Now that the best player in the world has decided he'd like to go home, the question stands: Who figures to benefit most from LeBron James choosing to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers in free agency?
A few thoughts on how the Eastern Conference has changed since Friday morning, and which teams might now find their chances of
getting destroyed by the San Antonio Spurs competing for an NBA championship improved by LeBron leaving the Miami Heat:
• Cleveland Cavaliers. Well, duh.
Obviously, slotting the best basketball player in the world into the lineup at small forward will help Cleveland quite a bit. How much remains to be seen, but a pair of statistical projections are pretty bullish — Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight pegs the Cavs as presently constituted as a 52-win team, while Nathan Walker of The Basketball Distribution has Cleveland landing at 55 wins, a 22-victory improvement over last season. So, y'know, that's pretty good.
In 2009-10, James' last season in Cleveland, the Cavs ranked fourth in the NBA in points scored per possession and seventh in points allowed per possession. They have not ranked higher than 17th among 30 NBA teams in either category in the four years since. That will change; LeBron, by himself, nearly assures a top-10 offense. (How much the Cavs can improve on their 17th-place finish in defensive efficiency from this past season remains to be seen — the cupboard still appears awfully light on defensive game-changers in Cleveland, although given the motivation that seems to be attending his homecoming, I'd imagine we'll see a much more committed version of James on the defensive end this season than we did in Miami last year, which could be enough to get up into the top half of the league.)
Happily for James, he won't be alone in Cleveland. In addition to the max-level contract he's able to offer after the trade that cleared the salaries of Jarrett Jack, Tyler Zeller and Sergey Karasev, Cavs general manager David Griffin — who is living a charmed life three months into his new job — can also offer James the opportunity to play alongside recently maxed out All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving, beloved former teammate Anderson Varejao and, depending on salary demands and roster space, perhaps favorite floor-spacing buddies like Ray Allen, Mike Miller or James Jones.
Add to that stalwart power forward Tristan Thompson, offensively gifted (and sometimes cursed) shooting guard Dion Waiters and, depending on how the Cavs' roster-building takes shape, possibly 2013 top pick Anthony Bennett (who started to show flashes before suffered a late-season knee injury and apparently showed up to Summer League in great shape) and 2014 top pick Andrew Wiggins, an exhilarating athletic talent who also profiles as a potential greyhound defender on the perimeter, all under the watchful eye of highly touted Euroleague head coach David Blatt, who sounds (as you might expect) fairly pleased to be coaching LeBron, and you've pretty clearly got the conditions for a massive leap up the standings. (And if Griffin and company elect to roll some of those young assets together — including, lest we forget, the 2015 first-round draft pick that Miami owes Cleveland from the original LeBron-to-the-Heat sign-and-trade in 2010 — to take a run at All-NBA power forward Kevin Love ... well, let's just say that a LeBron-Love-Kyrie trio might nudge that "52- to 55-win" projection skyward a bit.)
I'm not so sure the new-look Cavs instantly become title favorites, as some oddsmakers project — like James himself, I'm not convinced LeBron's young teammates are quite ready to make that sort of run to the Finals just yet. But they're head and shoulders above where they were this time three months ago, and it will be fascinating to see how the rest of the roster takes shape.
• Chris Bosh. Cha-ching!
• Indiana Pacers. They have an All-NBA two-way emerging star in Paul George. They've had the NBA's best defense for two years running, and just made several additions aimed at goosing their long-range-shooting-deficient, 22nd-ranked-among-30-teams offense. They were in the conversation for best team in the league for about four months before the bottom dropped out, and the foe that eliminated them from the last three postseasons just lost their best and most important player. Even if Indiana fans feel sick to their stomach at the prospect of James tormenting them even more frequently now that he's back in the Central Division, this represents an opportunity for the Pacers to strike, to scramble up the standings, and to become the team they've believed themselves to be for these past two years.
This will require answering one major question: whether the Pacers' front office is willing to do what is necessary to re-sign free-agent shooting guard Lance Stephenson, who reportedly balked at a five-year, $44 million offer at the start of free agency. As Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star writes, "It may seem like a lot, but it's the market, and the market dictates terms. Now, the Pacers have to step up and realistically respond to the market." If they do — and if center Roy Hibbert can put his post-February swoon behind him, and if point guard George Hill can restore faith in his ability to be more than just a nice defender, and if head coach Frank Vogel can demonstrate both a willingness to trust his reserves and an ability to coax something better than terrible play out of the hand Larry Bird and company have dealt him — then the Pacers could see their slow and steady climb toward the top of the Eastern Conference rewarded with their first NBA Finals trip since 2000.
