Mar 18, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Miami Heat forward LeBron James (6) talks to Cleveland Cavaliers forward Tristan Thompson (13) after a 100-96 Heat win at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

LeBron Returning to Cleveland Only Makes Larry Bird’s Job Harder

After weeks of speculation, it is now official: LeBron James is returning to Cleveland. As astute fans may know, the Cavaliers are in the same conference and division as the Pacers, so this tectonic shift in the Eastern Conference and Central Division will undoubtedly influence the decision making going forward in Indiana.

Larry Bird and the rest of the franchise’s brain trust may not completely alter their team-building philosophy due to one major change. After all, this move likely only changes the conference’s best team from the Heat to the Cavaliers — and Cleveland certainly looks more vulnerable than even the flawed Heat collective that got smoked by the Spurs in the Finals.

Still, the idea of LeBron now leading a team of skilled players in their 20s — chiefly Kyrie Irving and Andrew Wiggins/Kevin Love — rather than an aging team with Chris Bosh and a bunch of guys past their prime has to make you reassess your ability to get out of the East.

Moreover, LeBron making his decision is the first in a series of dominoes that includes choices by Carmelo Anthony, Bosh, and Dwyane Wade. If Bosh and Wade both still return to Miami, and Pat Riley can make another significant move, the South Beach squad could still be one capable of beating even a Pacers team that returns Lance Stephenson. And if Carmelo opts for Chicago to play alongside Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, that could make the Pacers the third best team in their own division.

If you’re Bird and looking at that possibility, you might have to reconsider bringing back a band that struggled to beat the Hawks and got handled by the Heat in the playoffs. It might make him think about letting Lance walk, dumping Roy Hibbert for cap space, and hoping to recharge around Paul George to be a true contender two years from now when George is theoretically hitting his actual prime.

Then again, the Heat breaking up also might make Bird even more eager to stay pat.

While the Cavaliers could be very good immediately, they could struggle to gel quickly. While the Voltron Heat team did make the NBA Finals in year one, nothing was easy. And they had much more talent that currently exists on this Cleveland team, which will likely have the same problem of playing two ball-dominant wings (LeBron and Kyrie) that the 2010 Heat did (LeBron and Wade).

And even if the Bulls assemble a potential super team with Melo/Rose/Joakim, the questions surrounding health (namely Rose’s but Noah also has injury history) means that the conference could be totally up for grabs next season.

With LeBron joing forces wtih Kyrie and Wiggins/Love, you could argue that no matter what happens with Chicago, next season could be the Pacers last, best chance at a title over the next five — especially when you add in young, talented teams in Toronto and Washington (and maybe even Atlanta).

Decisions, decisions. That’s what Larry Bird is paid to make.

And his job just got even harder.


Tags: Indiana Pacers Lance Stephenson Larry Bird LeBron James

  • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

    I popped over here to congratulate Indiana on their one year window as favorites. Cleveland has an inexperienced roster with a rookie head coach. That rarely goes well in the first year. Chicago needs too many things to fall right.

    The Pacers should win the East this year before being clearly outclassed in the future.

    • poot

      here’s your prediction for the 2014-15 Heat:
      Nelson Cole Napier
      Wade Carter Allen
      James Marion Sefolosha
      Bosh Lewis Haslem
      Hawes Bosh Birdman

      *debbie downer sound*

      do you think the Heat can make the playoffs this season? they still have tons of cap space after letting Lebron/Bosh walk and resigning Wade to the Max, but the FA pickings are pretty slim now.

      Indiana will probably be the favorites, only because the East is so so horrible. The finals will be as lopsided, or worse, than this previous one.

      but PG has a great future ahead of him, and Indiana will have flexibility to build around him whether HIbbert returns to form or not. Indiana should be a contender, not clearly outclassed, for years to come, though the thoughts of winning a championship are still merely a pipe dream.
      Thanks for your kind words though!

      • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

        Well, a team with a core of Chalmers, Wade, Deng, and Bosh plus an average supporting cast would still be a playoff team in the East with a coach like Spoelstra pulling the stings is probably still a playoff team… maybe even second round with significant luck.

        But yeah. I think Cleveland will outclass Indiana as their 23 and under youngsters turn into 25 year olds entering their primes.

        • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

          And just to clarify, I’m not predicting that roster. Bosh is probably gone at this point which almost assuredly means Miami is going to do the dirty work necessary to get into the top 10 of the draft and keep from sending their pick to Cleveland.

          As a Heat fan, I’m almost a little relieved. It has been four years since we’ve gotten to exhale as a fan base and just root for them to exceed expectations. Everything they did was at best meeting the unrealistic expectations established by quotes from a pep rally (never ever take pep rallies seriously).

          Basically the only point at which the basketball world collectively said “wow… didn’t think they would do THIS” was when they went on that obscene win streak. I’m hoping Miami puts together something like that 2012 Indiana team (minus the youth) where Heat fans are pleasantly surprised by the team’s performance.

          • poot

            yes the league will be much more interesting, and Miami is great at clearing cap space and rebuilding so i am sure they will be releveant again soon, unless Wade demands a 5 year deal…

          • Ian

            Holy crap the Heat just gave Bosh a max deal.

            Seems like a terrible idea. Guaranteed to keep them out of the lottery but not enough to be a contender.

          • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

            The last two years of that deal will look terrible, but the first three will look great if you can get him moved back over to power forward. If you can’t find a placeholder at center…. well, then you had to have Bosh on the team any way.

            Bosh’s game didn’t just evaporate. He molded it to fit the Heat. He started aggressively guarding perimeter players in the pick and role. He started spotting up off the ball. He added a 3 pointer to clear the lane for Wade and James.

            Put him back in a traditional system and allow him to work as one of the primary options…. He’ll remind people more of Toronto Bosh than a third option.

            He’s a pretty darn good center. He’s a phenomenal power forward.

        • poot

          sure Cleveland has a longer future ahead of them, PG is the only real youngester on the Pacers, maybe Lance if he comes back, but Hibbert/Hill are only 28, they are still far from exiting their primes. and when they begin to, PG will still be young and there will be plenty of cap space to draw in guys who want to play with him… i guess it depends on where you think PG ranks in the NBA hieracrchy, but i think he is easily top 5

          • Ian

            I don’t think PG is top 5 yet but he could be. If they resign Lance and he continues improvement the way he has (a big but hopeful if) the Pacers could definitely have their own big 2, just hitting their primes in 2 years when West and Hibbert come off the books and Hill good trade bait as an expiring deal. This would be really exciting, having two multidimensional players who play both sides of the ball entering their age 26 seasons with like 50 mill in cap space. But a lot has to go right for this to happen.

          • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

            I put Paul George somewhere in the range of Chris Bosh (who I think is under appreciated because he has been playing out of position for several years)

      • Guest

        Where’s Granger on that list?

  • Ian

    Not entirely sure his job got harder. Wiggins is a rookie and Kyrie has had his ups and downs. As the youngsters improve, LeBron will decline. Yes, they are definitely a contender but hardly sure fire favorite, even with Love (who remember doesn’t play defense, just like no one else on Cleveland).

    There seems no evidence to me that Rose will ever come back and be a star quality player again, so I’m not convinced by the Bulls with Melo or Love either.

    If Bosh goes to Houston, Parsons to Dallas and Melo resigns with Knicks, then that closes up some of the suitors for Lance. Ideally Utah doesn’t match for Heyward (as I don’t see the Jazz pursing Lance), it would close off two more suitors for him. I don’t see the Heat chasing Lance after last years playoffs even though they obviously will have cap space, and if Bosh did stay with them, there’s no way they pick up the slack of LeBron leaving to be anything more than a #4 seed. It would have been better if Melo hadn’t discounted the Lakers of course because they could throw money at Lance now, even though he basically plays the same position as Kobe.

