LeBron James' exit has Eastern Conference teams dreaming big once again

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Although that coaching change remains the Raptors significant change this summer, constant rumblings suggest a roster shakeup could soon be in the works. There’s another possible scenario, too: since LeBron is gone (and therefore Toronto can rid itself of those “LeBronto” wisecracks), why not stay the course with DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Co. … at least for another year?

Those decisions are above Nurse’s pay grade, so he’s assuming the status quo will remain unless it doesn’t. Meanwhile, he’s not taking something else for granted.

“You can’t automatically say, `Oh geez, we lost to LeBron every year and this is guaranteed for us.’ There’s a lot of other good teams. I think the competitive nature will spread across the East now. We put a couple pieces together, have great chemistry, and if we stay healthy? OK. We’re in the upper echelon, we know we’ll have a shot. We just have to go out and do it.”

 

LeBron James halted the Raptors' dreams of The Finals in 2018.

Those LeBron scars run deeper for the Indiana Pacers. They lost to James’ teams five times in the playoffs since 2012, including a Game 7 loss in the 2013 Eastern Conference finals. And LeBron, doing the damage with the Heat and Cavs, ruined some solid Pacers squads comprised of Paul George, David West, Danny Granger, George Hill, a short window of stardom from Roy Hibbert and the ear-blowing Lance Stephenson.

Pacers coach Nate McMillan said: “When you look at what this guy has done to us, and how he was a nemesis to us, yes, we all say, `Bye bye.’ Him leaving is a good thing.”

But almost reflexively, McMillan adds: “It’s still going to be tough.”

The Pacers are an interesting piece in the East mix. Two years ago, they were in ruins after James’ teams ended so many of their playoff runs. George, sensing doom there, leveraged a trade to the Oklahoma City Thunder last summer.

Sometimes, basketball life comes at you quickly. And it breathed life into the Pacers with Victor Oladipo arriving in the George trade to take a star turn and become a franchise player. Behind McMillan’s coaching and a solid supporting cast, the Pacers pushed LeBron’s Cavs to a Game 7 in the first round. They had chances to win that series, which would’ve been delicious irony.

 

In 2018, LeBron James led the ending of another playoff run for Indiana.

Indiana’s important pieces are back next season, along with offseason additions Doug McDermott and Tyreke Evans. Suddenly their ceiling is higher.

McMillan even suggested the style of play could be different in the East because of LeBron leaving and the strengths of the teams that will be in the hunt.

“The East could go back to more of a grind type of play and not that spread-the-floor play,” McMillan said. “There’s a lot of talent and some of that talent is concentrated in the post. We might go back to the old NBA where the West was up-tempo and the East was a grind. You’ve got Blake Griffin in Detroit, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons in Philly, Boston has size and Toronto can play more of a half-court style.”

In multiple ways, then, the East will look different. There’s high anticipation in Boston, where the Celtics forced Game 7 in the East finals vs. the Cavs despite not having Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. The Sixers have Embiid and Simmons and maybe more if they can trigger a trade for San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard.

The Wizards added Dwight Howard and Porter Jr. says Washington will be in the East mix should everyone stay healthy.

“With the pieces we added this summer, there’s definitely an opportunity,” he said. “Dwight has a present in the post. That alone is going to open up lanes and 3-point shots. Guys I’ve talked to are excited for a fresh start. We didn’t end the year the way we wanted. But there’s a whole new beginning now.”

It’s a fresh start for all involved in the East. “The King” has been deposed, rather, displaced. It is only July, barely into summer, with a new season still months away. Yet the regime change is already causing a stampede.

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Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, findhis archive hereand follow him on Twitter.

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