Unlike the Decision four years ago, James wrote a letter for Sports Illustrated about his desire to play for his home team once again. It was a move that makes James infinitely more likeable and explains his motivation for leaving back in 2010.
But despite this, James is now in more direct competition with the Pacers for the Central Division.
As of right now, it would be a fair statement to say that the Eastern Conference champion will come from this division. Besides the Cavs and Pacers, we also have the Chicago Bulls who will likely get Derrick Rose back (for at least a few games) this season.
James was always going to stay in the East and be a problem for the Pacers. Adding the best player in the league makes the Cavs an automatic contender for a championship. Vegas odds have them as a 3-1 favorite to win a title. The defending champion Spurs are at 4-1. The Pacers a distant 15-1.
James is the ultimate difference maker in the NBA. As Larry Bird put it, “The only difference in the series was, they had LeBron and we didn’t.” The signing certainly puts an awful lot of pressure on Bird and the rest of the Pacers front office staff.
James’ return to Cleveland makes the Pacers attempts to re-sign Lance Stephenson much more important. If the core of this team is blown up, the Pacers become another middle-of -the-pack Eastern Conference team.
The Pacers have also been not-so-quietly shopping Roy Hibbert for a possible trade. Stephenson managed to annoy the hell out of James and Hibbert is a player who can force James to alter his game completely.
Hibbert’s mastery of the verticality rule has gotten into James’ head in the past and forced him into physical plays around the basket he isn’t comfortable with. If Hibbert is shipped out, who will protect the rim when James starts driving to the basket?
Hibbert is also part of the reason Paul George has had success (a relative term here) guarding James. Having the shot-blocking presence behind him allows George to take a few more risks on defense and be more aggressive.
Stephenson is still a huge priority right now simply because of his play making ability. The Pacers can’t exactly offer him more money either and have to hope he has a sense of loyalty to Bird. Indiana is the best place for Stephenson to continue his development, but he also appears to be chasing a big payday right now.
All season long, we talked about how Stephenson was playing well enough for some middling team to drive a dump truck full of money to his front door. In reality, Stephenson is worth $8-9 million per year, but the problem is someone will offer him $12-plus. With James signing, the dominos are about to fall and there are an awful lot of teams out there who can offer Stephenson a ton of money.
Without Stephenson, the Pacers offense takes a big step back and no one wants to see what that looks like. It was ugly enough at times last season, but no one wants to see just how inept the scoring can become.
Expect something to happen with Stephenson, and a lot of other free agents, within the next 48 hours.