Indiana Pacers forward Paul George watched Lance Stephenson leave his team for the Charlotte Hornets and LeBron James leave the Miami Heat in free agency, and he thinks the perception now is that the Cleveland Cavaliers are the favorites in the Eastern Conference. From ESPN's Brian Windhorst at Team USA's training camp in Las Vegas:
"With Lance being gone and everyone thinking this is going to be a rebuilding year for us," Paul George said during Team USA training camp this week, "immediately when LeBron went to Cleveland, that made them the front-runners."
But the Pacers, with a strong core led by George still in place, are certainly not rebuilding, right?
"People do look at it that way," George insisted, perhaps even trying to sell it. "I've got a lot of pressure and I'm coming into this year and I'm ready to live up to that pressure."
As Windhorst pointed out, the Pacers didn't exactly perform at their best when they were looked at as the top team in the East. Indiana started strong, then essentially imploded in the second half of the season. Embracing an underdog mentality might be the best bet for George and his teammates, regardless of how other teams and observers see them.
When I ranked the East's teams after James' decision, I had the Cavs and Pacers in the No. 1 and 2 spots, respectively. That was before Stephenson decided to go to Charlotte. Now the conference is even messier, and you can make a convincing argument for dropping Indiana to the middle of the pack and lifting the Hornets up a few spots.
Most would probably peg Cleveland and the Chicago Bulls as the two frontrunners, regardless of what happens with Kevin Love. While both teams will take some time to come together, if healthy it's hard to imagine them not figuring it out. The Pacers might have found an adequate replacement for Stephenson in Rodney Stuckey, but no one is talking about them. Based on what happened last season, they might be totally fine with that.