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LeBron James makes Cleveland a favorite for the NBA title

Monta Ellis, LeBron James
Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James, right, drives past Dallas Mavericks guard Monta Ellis during an exhibition game on Oct. 17.
(Mark Duncan / Associated Press)

It seems as if LeBron James is always at the center of the basketball universe because so much of the NBA has revolved around his comings and goings.

James just proved you can go home again, even after the citizens of Cleveland called him unprintable names and burned his jersey when he took his talents to the Miami Heat four years ago.

But all is forgiven.

James, a four-time most valuable player, is beloved again by his hometown fans because he returned to play for the Cavaliers, who made him the top overall pick in the 2003 draft out of St. Vincent-St. Mary High in Akron.

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He returned to the Cavaliers as a two-time NBA champion, having played in four consecutive Finals with Miami, and is humbled by the weighty expectations of leading championship-starved Cleveland to a title.

James is joined in the frontcourt by Kevin Love, who was acquired from Minnesota in deal that included Cleveland’s first-round draft pick Andrew Wiggins and former first-round pick Anthony Bennett.

There were other seismic shifts in the Eastern Conference.

The return of a healthy Derrick Rose to Chicago probably will make it a two-team race between the Bulls and Cavaliers to represent the East in the NBA Finals.

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Rose played in only 10 games last season because of surgery to repair a torn cartilage in his right knee and he missed the entire 2012-13 season while he recovered from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.

But after playing this summer for USA Basketball in the FIBA World Cup in Spain, Rose shook off some of his rust.

He’ll be joined by Pau Gasol, who left the Lakers for a three-year contract worth $22 million and the hope that in Chicago he can add to his championship ring collection after winning two in L.A.

After being the top-seeded team in the East last season, the Indiana Pacers had a rough summer.

They lost All-Star forward Paul George for the season after he fractured his right leg during a scrimmage for USA Basketball in August and in free agency the Pacers lost mercurial-but-talented guard Lance Stephenson to Charlotte, which probably means Indiana will miss the playoffs.

The Pacers couldn’t score much last season, averaging 96.7 points a game, the seventh-lowest in the league. So where will the Pacers find the extra offense without George and Stephenson?

No one really expects the Heat to reach the NBA Finals for a fifth consecutive season, not after losing James to Cleveland and with an aging Dwyane Wade.

Soon after James left, Chris Bosh re-signed with Miami for five years and $118 million. Bosh was usually the third scoring option, after James and Wade. Now it’s time for the Heat and Pat Riley to see if Bosh can carry the team.

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