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Pacers lost in East shuffle?

Shift in balance of power has Indiana on unsteady ground

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All the moving and shaking in the Eastern Conference has cracked some foundations but also produced a welcome byproduct: a regular season worth anticipating.

It won’t make things any easier for the Pacers – quite the contrary – but it will make them much more interesting.

Truth be told, until the playoffs arrived, only four games last season really mattered all that much in the East – those between the only two true contenders, the Pacers and Heat. When only one percent of the conference games played throughout a six-month grind have an impact on the NBA’s Richter scale, that’s a problem.

It will be markedly different this time around. With LeBron James bringing instant contender credibility to Cleveland, Derrick Rose’s (latest attempt to) return in Chicago, the desperate attempts to keep the dam from bursting in Miami, and the rise of evolving contenders Washington, Toronto and Charlotte, the East has returned to full BCS status within the league hierarchy.

More major moves could be on the way, the most anticipated of which would be Cleveland’s pursuit of Kevin Love and, as things stand now, the moves that haven’t been made yet – and other mysteries – very likely will be the ones that determine the favorites.

PACERS: WHAT DOES BIRD HAVE UP HIS SLEEVE?

About this time last year, we were all wondering about the absence of The Big Move. The free agent market yielded C.J. Watson and Chris Copeland, but those hardly seemed to be the difference-makers the Pacers needed. And then in late July, Larry Bird pulled off the Luis Scola trade. At the time, it looked like a brilliant move that could well push the Pacers to a championship level. Little did we know Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee would play major roles in reviving the Suns, while Scola would be shackled by a mystifyingly modest role off the bench.

Thus far, the biggest move the Pacers have made has been the wrong direction, losing Lance Stephenson to the Hornets. Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles are nice pickups, but those are gap-fillers. The roster is laden with redundancy. There are far too many bigs for the available minutes. Stuckey and George Hill are both nice combo guards, but neither is a championship-level point guard. Damjan Rudez appears to be the European Chris Copeland.

Expect Bird to pull off something substantial within the next few weeks, thinning the herd in the frontcourt while strengthening and perhaps even re-defining the perimeter. In the absence of such a move, the Pacers will be a lesser version of what ultimately proved a disappointing team in 2013-14.

CAVS: LOVE IS ALL THEY NEED?

While Clevelanders rejoice over the return of the prodigal son, they would do well to remember Ted Stepien, the owner who so foolishly gave away draft picks in bad deals that the NBA had to create a rule – dubbed the Stepien Rule – to protect future owners from their own stupidity.

Stepien would jump at the chance to trade three first-round picks (Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and a future No. 1) to acquire a big-name player such as Love. On paper, it looks like a potentially great fit now, and it apparently is a move James not only endorses, but encourages.

But the Cavs would gain leverage by dialing back the urgency and waiting out the T-Wolves. The closer Love gets to free agency, the less leverage Minnesota will have in trade talks, and the less the Cavs will have to pay. Wait till February, get a nice look at Wiggins, and then decide.

BULLS: A THORNY PROPOSITION

Pau Gasol replaces Carlos Boozer, which is nice. Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott? We’ll see.

Having failed to land Carmelo Anthony, the Bulls’ hopes for serious contention hinge completely on a full return to health by Derrick Rose, who has missed 181 games the past three seasons, 154 the past two. While it’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility Rose could complete the comeback, neither can it be expected.

HEAT: THE REAL WORLD

Welcome to the other side of the tracks, Erik Spoelstra. The Heat won’t fall off the face of the map, as the Cavs did when James first departed, but this is anything but a daunting bunch. With Dwyane Wade incapable of anything other than short bursts, the Heat will turn to Chris Bosh and Luol Deng to rebuild their careers and reputations. In last year’s East, this team would be a strong contender. In this year’s East, Miami will be lucky to finish in the top four.

OTHERS: THE BEST OF THE REST

Though the Wizards lost Trevor Ariza, they replaced him with Paul Pierce, bringing much-needed veteran guidance, not to mention the knowledge of what to do with the game on the line (pay attention, John Wall) to what was the third-best team in the conference by the end of the season. Look for Washington to continue to improve.

With a strong defensive foundation laid by coach Steve Clifford and a nice stable of young frontcourt talent to complement an intriguing backcourt of Kemba Walker and Stephenson, the Hornets also appear to be a team heading in the right direction.

Though they won 48 games last season, the Raptors haven’t done much to improve, although they did avoid losing Kyle Lowry. Their growth depends on continued improvement from DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas.

BOTTOM LINE: REPLACING THE L WITH A B

For the past few years, it’s been the Least Conference. This season, it’s back to being a Beast.

With the Pacers, Cavs and Bulls, the Central Division suddenly is one of the strongest in the league, and hanging that banner will have real meaning.

Unless Bird pulls off at least one substantial trade to bring order to this imbalanced roster, the Pacers will be in the conversation, but they won’t be doing much talking.

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