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.