LeBron heads west — now what for the Pacers?

Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron James, 2018 NBA Playoffs

LAS VEGAS — The best thing to happen to the Pacers during NBA free agency was something they could not control. LeBron James choosing to play in the Western Conference, for the Los Angeles Lakers, makes the East a wide-open race.

For the Pacers, that means a LeBron-led team cannot eliminate them from postseason play, which has been the case in five of the last seven seasons, including two in a row. The Pacers were the better team in round one, but the other team had James — a three-time NBA Champion, three-time MVP, and 14-time All-Star.

‘It’s tough,” Larry Bird said on his final day as team president in 2017. “LeBron James is, no doubt, one of the greatest. I don’t think he’s Michael Jordan but you can put him up there close to him. He’s a dominant player. In our series, he made a difference every game.”

Boston is prohibitive favorite having won 55 games during the 2017-18 season without All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward due to injury. And they’re coached by one of the great minds in the game, Indiana’s own Brad Stevens. He finished third in Coach of the Year voting behind Dwane Casey and Quinn Snyder. (Nate McMillan finished sixth.)

Toronto had its best season ever, winning 59 games, but it was no match for LeBron’s Cavs. The Raptors were swept and lost by an average of 14 points per game, mostly because of a 35-point Game 1 loss.

After LeBron’s quiet announcement that he was bound for the Lakers, many basketball betting sites immediately shifted the Lakers’ odds, placing them right below the Warriors, who’ve won it all in three of the last four seasons. Oh, and they just added All-NBA center DeMarcus Cousins.

Something to keep in mind: Odds aren’t what the sportsbooks believe is going to happen, but rather are an indication of money being bet. Walking around Las Vegas for the last week, that’s something that has caught my eye. Although the books are rather quiet this month because only the World Cup is being played.

The Pacers worked quickly in free agency to bolster their bench after each of their top six players in terms of scoring, plus Cory  Joseph, would return for another year together. Pacers President Kevin Pritchard has been in professional basketball since 1990, a second-round selection (34th) by Golden State, and he has shared on the record that this was the “funnest team” that he has ever been around. The chemistry, while unexpected, was special and memorable.

While other teams in the East must work to integrate new players, the Pacers’ core remains the same. And we saw the value in continuity with the Pacers in 2013, when they sprinted out to a 33-7 start to the season.

The addition of Tyreke Evans, on a one-year deal, gives the Pacers another guard who can create on his own. Doug McDermott’s shooting should open up the floor and force defenders out of the paint.

“If y’all don’t respect the Indiana Pacers now, I have no respect for you,” Oladipo said after their game seven playoff loss. “And that’s just how I feel. Nobody thought we were going to be here. No one. Not one person, but us in the locker room. I feel like we’ve earned our respect from everyone.”

With LeBron out of the east, the conference will have a new representative in the NBA Finals for the first time since … wait for it … 2010! The Lakers won their 16th title by beating the Boston Celtics in seven games. Ever since LeBron has sat on the thrown in the east.

Odds to win the 2019 NBA Title:

Warriors +110
Lakers +325
Celtics +400
76ers +600
Pacers +8000

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