When LeBron James decided to sign with the Cleveland Cavaliers last week, the balance of power in the Eastern Conference shifted away from the Miami Heat, who have represented the conference in the NBA Finals the past four seasons.
The question now: Who becomes the favorites in the East?
As the top seed last season, the Indiana Pacers have done little this offseason outside of adding C.J. Miles as a potential replacement for the erratic Lance Stephenson, and there are concerns about Roy Hibbert (due $14.2 million) and his long-term future with the franchise.
In the blink of an eye, the Brooklyn Nets replaced Jason Kidd with Lionel Hollins but lost Paul Pierce, Shaun Livingston and Marcus Thornton, all vital pieces to the success during their postseason run.
With playoff teams adding major players to become title contenders and non-playoff teams (see New York Knicks) reshaping their roster and identity, there will be a battle atop the conference among many teams, not just a two-team race between the Heat and Pacers like in past years.
Which team is most likely to capture the top seed next season?
Breakdown: Encouraging news for Bulls fans–Derrick Rose, the face of the franchise, was named to the Team USA roster for training camp at the end of the month and looks to be in great shape, according to reports. If the 2011 MVP resembles anything of his explosive form, he could lead them to the Finals with the strongest supporting cast he’s ever had.
Pau Gasol, still an elite offensive big man, will pair alongside Joakim Noah, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, to form a lethal tandem up front. Gasol averaged 17.4 PPG and 9.7 RPG with the Los Angeles Lakers last season, while Noah is a rim protector, a solid one on one defender and an exceptional team defender.
Besides those two, McDermott adds another versatile scoring threat off the bench as a rookie, Jimmy Butler is an emerging two-way player who can score, and Mike Dunleavy Jr. is a knockdown three point shooter who Rose will create easy looks for. Taj Gibson was also a Sixth Man of the Year candidate who’s capable of defending multiple positions and provides athleticism at either forward spot.
Most importantly, Gasol brings a championship pedigree to Tom Thibodeau’s system. Should Rose return as the D-Rose we all know (a big if), what’s not to like about the Bulls coming out the East?
Breakdown: Perhaps the biggest free agency signing in NBA history, the King returns home to Cleveland, calling it a move bigger than basketball. He left Pat Riley and his friends in South Beach as soon as he realized they weren’t good enough to win championships anymore. Now, he returns home in search of just a single championship for the city of Cleveland, recognizing it may take a few years to do so.
Most would agree this Cleveland roster is better than the one James left in 2010, where James hopes to build a bond with star point guard Kyrie Irving and develop the No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins into the player most think he could be (a young Tracy McGrady).
The Cavaliers have refused to add Wiggins in any trade discussions for Kevin Love, which begs the question: Who is a better fit for James as he enters the latter part of his career, Wiggins or Love? It comes down to betting on Wiggins’ potential as an elite two-way wing player, or Love’s proven ability to always accrue numbers (26.1 PPG, 12.5 RPG). In the end, which gives?
Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson and Anthony Bennett will all improve tremendously playing with James. That’s arguably the best trait to his game – the ability to elevate everyone else’s game, a similar impact that Magic Johnson had whoever he played with.
Even with just Irving as his wing man, James might have the Cavaliers playing in the Finals next year, but it will depend on how fast Wiggins transitions his game to the NBA level. The signing of Mike Miller was highly endorsed by James. Is Ray Allen next?
Breakdown: Chris Bosh ultimately decided to take a max contract with Miami instead of playing with an immediate contender out West with Dwight Howard and James Harden in Houston. Bringing back Dwyane Wade was nothing short of a surprise but question marks surround his health, especially earning close to $17 million a season and turning 33 in January.
Deng replaces James at small forward as a veteran and versatile “3-and-D” guy. Granger and McRoberts are valuable role players, while McRoberts does have starter’s ability if Bosh continues to play center. He started 78 games for Charlotte last season as an all-around power forward. Between Napier and Norris Cole, there will be plenty of competition for playing time behind Mario Chalmers.
Riley still has a ways to go to build the rest of the roster, but the team’s success will come down to Wade’s health and paired with Bosh, if the two are even good enough anymore to get out the first round.
New York Knicks
Breakdown: The reshaping of the Knicks identity started in March when Phil Jackson was hired. He was guaranteed complete autonomy by Knicks owner James Dolan and it seems to be paying off now.
Jackson convinced Carmelo Anthony to re-sign with the team knowing there are limitations in cap space and trading for Calderon, Dalembert, Larkin and Ellington in the trade with the Dallas Mavericks. Jackson identified Calderon as the point guard whose game fits perfectly within the confines of the triangle offense that will be implemented by Jackson and rookie head coach Derek Fisher.
Like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant were before they played in the triangle, Carmelo is an elite isolation scorer. The burden is on Fisher now (under Jackson’s tutelage) to transform him into more than just a scorer. The Knicks have a young, talented roster full of perimeter scorers and defenders between J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Tim Hardaway Jr. and the rookie Early.
Outside of the $120 million he’s getting and having Jackson head the franchise, why else would Carmelo re-sign? The team will have cap space next summer, where Jackson plans on targeting Marc Gasol as the second star, per Marc Berman of the New York Post.