• Washington Wizards. Randy Wittman's crew dispatched of the Bulls in the opening round of the 2014 playoffs and put the fear of God into the Pacers by going into Bankers Life Fieldhouse and taking home-court advantage away from Indiana in Game 1 of their second-round series. They'd eventually fall by the wayside, thanks to the rebirth of Hibbert, some heroics from George, and a series-long struggle for John Wall, but they were right there, a team with a strong defensive spine, a smart, skilled and complementary two-way frontcourt pairing in Nene and Marcin Gortat, and a pair of ascendant stars in the guard tandem of All-Star playmaker Wall and just-turned-21 sniper Bradley Beal. Even as summertime decisions loomed, the Wiz had the feeling of a team on the uptick; now's the time to turn the tick into a boom.
The Wizards have locked up Gortat, which might make Washingtonians wince four years from now but will make opponents do that this coming year. James returning to Cleveland eliminates one reported potential suitor for the services of Trevor Ariza; if Daryl Morey matches the offer sheet tendered by the Dallas Mavericks to restricted free agent Chandler Parsons, that'd knock out another. If the Wiz get lucky, they might be able to bring back their steady 3-and-D swingman for something closer to their preferred price tag than his, securing the starting five that propelled them to their first playoff berth since 2008.
There'd still be plenty of work to do to build up a bench that's looking awful thin at the moment, but if Wall and Beal continue to evolve as both playmakers and scorers, the Nene-Gortat front line keeps bruising opposing bigs, and mostly invisible 2013 No. 3 overall pick Otto Porter steps into the injured Martell Webster's role at the reserve swing spot, then Washington could be poised to take its first division title since Dick Motta, Elvin Hayes and Bobby Dandridge led the Bullets to the 1978-79 Atlantic Division crown ... and maybe even improve upon last year's second-round finish.
• Toronto Raptors. I wrote at length about the Raptors' position on Thursday, after they re-signed restricted free agent point guard Greivis Vasquez and brought back defensive swingman James Johnson, so I'll do this quickly:
This is a deep, talented team with defined leadership in re-upped point guard Kyle Lowry, All-Star shooting guard DeMar DeRozan, and do-everything big man Amir Johnson. Toronto was one of only four NBA teams to finish in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency last year, and that can improve on both ends of the floor simply by getting anticipated internal development from the likes of gifted Lithuanian center Jonas Valanciunas (just 22 years old) and hyper-athletic wing defender Terrence Ross (only 23). And they've got noted wheeler-and-dealer Masai Ujiri at the controls, with plenty of movable contracts on the books, control all of the Raps' own future first-round picks and an extra 2016 first-rounder coming from the New York Knicks (thanks, Andrea!) with which to pursue possible upgrades to the core.
The Raptors were seconds away from knocking off the Brooklyn Nets last year, and they look like they could be building something; if the power structure at the top of the conference gets upset, they could find their project ahead of schedule.
And some honorable mentions:
• Atlanta Hawks. Lest we forget, the full-strength Hawks were 16-13, ranking 10th in the NBA in points scored per possession and 13th in points allowed per possession, when Al Horford went down for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. They'll have him back for the start of the season to rejoin perpetual fringe All-Star Paul Millsap, still-growing scorer and playmaker Jeff Teague and sharpshooting wing Kyle Korver, and gobs of cap space with which to either target free agents or accept other teams' high-priced talent in trade after jettisoning the $7 million owed to John Salmons, acquired in the pre-free-agency trade that shipped Lou Williams' $5.45 million salary (plus 2013 first-round pick Lucas Nogueira) to Toronto. There are more moves to be made here, but Danny Ferry's assembled an interesting collection of talent under shooting-obsessed Pop disciple Mike Budenholzer and created a variety of ways to improve the Hawks from constant also-ran to real threat in an uncertain conference.
• Chicago Bulls. Grab Carmelo Anthony and/or Pau Gasol and they shoot to the top of this list, pairing offensive hubs and playmaking acumen with the existing infrastructure of Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah, top-notch coach Tom Thibodeau, stalwart role players like Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson, first-round bucket-getter Doug McDermott and the wild card to end all wild cards, former MVP point guard Derrick Rose. Grab Dwyane Wade and ... well, grab 'Melo and/or Pau and they shoot to the top of this list.
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