The Chicago Bulls are poised to be huge winners when LeBron James makes his free-agency decision.
Even if the four-time MVP doesn't take his talents to the Windy City, the Bulls will benefit rather dramatically from his spurning the Miami Heat and going to any other location. Whether he gets out of their hair by going to a Western Conference squad (unlikely at this point) or joins the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Bulls would immediately ascend to the top of the totem pole in the East.
Of course, LeBron staying with the Miami Heat would throw a wrench in that plan, but let's assume he does leave. We'll break down the details throughout this article, but the Bulls would improve without changing too drastically.
Not only is Derrick Rose coming back, but Chicago is also set to bring over Nikola Mirotic, which means that Carlos Boozer isn't long for his current location:
Source tells HoopsHype Nikola Mirotic's decision to go to Chicago is final. Will pay contract buyout at more than $3 million.— HoopsHype (@hoopshype) July 4, 2014
Then again, the Bulls don't even have to amnesty Boozer if they aren't going to land Carmelo Anthony, so they could keep the declining big man on board in a lesser role, just adding to the depth of the frontcourt. Really, there's no way they can go wrong there.
Joakim Noah is back. Taj Gibson is back and improving, especially if the second half of the 2013-14 season is any indication. Jimmy Butler is back and improving. Doug McDermott has been added to the roster to bring a bit more scoring punch.
Everything, especially considering the rest of the East, is set up for success in 2014-15. No big moves needed.
LeBron's New Team Not as Big a Threat
Option No. 1: Western Conference Squad
This pretty much speaks for itself.
Should LeBron sign on with a Western Conference squad, whether that's the Phoenix Suns, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers or Dallas Mavericks, his new team obviously isn't going to get in the Bulls' way. At least not until the NBA Finals, should both teams advance that far.
Maybe Chicago's record is blemished by a pair of inter-conference losses during the regular season, but that's about as much damage as LeBron could do while playing in the NBA's tougher half.
Option No. 2: Cleveland Cavaliers
This is more interesting. But even with LeBron in the fold, the Cleveland Cavaliers aren't ready to compete for a championship right away, as that roster is quite youthful and coming off a rather unimpressive season.
Remember, to decrease Chicago's championship hopes and dreams, the Cavs would have to be more dangerous than the Heat would've been with LeBron. And are the new-look Cavaliers really going to be better than any Miami roster that included LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh/Melo, along with a roster handpicked by Pat Riley?
That's doubtful, at least at present, when the supporting cast is largely comprised of players 22 years old and younger.
Down the road, a LeBron-boasting Cleveland organization would have dynasty potential. Just not yet. Not until we know what we're going to get from Andrew Wiggins and see plenty of improvement from both Kyrie Irving—whose max extension was based on potential, not actual production—and Dion Waiters.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, the Cavaliers finished the 2013-14 season ranked No. 21 in offensive rating and No. 19 in defensive rating, which isn't exactly a stellar combination. That came during a season in which the team rostered both Luol Deng and Spencer Hawes for some of the year, as well as C.J. Miles and Jarrett Jack.
Are those losses going to be mitigated by the internal improvement and addition of Wiggins? Maybe so, but not by a significant amount, which means Cleveland is relying rather heavily on the addition of the four-time MVP. He'll have a huge impact, turning the Cavs into contenders.
But will he make them favorites? Nope.
Not yet, at least.
The offense should be absolutely incredible, as James' presence will draw attention away from Irving and Waiters while allowing Wiggins to thrive in a role that is largely off the ball. But how about the defense? That's where the problems will continue, as there aren't many quality stoppers on this roster.
Irving, according to 82games.com, allowed opposing floor generals to post a 17.8 player efficiency rating during the 2013-14 season. Tristan Thompson let the 4s and 5s he was guarding throw up respective PERs of 16.5 and 22.1.
There are still too many holes on that end, even if the offense takes a massive stride forward.
Fizzling 2013-14 Contenders
One of the two true contenders in the Eastern Conference last year, the Heat are losing both LeBron (likely to Cleveland) and Chris Bosh (likely to the Rockets, yet another Western Conference squad) in this hypothetical scenario. And who exactly is going to replace them?
Even if Wade stays and Miami is rolling in financial flexibility, there simply aren't any players capable of pushing the team back into contention. The free-agency pool, already fairly weak, would be quite dry after the Big Three all find their homes.
Let's take a look at the top unsigned free agents, according to D.J. Foster's top-50 big board for Bleacher Report. Again, we're assuming the Big Three are gone, which also rules out Carmelo Anthony:
- Eric Bledsoe (restricted)
- Greg Monroe (restricted)
- Chandler Parsons (restricted)
- Luol Deng
- Isaiah Thomas (restricted)
- Lance Stephenson
- Pau Gasol
- Trevor Ariza
- Shawn Marion
- Paul Pierce
Pick your favorite combination of those players. We'll allow you to choose any three, although that's generous given the amount of money that Wade will command if he's the only one returning to South Beach.
Even if Bledsoe, Monroe and Parsons are all stolen from their respective teams, declining their rights of first refusal, the Heat still aren't going to be a championship-caliber squad. Close, but not quite there.
And seeing as that's an extremely aggressive—possibly absurd—wish list for Riley, it's safe to rule the LeBron-less Heat out of the Eastern Conference title equation.
The only other team in the East to finish with more than 50 wins during the 2013-14 season was the Indiana Pacers. But even looking past their dramatic collapse during the early stages of the playoffs and right at the end of the regular season, there's reason to expect the Bulls to supplant them.
