With LeBron Gone, Will the Pacers Rule the Central Division?

Victor Oladipo, Cleveland Cavaliers, Pacers, 2018 NBA Playoffs

In the 2013-14 season, the Cleveland Cavaliers continued a tradition spanning four years of missing the playoffs and not finishing in the top two of the Central Division. Over these four seasons, the Indiana Pacers qualified for the playoffs four times, winning the division twice and coming second to the Chicago Bulls twice.

But then, in July 2014, LeBron James returned to Cleveland to take the Central for himself. From 2014-15 season through 2017-18, the Cavaliers won the division and went on to the NBA Finals all four years. Over the last four seasons, Indiana has made it to the playoffs as a lower seed in the Eastern Conference thrice, failing to make it in the season of James’ return (when Paul George missed the majority of the year).

Now, a new dawn is breaking in the Central Division. LeBron James has moved over the Western Conference to battle the Golden State Warriors on their own turf with the Los Angeles Lakers, signing a four-year, $154 million deal. This leaves the depleted Cavaliers without their star man and a gaping hole atop the Central Division and the Eastern Conference.

Pacers vs. Bucks for the division

Last year, the Cavaliers only finished two wins ahead of the Pacers, who claimed four more wins than the Milwaukee Bucks. However, this landed the Pacers as James’ first opponent in the playoffs. Indiana, quite heroically, took the Cavs to seven games, but ultimately lost.

Now, the division looks to be there for either the Pacers or the Bucks to take. In the offseason, the Pacers have quietly been able to improve their team with the shrewd signings of players like Doug McDermott, Tyreke Evans, and Kyle O’Quinn. But, the Bucks have also managed to improve their team with shooting bigs and a new coach, Mike Budenholzer.

Approaching the new season, the anticipated improvement to player and ball movement has given the Bucks a slight boost in favor when it comes to taking the Central Division. In the NBA betting on bet365, the Pacers are rated at +155 to win the division, while the Bucks lead with odds of +100. It’s certainly expected to be a close battle but, barring any major injuries, the Pacers have built enough depth — they are one of the deepest teams in the NBA — and patched the roster needs well enough to come out on top.

Can the Pacers contend with the Atlantic titans?

If the Pacers can wrap up the Central, the question then turns to if they can challenge for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. Unfortunately, that looks to be a battle between the titans of the Atlantic Division.

Oddsmakers and power rankings creators have the top three teams to win the Eastern Conference as the Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors, and Philadelphia 76ers. Given the way that the teams have evolved over the last couple of years, this doesn’t come as a surprise. Now that James is out of the picture, the three Atlantic teams will be going all out to stake their claim as the new dominant force in the east.

The Pacers and the Bucks are at long odds to win the Eastern Conference, but there is a chance that either team could slip through the Atlantic mosh pit and claim a top-three finish in the final standings to go deep in the playoffs.

LeBron James leaving the Central Division and Eastern Conference changes everything. He carried a mostly mediocre team through each of the last four seasons, but now the budding big guns can have their say. The Indiana Pacers will be one of the main teams to benefit from this new situation.

See Also: LeBron heads west — now what for the Pacers?

[Photo: Frank McGrath/PS&E]

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