May 30, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat forward LeBron James (left) stands next to Indiana Pacers guard Lance Stephenson (right) during the first half in game six of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

NBA: Eastern Conference power shifts from Pacers/Heat

Rivalries often help to define different eras in NBA history. The Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers never reached that level of importance, but their regular season and playoff battles over the past three seasons were a large part of the landscape in the Eastern Conference.

The Pacers lost to the Heat in the postseason three consecutive years, twice in the conference finals and once in the quarterfinals.

Indiana was powered by its stable starting five of George Hill, Lance Stephenson (replaced Danny Granger after year one), Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert, while Miami countered with the “Big Three” featuring LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

West was the only Pacers player apart of that group over the age of 30 and it wasn’t an unrealistic expectation for them to stay together for another two to four seasons. They had played the most minutes of any lineup the last two campaigns finishing with a net rating (offensive rating – defensive rating) just below 10 and slightly over 12.

It did dip during the 21 games of March and April of 2013-2014, whether it was a blip or the group became truly broken we will never find out.

The Pacers weren’t able to agree to terms with soon to be 24-year-old rising star Lance Stephenson as the free agent frenzy of July took place. The four-year pro signed with the Charlotte Bobcats. What Stephenson accomplished at the age of 23 — beating averages of 13 points, four assists and seven rebounds with a true shooting percentage above 55 percent — has only been accomplished 15 other times in NBA history according to basketball-reference.com (ages 18 to 23). The other players on that list were LeBron James, Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Charley Barkley, Larry Johnson, Chris Webber and Brad Daugherty.

Zach Lowe in a recent article succinctly stated what Indiana was losing with letting Stephenson go:

He stood as Indiana’s only game-to-game jolt of creativity. They ran more with Stephenson on the court. They generated more shots within the restricted area, and though the Pacers shot fewer 3s with Stephenson playing, they nailed those shots at a much higher rate – especially from the corners. Indy shot 45.5 percent on corner 3s with Stephenson on the floor, and just 33.6 percent when he sat, per NBA.com. Corner 3s work only when someone creates them by penetrating the defense and drawing help.

Stephenson’s worth to the Pacers was shown by his impact when he played with wing man Paul George. In an interesting development over the past two seasons George’s stats were highly dependent on playing with Stephenson, while Lance’s stayed at similar level with or without PG.

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From Miami’s perspective it doesn’t take much analyzing to understand there will be a dramatic drop off since they lost the best basketball player in the world – LeBron James.

In his prime, Dwyane Wade proved capable of being the top offensive creator on a high level team, but now he’s 32, and an old 32 at that. Wade played in only 54 of 82 games last season and over the last three years has missed 26% of Miami’s 230 games. This was with a ball dominant James to take pressure off him.

During the past four years the Heat have been able to accomplish a positive net rating with Wade on the court and LeBron off twice, in 2010-11 and 2012-13. There was still a nine and 13 point drop off in those two seasons, but Wade was able to keep Miami afloat while James rested up. The other two years the Heat finished with a slight negative net rating. This was fine when LeBron was on the team because they played at such a high level with him playing the other players just needed to make sure Miami didn’t get dominated.

Chris Bosh, in a somewhat surprising decision, decided to stick with palm trees instead of heading closer to home in Texas. He hasn’t been a top option on a roster since his time with the Raptors. He had great individual success there once his game developed, but Toronto only finished above .500 once and exactly .500 another season in his seven years with the franchise.

Can Bosh, who has become arguably the best complimentary player in the NBA, and an older version of Wade be the top two players on a successful team remains to be seen.

Jun 10, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat center Chris Bosh (1) reacts after shooting a three-pointer against the San Antonio Spurs during the second half of game three of the 2014 NBA Finals at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Both Indiana and Miami made additions to try to prevent a major drop off.   The Pacers brought in shooting guards Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles to replace Stephenson, while Luol Deng will play third wheel to Wade and Bosh.

It seems these two once heated rivals are now closer to battling it out for the seventh and eighth seeds in an improved Eastern Conference than the top spot they went back and forth over in 13-14.

The East might not have the top flight rosters of the West yet there are still 10 reasonably decent to good teams to potentially claim only eight playoff spots. If Kevin Love ends up with either the Cavaliers or Bulls that team becomes the head and shoulder favorite in the conference, but as of yet that hasn’t happened.

Cleveland and the Raptors seem to be the most reliable two teams with one adding James and the other returning essentially the same exact roster with another year of growth together to improve. Toronto is in a way the new Pacers.

Washington lost Trevor Ariza and replaced him with the veteran savvy of LeBron’s nemesis Paul Pierce. A return of the Cavs and Wizards rivalry, an underrated one of the 2000s, could be on the docket.

Indiana’s loss was the Bobcats gain as they added Stephenson to a solid core and head coach Steve Clifford’s handy work.

Chicago is still here and regular season success is almost a given under the maniacal Tom Thibodeau. Once the postseason rolls around how good they can actually be will depend on a variety of factors, mainly health. Will Joakim Noah’s body allow him to play in a postseason at full strength and will he be joined by Derrick Rose?

The Hawks played well when fully healthy last season and even had groups that were strong minus Al Horford. Horford is back and they have a good base of talent to work with.

The two New York teams will be in the mix also. Brooklyn hoping a surgery can bring back a younger version of Deron Williams and some young pieces can help balance out the all of a sudden money-conscious loss of Paul Pierce. In Manhattan, the departure of head coach Mike Woodson and point guard Raymond Felton brings hope along with the return of star Carmelo Anthony. Head coach Derek Fisher and president Phil Jackson give off a vibe of positivity that hasn’t been around Madison Square Garden on a consistent basis for a very long time.

Can you flat-out say the Heat and Pacers are a lock to be better than any of these other eight teams brought up?

It’s a brave new world in the well-balanced Eastern Conference. The playing field has been leveled out with Miami and Indiana going from front-runners to needing to prove they belong with every other playoff hopeful.

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