Sure, the Pacers have added more depth during the offseason, landing C.J. Miles, Shayne Whittington (the Western Michigan forward who they would've drafted at No. 57 if the New York Knicks hadn't bought the pick, per Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star) and Damjan Rudez. It admittedly added plenty of floor spacing off the pine, assuming those new additions to the NBA can make immediate impacts.
So bench didn't have enough floor spacers? Not enough reliable offense? #Pacers getting shooters galore today.— Candace Buckner (@CandaceDBuckner) July 2, 2014
But where does that leave Lance Stephenson?
Even if the team buys out Luis Scola to clear up more cap space, it's hard to imagine them paying him a reasonable salary without going over the luxury-tax threshold they've been so afraid to touch.
In sum: IND at ~ $72M. Tax at ~ $77M. 1 of following 3 must be true: 1. Lance out; 2. IND can be over tax in season. 3. Cost cut move coming— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) July 2, 2014
So far, they've made a contract offer and have been firmly rebuffed by the mercurial 2-guard.
Sources: L Stephenson & Pacers at impasse. Indy offers 5 yrs/$44 mill. Lance wants more, will talk to others. Chi, LAL, Hornets interested.— Chris Broussard (@Chris_Broussard) July 2, 2014
That's simply not enough money to offer a player this talented while he's still moving toward his athletic prime, not out of it. Some other team is going to pony up, and there's been no indication that Stephenson was born ready to give the Pacers a hometown discount.
If he's lost, that's a huge blow to an offense that already wasn't too stellar in the first place.
"Antics and all, the Pacers need Stephenson," writers Bleacher Report's Zach Buckley. "He's explosive in every sense of the word, but his on-court eruptions are more powerful than anything Indiana can find elsewhere on the open market."
However, even if he returns, there's cause for pause.
The league as a whole started to figure out the vaunted Pacers defense late in the season, realizing that it could be diced up by drawing Roy Hibbert away from the basket with a stretch big and attacking the hoop in his absence.
The Atlanta Hawks took that to an extreme during the first round of the playoffs, almost knocking off the No. 1 seed in six games, but every team fared slightly better once the blueprint was out and verified.
Before the All-Star break, the Pacers posted a defensive rating of 93.6, according to NBA.com's statistical databases (subscription required). After the break, that number jumped to 102.3 and sat at 106.4 over the team's final 10 games of the regular season.
This was no fluke; it was the rest of the league figuring out how to attack the vaunted defense that gave everyone fits early in the season.
That trouble is not just going to go away in 2014-15, and forgive me if I don't have a ton of confidence in Frank Vogel's ability to make the much-needed adjustments before the losses start piling up more quickly than expected.
Who Else can Compete?
Sorry, New York-based teams.
Other than the Pacers, Heat, LeBron-led Cavaliers and Bulls, there are four more teams in the East who are capable of making some noise. Two of them are the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards, neither of which have made substantial improvements during the offseason.
Both teams have had successful summers thus far.
The Raptors managed to bring back Kyle Lowry on an extremely reasonable deal, while the Wizards inked Marcin Gortat to a contract that looks great right now but will emerge as a potential albatross down the road. Washington is still working on bringing back Trevor Ariza, while Toronto is attempting to use what little money it has left at its disposal to add depth to the wings, shore up the point guard rotation (possibly by re-signing Greivis Vasquez) and find a backup center.
Neither team has made drastic improvements, though.
Successful summers or not, they're largely similar to the iterations that popped up and were moderately competitive throughout the 2013-14 season. Washington is dangerous because of youth, and Toronto looms as a threat because it enjoyed such a stellar record after Rudy Gay was traded to the Sacramento Kings.
But are either going to be true contenders in 2014-15? Not without a few high-impact additions who weren't on the roster last go-round. Bruno Caboclo doesn't count as such, at least not yet.
There are two teams who are improving, though.
The Charlotte Hornets are making internal strides, but the draft-day additions of Noah Vonleh and P.J. Hairston both help provide much-needed floor spacing and offensive punch. Additionally, the team has submitted a max offer sheet for Gordon Hayward, one that he's agreed to, per ESPN.com's Marc Stein.
If the swingman escapes the Utah Jazz, he makes the former Bobcats markedly better. But even if he doesn't, Charlotte has enough money to pursue a backup plan like Deng or Parsons, though it runs the risk of experiencing deja vu with the latter.
Then there's the Atlanta Hawks.
Don't forget that the Hawks were poised to be the No. 3 seed in the East when Al Horford was healthy. He'll be returning from his torn pectoral at the start of the 2014-15 campaign, which immediately makes Atlanta significantly more dangerous. Plus, the early move in free agency—signing Thabo Sefolosha—only helps, especially because the team has enough money left to pursue a player like Deng.
But are either the Hawks or the Hornets going to be true contenders?
Unless something big changes, not yet.
Frankly, there just isn't anyone in the East who can compete with the Bulls, should the Heat stars break up.
If LeBron leaves the Heat, are the Bulls the Eastern Conference favorites?
The Raptors and Wizards are close, but they aren't there until the young pieces take even greater strides forward. Atlanta and Charlotte are in that next tier, and the Pacers—who look poised to regress in 2014-15, especially if Stephenson escapes—could fall into either group.
Should the Cavaliers land LeBron, they'd be a serious threat, but that team is still too youthful and defensively porous to compete with a Bulls team that returns most parts of the 2013-14 squad and adds in a healthy Rose and McDermott.
Chicago fans, you know how you should be rooting for the LeBron saga to play out.