    Anyways, I think if Bird does want to blow up the team and rebuild around PG, then Lance should be part of that, since he’s the other potential young star. It does make Hibbert, Hill and West expendable.

    • Earl Malmsteen

      Seems like now that LBJ decided before Parsons’ offer deadline, Bosh will take the max in Houston and the Rockets can then use Bird rights to sign Parsons which it seems like they’ll do. So Lance-to-Dallas doesn’t seem to be off the table.

      I’m still thinking Lance will end up either in Indiana or with the Lakers, since it looks like they could strike out on all the A-listers and have tons of money to blow. Lance could take a 2 year deal for like 24-30M, put up 22 and 8 on a bad team until Kobe’s contract is up, and then hit the market again.

      I actually think for the next year or two the Pacers’ chances are as good as ever. Even if the Cavs bring in Kevin Love, they’re building around the best player in the world with basically nobody else who plays good defense. The best teams have to be at least above average on both sides of the ball, and I don’t see the Cavs doing that defensively (though they will have a top 3 offense very likely).

      My guess is this makes Bird want to bring back the gang, cross his fingers that Roy finds himself, and give it another run. After this year, the possibilities are wide open.

      • Ian

        I don’t think the Rockets go that far into the tax to keep Parsons, especially since he and Bosh play the same position. They have to trade Lin, Asik and something else to clear space for Bosh’s max deal, and that’s only with Parson’s very small cap hold. But I could be wrong.

        Also, I think the Lakers have to see this season as a transition year. They aren’t going to get anyone good enough to make them a contender. Using a bunch of their cap space on Lance might not make sense for their longer term plan,especially since that’d also hurt their draft pick slot. The talk right now is them taking on Lin’s deal which isn’t what a contending team would do. But yes it does seem like if any team is going to go for the fences for Lance, it’d be the Lakers, or Charlotte if they do get Heyward.

        • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

          Rockets already have a deal to move Asik and just struck a deal to move Lin.

          BTW Parsons and Bosh don’t play the same position. Bosh is a 4 or small ball 5. Parsons is a pure 3. Rockets are looking at a starting lineup of Beverly, Harden, Parsons, Bosh, and Howard.

          That is like the Pacers if 1) Hill was an elite defender 2) Lance was elite offensively but couldn’t play defense 3) George was a mediocre defender 4) West could shoot 3s and generally be as good as Bosh 5) Hibbert actually played offense and rebounded more than 10 games per year.

          • Ian

            Looks like they are going to match Parsons. I’m surprised. They’ll basically be over the cap for the life of that deal, having to pay the accelerators on the tax indefinitely and unable to make much if any moves. They’ll have 3 max players and a 4th making 15M a year. Parsons played a lot of small ball 4. While their interior defense should be lights out, they won’t be able to guard anyone on the wing (Parsons isn’t quick enough to guard most of the top 3s in the league, and Harden doesn’t guard anyone).

            As for your analysis, 1) Hill is an elite defender. Not as good on the ball against quick PGs as Beverly, but an excellent team defender who can guard multiple spots. Also, Bosh really isn’t a very good 3 point shooter. He’s shot really well in the playoffs, but last year he shot .339 from 3 and that was nearly a career high for him. Lets see him knock down %37 for a whole season first. He’ll have to on the Rockets because he’ll be in the post even less than with Miami.

            I know the Rockets are a stathead favorite and they’ve done a good job of building the team, but I have my doubts about how this roster will mesh.

          • Earl Malmsteen

            welp i was wrong about bosh to houston. parsons definitely gets matched now so dallas is still open. I think anyone knows that someone will overpay Lance and then the ball is in his court.

