Baller Mind Frame

NBA free agency: Change of shape in the Eastern Conference

Image courtesy of Keith Allison/Flickr.

Image courtesy of Keith Allison/Flickr.

As the 2014 NBA free agency crept up on us, rumors ran abundant. Some realistic, such as Chris Bosh to the Houston Rockets; some not so much, such as LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony to the Los Angeles Lakers. With that being said, there was one thing that was for certain — the shape of the league was in the hands of the sculptor, LeBron James. After NBA geeks around the world, such as myself, waited patiently impatiently for the stroke of midnight on July 1, excited to see what this highly-anticipated free agency would bring us, nothing happened. It was then clear, LeBron was Santa Claus and Christmas was running on his schedule.

When the news finally broke and LeBron announced that he was “Coming Home” to Cleveland, NBA free agency officially kicked off. The pieces all started quickly falling into place and we began seeing the change of shape across the league, especially in the Eastern Conference. But does this new shape make LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers the frontrunner in the Eastern Conference? Not so fast!

While, yes, Cleveland is obviously going to be the most improved team in the East, they still have a long way to go before they can reach the elite level that James and company hope to attain. LeBron himself even said, “I’m ready to accept the challenge.” He knows it won’t be easy. So if a LeBron-led team isn’t going to be the frontrunner of the East, then who will be?

Miami Heat
May as well begin with last season’s Eastern Conference champs. Pat Riley went from almost losing his entire team to essentially just replacing LeBron with Luol Deng. While in no way, shape or form is Deng LeBron, he is still a tremendous player at all aspects of the game. When it comes to versatility, Deng is up there with the best of them. Bringing in Danny Granger and Josh McRoberts, as well as trading for Shabazz Napier during the NBA Draft, will also help. But let’s face it, what do we really expect from Dwyane Wade at this point in his hobbled career? What about Chris Bosh? Luckily for the Heat, they can beat up on most of their Eastern opponents and still finish toward the top of the conference.

Indiana Pacers
The mysterious Indiana Pacers are the most consistently inconsistent team in the league. One night they are championship contenders, the next night they should blow up their team and start over. The loss of Lance Stephenson might actually be a blessing in disguise. This is a team that needs continuity and leadership, not a circus clown. But at the same time, please stop trying to pretend that Rodney Stuckey or C.J. Miles are fully capable of replacing Lance. That’s simply not true. It’s going to have to be a full team effort to replace his versatility. Good thing they traded Granger for nothing! Now maybe they can do the same with Roy “Zero Points, Zero Boards” Hibbert.

Chicago Bulls
Derrick Rose. Derrick Rose. Derrick Rose. It’s sad to say, but after putting all of my money on D-Rose to come back on top a season ago (I drafted him third overall in a fantasy basketball league), I just can’t do it again. And no, I’m not one of those dudes that is going to sit here and slander a player because of how he affected my fake, fantasy basketball league — at least not a player of Rose’s caliber and in his awful situation. But I am a realist, and as unfortunate as it is, it’s just tough to see that man ever playing at the level that he once did.

The Bulls roster did improved, however. With the signing of Pau Gasol and Aaron Brooks as well as the trading for Doug McDermott on draft night, and the potential rise of Tony Snell, the Bulls are definitely an improved team. Coach Tom Thibodeau will have his guys playing hard all season, wearing their opponents thin and beating them out of pure hustle and willpower. But can they contend for the Eastern Conference title? Derrick Rose.

Washington Wizards
With the signing of Paul Pierce, they are instantly my favorite team in the East. The Truth is essentially replacing Trevor Ariza, who bolted for the Houston Rockets after having another solid season… in another contract year. Haven’t we seen this before? Oh, yes, that’s right! Houston already fell for Ariza once and it didn’t work out in their favor. Interesting. As for Pierce, he is slower, less athletic, can’t defend the top small forwards, won’t be able to play as many minutes as Ariza, but he’ll still give them four or five more wins and a few more daggers in the playoffs. That’s Paul Pierce for you. “That’s why they brought him here!” John Wall, Bradley Beal, Paul Pierce, Nene, and Marcin Gortat is a scary lineup in a weak Eastern Conference.

Toronto Raptors
Who could forget about the awesome and still-under-the-radar Toronto Raptors? Well, not me. Not after their legendary GM Masai Ujiri dropped an F-bomb in the direction of the Brooklyn Nets before their first round playoff match-up last season. Being able to retain Kyle Lowry, as well as the continuity of the young, but maturing roster, is huge for the emerging Raptors. Last year’s third seed could quietly make a run at the top seed this year. Exciting times for Canadian hoops.

Cleveland Cavaliers
Last, but not least, the Cleveland LeBrons. It will be a fun season again, but do they have enough around LeBron to make an NBA Finals appearance? No. You cannot depend on Kyrie Irving’s health and you sure can’t depend on Anderson Varejao’s. Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters are not the answer and it’s tough to predict what kind of impact rookie Andrew Wiggins will have after only seeing him for a brief NCAA season. But regardless of their current roster, all of the talk surrounding the Cavs will be about bringing in Kevin Love. You bring in Love as well as Ray Allen to shoot alongside Mike Miller, and then things may be looking a little different in C-Town.

After tilting the league on its axis while bolting for Miami, LeBron has possibly restored a sense of normalcy to the NBA, making for a much more exciting and competitive season than the past few years. The anticipation builds as we head into the dog days of summer.

You can follow Rich Peters on Twitter @Tricky_Roma.

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