SACRAMENTO – The Miami Heat are getting better by standing pat.
OK, that’s not what Heat followers, clamoring for Pat Riley to do something, do anything, just for the sake of making a change, want to hear. But the Eastern Conference, already considered the undercard to the heavy weight fight that is the Western Conference, just watched the Cleveland Cavaliers go from a team that has gone to four consecutive Finals to one that is headed for the lottery.
And everybody else will benefit.
LeBron James’ decision to join the Los Angeles Lakers will send the Cavs into another tailspin. The last time he left, Cleveland went from a team that won 127 games in the two previous seasons to 97 in the next four. And that means a bump for every team in the East, including the Heat.
Miami is, for the most part, free agency bystanders this summer with a roster that is about $18 million over the cap. The Heat won 44 games last season and finished sixth in a race in which the final three teams were separated by one game. Riley already has floated the idea that the Heat may have to suck it up for another offseason, bring back the same old gang and try to improve from within, which can happen with Dion Waiters expected to be healthy for a full season and young players like Josh Richardson and Bam Adebayo trending in a position direction.
And with Cleveland falling back and none of the seven lottery teams in the East making any significant additions, the Heat not only clearly are one of the East’s top eight teams, their ceiling just got a bit higher and Miami will go into this season believing they are one of the top 4 teams in the East.
LeBron’s decision must have been met by some clinking of the glasses not only in Miami but in Boston (now clearly the Conference favorite), Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Indianapolis and Toronto … especially in Toronto, which has been eliminated from the playoffs by the Cavaliers the last three seasons, the last two in sweeps.
But it could even mean more to the Heat. The Lakers are trying to swing a trade with San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard which would mean Philadelphia would not. The Sixers already have lost two key members of their rotation in free agency – Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilysova – and have struck out on LeBron. If Philly whiffs on Leonard (and somehow also loses free agent JJ Redick), then the Sixers will be holding a big bag of cash they will be desperate to spend, a scenario that could further weaken the conference and create even more distance between Boston and everyone else.
But LeBron’s decision may go even deeper. As July approached, several Eastern Conference teams were looking to make changes, tired of the same old stale results. Chief among them, Toronto and Washington. Now, what if each of these franchises feel as though they were given new life and decide a drastic move isn’t necessary?
The Raptors might just decide to stick with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and look at their 59-win season in a whole different light considering their kryptonite is out of the East.
And the Wizards might believe once again their nucleus of John Wall and Bradley Beal and Otto Porter (Washington already shipped center Marcin Gortat to the Clippers) is good enough to make a run.
As for the Heat, LeBron’s departure will not mean Riley is ready to close up shop and call it a summer. Riley knows he’s in salary cap hell and the only way to improve this roster is through a trade or two. If Riley can find a way to do that, whether that means moving a bad contract or even trading one of the Heat’s young assets, he will pull the trigger on any deal.
Just because Cleveland’s loss is the Heat’s gain does not mean the work is done.
Stars migrating from East to West is not new. Just a year ago, two of the East’s best players made the same journey, Paul George and Jimmy Butler.
Now, the West has all five players from the All-NBA first team, the top five scorers and seven of the top eight rebounders.
While the West has LeBron and Kevin Durant and Steph Curry and James Harden and Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis and we can go on and on and on, the East has. … Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kyrie Irving and some nice young rising players who could one day get to that stage.
So, take a moment to celebrate Eastern Conference. LeBron is gone.