          • Brandon Burton

            1) Hill is a great defensive PG; he is just lackluster at the other end.
            2) Pretty accurate
            3) Chandler Parsons is very solid, if not just plain good (not at PG’s level, but still), defensively and is a better outside shooter than Paul George at this point.
            4) West can hit the occasional three, and, for my money IS better than Bosh (who I view as one of, if not THE most overrated player in the league; right up there with Kyrie.
            5) Offense isn’t Hibbert’s role, and Dwight Howard isn’t too good offensively either (He isn’t really great in the post, and can’t do anything from outside 8-10 ft.). The rebounding remark, on the other hand, is pretty much spot on.

          • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

            I think West is a better 4 than Bosh is a 5. West is not a better 4 than Bosh is imo. Bosh has been playing out of position for several years now.

  • Tenacious D.

    The Pacers whole 2014-15 campaign depends on two things: 1) Can Roy return to anything like his 2013 playoffs self? and 2) Will Vogel balance his foolish defense-first approach (which cannot win a championship ever) and develop an offensive scheme? Both are big ifs. If I were Lance, I would be hesitant to resign with a team that won’t utilize my speed and ball-handling skills by stifling me with a stand-around-the-perimeter offense.

    • Ian

      I think those were givens regardless of what LeBron did. The Pacers have to change the offense. It’s that simple. If they can’t figure out how to leverage role player skills like Copeland and Miles then they’ll never get over the hump. It’s what makes teams like the Spurs and Lebron-Heat so much better.

    • Jack Wright

      This is exactly 100% why if I were Lance, I’d find a more suitable home.

    • Brandon Burton

      He was used as the primary playmaker pretty much all year; what games were you watching?! Also, Vogel’s defense first strategy is “foolish” and “can’t win a championship”? WHAT?!! Yes it can, he just needs to learn a little bit about offense, but to claim him system is what would/will/did limit the team from title contention is absolutely absurd.

  • Andrew Wills

    Personally, I think this should be a reason to raise the stakes to keep Lance… Superteams take time to gel… and they dont have Love yet… mentioning him in the same sentence as Wiggins (who hasnt played a minute in the NBA yet) is insulting to Love… who would still have to be traded to Cleveland… As for the Bulls, Rose has to stay healthy and Melo has to pass on a longer deal worth more money, and hes just selfish enough not to pass on that… sooooo Im not buying this yet… Plus correct me if I’m wrong, but we won ALOT of games last year… maybe we fell short, but growth is a process

  • poot

    TRIANGLE pleeeeeeeeeeeeeease

  • Jack Wright

    Lebron takes the easy way out (again) and gets nothing but praise from the media (like always). This decision had nothing to do with his family. It’s all about Lebron finding ways to win easy titles. He’s about to form his second super-team in 4 years, and it works out so perfectly for Lebron with it being in Cleveland.. He avoids the bad look of having played for 3 different teams (which does look bad if you’re the best player on the planet and maybe most gifted ever), and he gets to hide behind the narrative of it being his return home, that his kids will be raised where he was from and go to his high school. What a load of bull. People worship this dude no matter what he does. Then those same people will jump all over a different guy when he does one little thing wrong that they collectively deem unforgiveable. (Uhh.. Lance Stephenson.) You pieces of crap need to wake up.

    • Ian

      You need to branch out a little bit Jack. Every one of your posts is about how awesome Lance is. It’s making me wonder if you aren’t secretly Born Ready signing on here lol.

      Look, most of the Pacers fans love Lance and badly want him back. But we aren’t blind to his flaws. He’s been a screwup since high school and only just recently started getting his crap together. His behavioral issues this last season are a warning sign that has to be factored into any decision to give him a lot of money. What’s more, as flashy and spectacular as he was at some times last year, he finished the season with a below average PER and a very high turnover rate. Who can forget his horrible no-look fast break pass to the stands during the playoffs. He’s still got a ways to go before he’s a potential franchise cornerstone. I’m also really worried that if he doesn’t get the money he thinks he deserves (which I’m guessing is max money) that he’s going to start pouting after a year or two.

