INDIANAPOLIS — The road to another Eastern Conference final just got a whole lot tougher for the Indiana Pacers.
In less than a month, they’ve seen their division transformed from Lottery Central to the NBA’s center of attention.
LeBron James’ decision to go home has Cleveland back on the list of title contenders. The addition of Pau Gasol and the return of a healthy Derrick Rose could give the Bulls their most formidable lineup in three seasons. The Bucks used the league’s worst record to add No. 2 overall pick Jabari Parker, and struggling Detroit has signed three free agents to go with Andre Drummond and Brandon Jennings. And, the two-time defending division champ Pacers were the best regular-season team in the East last season.
“It’s safe to say that whoever is coming out of the East (in the NBA Finals) might be a Central Division team,” Pacers swingman Paul George said after James broke the free-agent logjam and turned the Central Division race upside down. “Once again we’ve got our plate full. But we like our chances.”
The Pacers had the league’s best defense the past two seasons, still have a pair of two-time All-Stars in George and Roy Hibbert and a veteran stabilizer in David West. They haven’t just stood still, either. Team president Larry Bird signed former Cleveland swingman C.J. Miles to help them stretch the floor, a move George and coach Frank Vogel believe will help fix the Pacers’ biggest weakness with a more potent offense.
Indiana will need all of that and more to survive against this electrifying cast.
— James, a four-time MVP, joins three of the NBA’s last four No. 1 overall picks including Andrew Wiggins.
— Rose missed most of the last two seasons with knee injuries after leading Chicago to winning the MVP Award and leading Chicago to the best record in the East in 2011. He will now have the high-scoring Gasol and 2014 NBA defensive player of the year, Joakim Noah, as sidekicks.