Ed. note: Since the writing of this story, Chris Bosh re-signed in Miami, Trevor Ariza was sent to Houston in a sign-and-trade deal, and Paul Pierce signed with Washington.
WASHINGTON -- LeBron James rocked the basketball world for the second time in four years Friday morning, announcing his decision to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. While the move will have reverberations across the NBA, the question begs to be asked: are the Wizards now the best team in the Eastern Conference?
The answer, though, isn't so simple.
After stumbling to a 2-7 start last year, the Wizards went 42-31 (.575) the rest of the way, winning 19 of their final 29 regular season games. The Wizards finished fifth in the conference last season, behind the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Toronto Raptors and Chicago Bulls.
With James' departure, Miami will almost certainly lose Chris Bosh as well, stripping the Heat of their best two players and reducing them to an also-ran.
The Pacers, who finished first in the east, stumbled down the stretch, going just 5-8 in their final 13 games before nearly flaming out in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. While they recovered -- and beat the Wizards in six games in the next round -- reports of locker room chaos dogged them, and Lance Stephenson recently turned down a five-year, $44 million offer.
Toronto has an intriguing young core, built around the recently re-signed Kyle
Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas
and Rudy Gay(now with
Sacramento). Their top eight scorers from
last season are all under the age of 28, but they lack a true superstar. The
Raptors also built for the long-term future in the NBA Draft, opting for 18-year-
old Brazilian forward Bruno Caboclo instead of, say, Michigan forward Mitch McGary
(who went with the next pick to Oklahoma City), whose athleticism around the rim
could have helped the guard-heavy team immediately.
The Bulls should improve significantly if Derrick Rose can return and remain healthy, and could still make a run at Carmelo Anthony. Newly drafted Doug McDermott could also have an immediate impact on a team strapped for scorers.
James, meanwhile, joins young star Kyrie Irving and top draft pick Andrew Wiggins in Cleveland. The Cavaliers could still add other pieces, but right now the rest of their starting five is rounded out by Tristan Thompson and Anderson Verejao. That is not a championship team yet, despite what the Vegas odds say.
Which brings us back to the Wizards. Washington has an emerging core led by John Wall and Bradley Beal, and just re-signed center Marcin Gortat to an extension after his first season in Washington, during which he set career highs in minutes played (2,655), points (1,068), assists (138) and blocks (121). He ranked second on the club (behind Wall's 19.5) in Player Efficiency Rating or PER, at 17.6, putting him in the upper tier of the league.
They have Nene in the middle who, even though he seems like he's been in the league forever, is still just 31, more than six years younger than Tim Duncan. Washington's focus now becomes re-signing Trevor Ariza -- rumored to have been the LeBron backup plan in Cleveland -- to keep the core that returned the team to the playoffs last season intact.
The X-factor for Washington may be Otto Porter, the third overall pick from a year ago who saw precious little court time last year due to injuries. But the 6-foot-8 swingman was a 16.2 point-per-game scorer at Georgetown, shooting 42.2 percent on his three-pointers in his final college season. He could provide another source of points for Washington, and should get plenty of open looks with Wall and Beal driving the offense.
Every team that finished in front of the Wizards, save Toronto, has too many pieces still up in the air to make a solid prediction on where they will finish. That may be Washington's biggest point of strength right now. With Ariza the only big chip left to settle, the team in place right now has as much of a case to contend as any other in the Eastern Conference next season.
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