      I think it would be a bad move for the Pacers not to keep him because 23 year olds with his kind of talent don’t come to small market teams very often. But it’s idiotic to think that he comes without risks.

      As for LeBron, I do think he’s getting way too much good press for going back to Cleveland. Of course it was a better option than staying in Miami for basketball reasons. I’m sure someone else wrote his letter and he just approved it. And really, how lucky is Cleveland, to get LeBron back and stumble into yet another #1 overall pick? But I don’t blame LeBron for making the move. It would have been dumb to sit in Miami and watch them assemble decreasingly good teams around him and Wade and Bosh, who seemed to stop trying in the playoffs.

      • poot

        obviously Jack makes a good point, he did it for selfish and cowardly reasons, staying in Miami he is damned if he do (f u lebron for ruining parity in the NBA) damned if he dont (what a chump unable to win even with tons of stars by his side) … cleveland = no pressure, shoot he set the expectation for the rest of his career, at least 7 more years, at ONE ring, and NOT winning next season.

        given that, he is the best player in the league and has incredible sway in how the NBA operates. whether his intention or not, he has made a move which helps parity, helps small markets, and in general will make the NBA much more enjoyable.

        oh and fuck the heat

      • Jack Wright

        see what happens when we don’t have him

  • Ian

    So Lin has gone to the Lakers, which I think means they don’t have room to make an offer for Lance.
    Dallas is looking at Deng or Ariza for SF, meaning Lance isn’t currently on their radar.

    Assuming Utah matches Charlottes offer for Heyward, that really just leaves the Hornets as the only real threat to steal Lance away at this point as far as I can tell. In theory the Heat could try as well, but that’d be a pretty messy roster with Wade and Lance being sort of redundant players and all the crap that went on during the playoffs.

  • Dennis Hawkins

    Jordan Hill just got signed for more money per year than we are offering Lance.

    Jordan Hill

    We deserve everything that we are going to get.

    • Earl Malmsteen

      Guess who doesn’t deserve everything they are going to get? Jordan Hill.

      The Pacers aren’t going into the tax blindly and paying an extra 100%+ on the dollar to sign Lance. Given that’s true, you’re basically complaining the Pacers haven’t traded another starter yet to sign him.

    • Brandon Burton

      Uh, it isn’t as if we CAN offer much more; Herb Simon doesn’t want to dip into the luxury tax (completely understandable considering attendance for games not featuring Miami, LA, or ChiTown. 5 and 44 is pretty much the ceiling of what we can do with that being the case; especially after the Miles, European what’s-his-name (I’m too lazy to look it up), and Allen deals.

      • Dennis Hawkins

        Pacers made money, the leaked memo showed that. And that memo wasn’t factoring in arena deals. Remember that 160 mil handout Indy is giving them? So yeah, Herb not wanting to dip into the luxury tax is his decision to make money over trying to win a championship. We are talking about dipping into it a couple mil for 1 year, not the horrible repeater tax teams avoid.

        It’s a ceiling the Pacers created, a ceiling that could easily go up by going into the tax or dealing Cope or releasing Scola. We are a small market and we CANNOT let talent walk away from us. It just cannot be replaced through free agency. In two years we are going to end up overpaying a couple C tier free agents in a desperate attempt to surround PG with talent.

    • Ian

      Jordan Hill is actually a pretty damn good player. He didn’t start because the Lakers had Gasol, but his PER was nearly 20 (way higher than Lance’s, btw). He shot a very high percentage and had an outstanding rebound rate (over 14 per 40 minutes played). He’s only 26 and probably has the makings of a solid NBA starter.

      Ultimately we don’t know how much Lance is asking for. If its somewhere near the max, there isn’t much the Pacers can do, they just don’t have the cap space. If its 1-2 M more than what the Pacers are offering, that’s a bit different, as its possible the Pacers could have secured him before teams like Charlotte started getting desperate.