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LeBron James leads huge power shift in NBA's Eastern Conference

The Miami Heat's LeBron James goes up to

The Miami Heat's LeBron James goes up to dunk in the first half of a game against the Sacramento Kings on Friday, Dec. 20, 2013, in Miami. Credit: AP / Lynne Sladky

If the Spurs weren't so classy, few would blame them if they sent up smoke signals from San Antonio or considered skywriting their message in every NBA city.

After all, the Spurs are the ones being chased by the other 29 teams in the league after hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy last month.

They've already quietly signed their top unrestricted free agents, bringing back Boris Diaw and Patty Mills. Tim Duncan exercised his player option to return for the 2014-15 season. Coach Gregg Popovich even got a multiyear contract extension.

Yet one barely heard about their offseason transactions, in part because of the two superstars who had the NBA landscape on its collective knees awaiting their decisions.

But now that LeBron James has let it be known in his brilliant first-person essay to that he's taking his talents back to the shores of Lake Erie -- going home to play for the Cavaliers -- and Carmelo Anthony has finished agonizing over whether to go to Chicago or re-sign with the Knicks, the intrigue is tantalizing.

A shift in power in the Eastern Conference is taking shape.

Although the Heat held on to Chris Bosh, re-signing him to a reported five-year, $118-million contract, and Dwyane Wade looks as if he's also going to be back in the fold, Miami now is a shell of the team that was favored to get to the NBA Finals in each of the past four seasons -- and did so, winning twice.

Although Luol Deng is in the mix, did the signing of Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger really excite anyone? Please.

The band has broken up, meaning the Heat won't be winning a fifth straight Eastern Conference title, not with the way the Central Division is stacking up.

So let's just go ahead and call it right now: Barring some catastrophic injury to one of a team's main players (see: Derrick Rose, Chicago), or a midseason trade that shakes things up dramatically, the Eastern Conference champion will hail from either Chicago, Indianapolis or, dare we say, Cleveland.

Imagine the dogfight those three will have, jockeying for positioning and vying for the division crown, which would guarantee them no worse than the third seed come the postseason, ensuring home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

As it stood in the hours after James' announcement, some of the sports books were giving favorable odds for the King to have a coronation next June, tabbing a Cavs team currently boasting the four-time league MVP, a standout point guard in Kyrie Irving and the No. 1 overall pick in last month's draft in Andrew Wiggins. And on and on.

Still, that was before the Bulls made their big acquisition of Pau Gasol, a move that has them as the frontrunner to win the conference title.

Even with Anthony remaining with the Knicks, the Bulls swiftly dialed in on Plan B, and it's arguably a move that could put them over the top and make them one of the final two teams playing next season.

Adding Gasol to a front line that boasts the relentless Joakim Noah and the hard-working Taj Gibson and putting him in the mix with Rose -- who's surely going to be motivated to show he can play at the MVP-caliber level he reached before his two knee injuries -- could be a recipe for success.

Think about how many times the defensively-tough Bulls have gutted things out minus Rose during the last two seasons, displaying resounding fortitude and gumption under coach Tom Thibodeau -- particularly when they shocked everyone by going into Brooklyn in 2013 and taking down the Nets in Game 7 of their first-round playoff series.

Sure, Chicago couldn't match the Wizards in their opening-round playoff series three months ago, unable to keep up with the explosiveness of Washington's speedy backcourt led by John Wall and crafty front line spearheaded by Marcin Gortat and Nene.

That won't be the case if they meet again, thanks to the addition of Gasol.

Of course, the free-agency picture is far from settled, given that the floodgates didn't really open until James dropped his bombshell Friday. Plus, the Timberwolves still could trade Kevin Love, further strengthening another team's contending status.

Seeing how things play out in the next 11 months surely will be fascinating.

New York Sports