The race for the East's No. 1 seed is looking mighty interesting already. The Miami Heat dropped Mike Miller via amnesty and has yet to add anyone outside of second-round pick James Ennis. They are trying to pull Greg Oden, but so are a half-dozen other teams, including the rival Spurs. The Nets basically conquered and assimilated Boston, the Knicks added a shooting big who was once good (to go with their post big who was once good), the Bulls will get Derrick Rose back and the Pacers -- yes, the Pacers -- have upgraded again.
Reports suggest Indiana is completing a trade to bring Luis Scola to the Pacers for Gerald Green and draft considerations. Scola essentially replaces Tyler Hansbrough, who's off pounding stanchions in Toronto. The reported deal adds $1 million to Indiana's 2013-14 salary sheet, putting them just $1 million from the luxury tax threshold, meaning the Pacers have been able to improve the roster now without exceeding the tax line or trading Danny Granger. It's highly impressive.
The Pacers let D.J. Augustin, wholly disappointing in 2012-13, walk and picked up C.J. Watson earlier this summer. Depending on how Frank Vogel adjusts the rotation -- Granger as a starter and Lance Stephenson to the bench, or vice versa? -- Scola is going to be able to provide a jolt of scoring from the second unit. And, if durable David West happens upon an injury, Scola can slide in. There would be a drop-off, but that's usually expected when you have an All-Star starter. Scola's a better scorer than Hansbrough, historically, and he's also a much better defensive rebounder.
Don't forget how bad Indiana's bench was last season, though. The five members of the most common starting line-up had full-season on-off ratings between +8.8 and +12.4 per 100 possessions. The top five players off of the bench -- or, the players No. 6 through 10 in minutes played -- ranged from -6.6 to -14.8. The drop-off was staggering.
Yet that team, bad bench and all, took the Heat to seven games. Any improvement -- we can expect some based on the talent upgrades, the additional skill growth of Paul George, Roy Hibbert and Stephenson, and the return of Granger -- puts pressure on the Heat to be better.
LeBron was godlike in the postseason and the Heat were still eyelashes from losing to the Pacers and Spurs. The best way for the Heat to improve is for Dwyane Wade to be healthier in the 2014 playoffs, which is something you can only prepare for as a team by playing him less in the regular season. Less Wade means fewer wins. That puts Indiana in a position to challenge for the No. 1 seed and quite possibly the East's spot in the NBA Finals. If nothing else, Miami has to be feeling Indiana hot on its heels.
(Meanwhile, this is a textbook rebuilding move for Phoenix. Drop a veteran player for a draft pick. Take on salary -- Green in this case -- if you need to, but get those picks.)
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