Miami drops a rung from title favorites to conference title contenders, and the Cavaliers improve from a flaming garbage can to contenders, forming a three-headed monster at the top of the Central Division along with the Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls.
The Charlotte Hornets, in the meantime, lured Lance Stephenson away from Indiana, and the Washington Wizards signed the savvy veteran they needed in Paul Pierce. Carmelo Anthony returned to a now-Phil Jackson-led New York Knicks team rather than make the Bulls a powerhouse, and the Toronto Raptors were able to hold onto Kyle Lowry (much, in part, due to James' lengthy decision-making process).
What has happened here is a dilution of talent that has transformed the East from a top-heavy conference to a deep one. Last season, the Heat and Pacers were on a collision course for the conference finals as soon as Derrick Rose put his suit back on.
At that point of the 2013-14 season, we were able to break the NBA up into tiers.
Make-Some-Noise-in-the-Playoffs Contenders: Chicago, Atlanta Hawks, Washington Wizards, Toronto Raptors, Brooklyn Nets, Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks, Portland Trail Blazers, Phoenix Suns, Minnesota Timberwolves
After the offseason, this is how we stand going into the 2014-15:
NBA Title Favorites: San Antonio, Oklahoma City
Conference Finals Contenders: Miami, Indiana, Chicago, Cleveland (a year away from title favorites, although Vegas has them at 4-1 odds), Washington, Toronto, Atlanta, Los Angeles Clippers, Houston, Golden State
(Note: These rankings are backed up by Las Vegas, which lists only the Cavs, Spurs and Thunder as teams with better than 10-1 odds to win the championship.)
As you can see, the Eastern Conference went from two to zero NBA title favorites, and nearly every team that was in the playoffs last season in the East is considered a contender to make it to the conference finals.
That's what happens when the best player leaves a good team to make a bad team much better, when the best scorer on Indiana leaves to help Charlotte (already with a good defense) get the ball in the basket and a savvy veteran on a team full of savvy veterans goes to a young team that needed some leadership.
The East is wide open, people.
That's why James' departure from Miami might only make a difference of a few wins. James contributed almost 16 wins to the Heat last season, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Without him (and substituting Luol Deng's 4.5 wins), you could assume Miami would drop from 54 wins to about 42 (a game fewer than Charlotte won last season).
But that's not how it works in real life.
Does a team with Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Deng, Josh McRoberts, Mario Chalmers, Chris Andersen and Danny Granger, coached by Erik Spoelstra, look like a team that wins just more than 40 games and maybe makes the playoffs?
That team is likely pushing 50 wins and contending for a conference title because, even though the Heat were in the fast lane to the NBA Finals with James last season, the road through the East now has more lanes.
However, with James' departure, the Heat relinquished something more valuable than wins: a virtual guarantee to make the NBA Finals.
Miami made the finals every year James played there and, as long as they didn't screw up, were the favorites to keep doing so.
James takes more than his win shares and 27 points per game with him, he takes Miami's identity on offense, too.
The Heat's offense was initiated by James getting into the paint and kicking it out to open shooters. Miami hardly has a post presence and passer as consistent as James now. Wade can do some of those things, but we don't even know how many games he will play.
With Wade past his prime, Bosh is expected to be the No. 1 scoring option, who might be a bit rusty after being third on the totem pole since 2010.
But even after the last four years, only four other players in the East have scored more points than Bosh since 2003.
James got a lot of credit for being able to guard positions 1 through 5, but Bosh may be the only other player in the NBA able to do so.
Watch Bosh go from helping on Tony Parker—who goes over a screen set by Tim Duncan—to defending Duncan on the roll. Bosh recognizes the triangle setup and gets between Duncan and Tiago Splitter to defend the pass and end the possession.
The defense will center around Bosh being able to make plays like this. His ability to help on pick-and-rolls and get back to defend the paint helps everyone else on defense do their job.
In the East, only the Bulls have a center who can defend at that level.
Miami also has the best shooting guard in the East (Wade) and one of the top perimeter defenders (Deng).
McRoberts, with his ability to stretch the floor and make efficient passes will help take the ball movement on this team up a notch.
When it comes to facilitating the offense, Chalmers will have to be more consistent. He will have Wade, Bosh and McRoberts to help, and Miami will have to rely on ball movement a lot more to get open looks. With Spoelstra having already coached these principals, it shouldn't be too difficult. But there will definitely be an adjustment period when the season starts.
As Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes wrote, the Heat will at least be more interesting with the ball in a lot of different hands.
And while we've already established that losing James makes everyone else's job more difficult, there's a case to be made that it also liberates those supporting players. Instead of waiting around for shots created by James, guys like Chalmers and McRoberts can attack on their own or, even better, be creators for others.
While the possibility of offense from multiple sources won't make the Heat better than they were with LeBron, it at least makes them less predictable.
Miami should still be favored to win the Southeast Division, but it will be much more competitive. Miami went 12-4 in the division last season and Washington went 10-6. Those are in the ball park of what we might expect next season.
However, a Stephenson-infused Charlotte team could be expected to be better than 6-10, Atlanta with a full season of Al Horford should improve from 8-8 and a young Orlando team might be able to sneak a few more wins than 4-12.
There are only so many division wins to go around. At the top of their division, a fire has been set under the Heat.
Miami still figures to be near the top of the Eastern Conference. The Heat's defense will carry them, and they have too many talented players on offense for them not to figure it out, though it will take time.
But the Bulls with Rose returning, the Cavs with James back and a young roster, Indiana without Stephenson and the other teams lacking conference finals experience, everyone else is in the same boat.
From top to bottom, the East is much more competitive (and a lot more interesting).
Prediction: 51-31, Third place in Eastern Conference
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