Toronto Raptors

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

kyle-lowry-kyrie-irving-cory-joseph-bradley-beal-071018-ftr
Kyle Lowry, Kyrie Irving, Cory Joseph and Bradley Beal (Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS - When LeBron James announced his plans to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers, traffic stopped in LA and not for the usual reasons. That news was madly celebrated in that city … although not quite to the degree it shook Boston, Washington, Toronto and other NBA destinations on the East coast.

Yes, the Lakers are happy. But an entire conference is downright delirious. Finally free from LeBron Lockdown, the Eastern Conference is feeling emancipated and flush with opportunity. "The King" is gone, which is another way of saying the cat's away and everyone else finally has a chance to play.

"Oh, it's wide open now," said Washington Wizards forward Otto Porter Jr., his eyes and smile swelling simultaneously. "Like, definitely wiiide open."

nick-nurse-quote-071018-ftr LeBron ran the East much like Capone once ran Chicago. First with the Miami Heat and then with the Cleveland Cavaliers, James greedily took all the East's trips into June since 2010. Eight straight East titles certainly qualify as a basketball dictatorship as James' teams kept the rest of the East from Finals runs.

The last non-LeBron team from the East to reach The Finals was the 2010 Boston Celtics. Only three players from those Celtics played in the NBA last season and Rajon Rondo, one of that triumvirate, is on his fifth team since after signing with the Lakers this summer.

There is joy mixed with relief mixed with enthusiasm among the East contenders. This proved evident here in Las Vegas, the unofficial offseason gathering spot for every team as the NBPA and owner's meetings all happen under one very scorching sky. Executives, coaches and players from East teams are in a noticeably good mood. Their palms are red from being rubbed together.

They know they have a chance now.

"A lot of teams are thinking, 'Hey, why not us?' There's a lot of that going on," said Nick Nurse, the newly-hired coach of the Toronto Raptors.

When the Raptors won 59 games last season and claimed the East's No. 1 seed, there was sense of cautious optimism in Toronto. Yes, LeBron ended the Raptors' previous two playoff runs. But maybe this was different. James was older, his Cavs team weaker, Toronto cockier.

Only LeBron punched them in the gut again, and harder this time, sweeping the Raptors for the second straight postseason. Because of that, Dwane Casey, the winningest coach in Raptors history and the 2017-18 Coach of the Year, was shown the door and replaced by Nurse.

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, 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."

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.

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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