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The Indiana Pacers have every right to be confused.
Is Miami their biggest, most hated rival anymore? Are they still chasing the Heat, now that Miami will be easier to catch with Chris Bosh as the main man? Or will they instead be chasing the Cleveland Cavaliers, with LeBron James back home full of rebooted motivation? Or is it the Chicago Bulls, tweaking a roster and praying for a healthy Derrick Rose, that they need to be tracking down?
The Pacers have a right to some haziness about who they're chasing now.
Is it actually possible the Pacers will be the hunted, not the hunter? Is it possible that after this summer of shuffling, with LeBron going home, Carmelo Anthony staying put and Lance Stephenson's future still blowing in the wind, that the Pacers' time is now?
So many questions, but only one answer: It's now or never for the Pacers.
Yes, I know the Las Vegas odds dramatically swung toward the Cavaliers after James' unexpected but fascinating and admirable decision to return to Cleveland. James doesn't have a dream team around him, but he has a number of young dreamers, full of talent. He seems intent on mentoring and developing the young guys in a way unique among those vying for the unofficial title of greatest player ever. If the Cavs swing a deal for Kevin Love, the development of winning will gain greater speed.
Still, the window is open for the Pacers. Given last year's schizophrenic team – terrific early, dysfunctional late – there's hardly a guarantee they can take advantage of it. But if they don't do so now, they'll lose their chance.
James' presence and skills will turn the Cavs into a contender sooner rather than later. They will, eventually, rise to the top of the Eastern Conference and become the team to beat. That's inevitable with James still in his prime and the Cavs putting young, fresh legs around him. Even if the Cavs don't find a way to acquire Love, they'll be a factor once James and his new teammates learn how to play together. James makes those around him better because of his unselfishness. Those who can't see his team-first style are simply in denial.
Assuming the Pacers can regain their team chemistry (huge leap of faith anyone?) and perhaps even retain Stephenson, they should be freed by the loss of Miami as the roadblock to an NBA Finals.
So much of the Pacers psyche has been spent trying to “Beat the Heat.” That slogan's ship has sailed. The Heat will still be a decent team, but nothing can compensate for the loss of James. So the Pacers are freed from having that one team standing in their way.
Remember, even with everything out of whack late last season, the Pacers reached the Eastern Conference finals. Imagine what they might be able to do with the mental block of losing to the Heat no longer a factor.
Some of the Pacers' prospects rest on whether Stephenson returns. He hasn't drawn the interest from other teams, particularly monetarily, that he might have expected when he became a free agent. It's even possible that James' decision to return to the Cavaliers and Anthony staying with the Knicks has demonstrated the benefits of embracing roots. The Pacers, and Larry Bird specifically, took a chance on Stephenson when others were hesitant. Maybe Indiana should be Lance's home.
Even if Stephenson leaves for the Mavericks or another team, the Pacers retain a core group of quality players, led by Paul George, David West and, when his mind is right, Roy Hibbert. With the Eastern Conference balance upset by James' return to Cleveland, it's at worst a wide-open race with the Pacers one of the teams maintaining the most continuity.
The Miami Heat were the Pacers' biggest rival only in the sense they stood between the Pacers and the NBA Finals. Without James, that's not the case anymore.
Here's your championship window, Pacers, wide open. Better drive through it before LeBron rises again. Because he will, better than ever.