Centralized power: LeBron's move beefs up Bucks' division

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By Charles F. Gardner, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Saturday, July 12, 2014

LAS VEGAS—LeBron James' decision to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers was not a huge surprise after all the reports of the last few days.

But it's clear his choice makes the Central Division even stronger and a more formidable challenge for the rebuilding Milwaukee Bucks.

“It obviously makes our division the most competitive in the NBA, with Indiana, Chicago and Cleveland,” Bucks general manager John Hammond said. “He (James) was arguably the best player in the NBA when he left, and he comes back to Cleveland with that question answered.

“He is the best player in the world.”

The Bucks now will face a much more potent Cavaliers team—some oddsmakers already have established Cleveland a 4-1 favorities to win the NBA title—in four division games next season. The Bucks have 200-1 odds to win the title.

“It doesn't change our approach at all,” Hammond said. “We're still a team in the building process. We're looking forward to competing with these kind of teams in the somewhat near future.”

And it could be a boon for Bucks' ticket sales with two LeBron appearances on the schedule. Last season Miami played just once in Milwaukee and it came late in the season, diminishing some of the enthusiasm with the Bucks on the way to a league-worst record.

“LeBron creates energy and enthusiasm in every arena he plays in the NBA,” Hammond said. “Ours will be no different.”

Now Milwaukee is faced with a powerful Cavaliers rival in addition to the Chicago Bulls, with Derrick Rose returning at point guard, and a still-strong Indiana Pacers team. Free agent Carmelo Anthony is still pondering whether to sign with the Bulls or return to the New York Knicks, and if Anthony goes to Chicago it could be the most powerful team in the Eastern Conference.

“It's going to be good for us, as a young team, playing those guys a lot is going to help us out,” said Bucks forward John Henson, who worked out with the team's new coaches Friday. “With him coming, I think it made it the toughest division in the NBA.

“It's part of it, though.”

Henson said he was a bit surprised by James' return to the Cavaliers.

“Looking back on it, everybody should have known,” Henson said. “The signs were there, but nobody wanted to believe it.”

Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry said he was encouraged with James' decision.

“I think it's great,” Lasry said. “It tells mid-market and small-market teams you're going to be able to compete.

“When you can play against the best player in the league, it gives them (the Bucks' young players) a lot of experience.

“I'm surprised, pleasantly surprised. I feel bad for Miami and I think it's great for Cleveland. When LeBron left, Cleveland went through a really difficult time.”

It will be a much different-looking division this fall with James back in Cavaliers colors. He will team up with point guard Kyrie Irving, recently signed to a long-term deal, and No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins. But there also is talk the Cavaliers may try to acquire power forward Kevin Love from Minnesota and Wiggins could be part of the deal.

The Detroit Pistons have hired Stan Van Gundy to reverse their fortunes while the Bucks have retooled with Jason Kidd as head coach.

Expect a lively and testy series of games in this division next season, with much more focus on the Central due to James' presence.

The NBA regular-season schedule will not be released for several weeks or possibly in early August.

Now the Bucks' home dates against Cleveland will become must-see games. And it will be interesting to see if the schedule-makers give the Bucks some prominence when they play Brooklyn, the team Kidd coached last season and the franchise where he starred as a player.

Milwaukee already is scheduled to play the New York Knicks at The O2 in London—a Bucks home game—on Jan. 15, 2015.

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