With this realignment, the Eastern Conference was now more wide open than ever before. It was still slightly top-heavy, but not as front-loaded as years past.
Of all the teams to benefit from LeBron’s return to Cleveland, the Indiana Pacers perhaps benefited the most.
Prior to the injury, the Pacers were well positioned to contend for the Eastern Conference championship. Even with LeBron in tow, the Cavaliers still aren’t a complete team (if the Kevin Love trade happens, then this is obviously a different story). The Bulls are a more complete team, with the return of Derrick Rose and the addition of Pau Gasol, but it remains to be seen if their offense will be any less Rose-reliant or any more creative. Chris Bosh spurned the Rockets in favor of the Heat, but can he shoulder a heavier offensive burden after four years as the ideal complement to LeBron and Wade? Can Wade be as productive as he was last year, right up until the finals? Can the Heat afford to give him as much rest?
The Pacers had their own worries — could they replace Lance Stephenson’s production? Will they emerge as dominant as they were to begin the season, or as lethargic as they were to end it? — but it’s unclear if those uncertainties were worse than those of the other previously mentioned teams.
All of Indiana’s concerns are now completely out the window — not because they’ve been solved, but because they no longer matter. George’s questions rendered those questions irrelevant, because he was a key part of any answer.
As Evans Clinchy wrote:
Even with George, the Pacers were never a good offensive team. They ranked 23rd in the NBA in offense last season, averaging 104.1 points per 100 possessions, and their shooting went cold for months on end. In a league that’s become increasingly dependent on outside shooting, the Pacers made just 550 3-pointers last year, 22nd-most in the league. Things were already looking shaky, and now the Pacers are without their leading scorer (George) and their second-leading man (Lance Stephenson) heading into next season. That’s 35.51 percent of the team’s scoring – gone.
As devastating as George’s injury is for the Pacers, it’s an obvious boon to the rest of the Eastern Conference. Consider the Eastern Conference playoff locks: the Cavaliers, Heat, Bulls, Hawks, Wizards, Hornets and probably the Nets or Raptors.
A Roy Hibbert-David West-CJ Miles? Solomon Hill?-CJ Watson-George Hill starting five is one bereft of perimeter creation and defense. Their bench, already a sore spot, will be made worse because key bench players will be thrust into starter roles. Can a team with multiple weaknesses really be said to have the edge over the likes of the Pistons, flawed though they may be? It doesn’t seem likely.
One team that might unintentionally, perhaps even unfortunately (for them), benefit from the sudden sad state of the Pacers is the Orlando Magic. If the Pistons once again fail to play as a cohesive team, even in the presence of Stan Van Gundy, the Magic — still very young, but talented at every position — could conceivably fight their way into the final playoff spot, if for no other reason than they ended up as the least bad team in the conference. The Bucks are another team that fit this scenario.
LeBron James’ return to Cleveland opened the door for other contenders at the top of the Eastern Conference, while Paul George’s injury paved way for the lesser teams to taste the playoffs.