In the history of the NBA, there have been a few players that have been as consequential as LeBron James. Think Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and now LeBron James. When these players make a decision, the aftershock is felt throughout the league. In Lebron’s case, when he chose to depart the Eastern Conference last year for the LA Lakers.
Since 2011, every Eastern Conference winner featured LeBron James. The Miami Heat from 2011-2014, and the Cleveland Cavaliers from 2015-2018. It didn’t matter who you put in front of the man and his team, no one could stop them. Very rarely would LeBron’s team even finish in the 1st seed, yet they would still go through. No bigger example of his dominance of an entire conference can be seen than last season, where in a season that saw the depature of Kyrie Irving, the Cavs slumped to a 4th seeded finish. It didn’t matter. Cleveland swept the 1st seed Toronto Raptors, and went superhuman against the Boston Celtics. The Cavs did eventually get swept by Golden State, but everyone saw that coming. It was arguably the worst supporting cast LeBron James has ever had, since at least 2007, another team he miraculously took to the Finals.
Now that LeBron finally moved out West, the Eastern Conference opened up, and it became anyone’s guess as to who would win it. Toronto became stronger by trading for Kawhi Leonard in the off-season, and Marc Gasol in the mid-season, while Boston welcomed the returns of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward from injury, adding to an already strong roster featuring young guns like Jason Tatum. Philadelphia now own another year of development for Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, two of the brightest talents in the league, and during the season were able to acquire Jimmy Butler, improving their scoring, defence and shooting all over. The real surprise package has been the Milwaukee Bucks, who, spearheaded by an MVP candidate in Giannis Antetokounmpo, have held the 1st seed for a majority of the season and currently boast the best record in the entire league. Yes, even ahead of Golden State.
How this falls back to LeBron is simple. Teams always made strong moves during his time in the East. Boston still had their big four when he was at Miami, with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnet, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo. They couldn’t get past Miami once LeBron joined up, and he proceeded to finally defeat one of his biggest obstacles.
Around this same time, Chicago were a legitimate contender, featuring a young Derrick Rose who had won the MVP at age 22. Miami beat them 4-1 back in 2011, showing them who the real Eastern Kings were. Indiana also proved a thorn in Miami’s side, but LeBron, Wade and Bosh simply proved too much for Paul George and co. to get over the line.
Once LeBron James joined up with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in Cleveland, the story remained the same. Atlanta had four all stars in 2015, and by himself LeBron cleaned them up. Toronto became notorious for never beating Cleveland during this time, and Boston couldn’t do it either, whether Isaiah Thomas was their star, or Kyrie Irving. It was never a question of if LeBron’s team would win the East, it was a question of in how many games. And now that he’s gone, that uncertainty has crept back in. For the first time in nearly a decade, it’s an open question as to who is going to make it through. Toronto are looking like real contenders, but uncertainty remains over Kawhi Leonard’s lingering quad issues despite him having his best season yet, and many still doubt their capability to perform under pressure, after years of folding against Cleveland.
The Bucks may be the obvious choice, and Giannis looks poised to take over as the new face of the league very soon, but he’s the only real star on his team, and a 1st seed finish doesn’t necessarily translate to playoff dominance. They may still be only a year away. Philly could be up there, too, especially with the recent addition of Tobias Harris, to fix up their shooting woes from the frontcourt positions, but chemistry remains an issue as does Ben Simmons’ lack of a jumpshot.
As for Boston, they have been incredibly inconsistent, and you don’t know which team will turn up. Gordon Hayward hasn’t looked himself since returning from his gruesome ankle injury, and Kyrie Irving’s future remains in question, as do the health of his knees. Still, they’re one team you wouldn’t want to write off, as they still feature one of the best rosters top to bottom in the NBA, are well-coached and now have the experience needed in the playoffs. They could just be forgoing the regular season and are saving themselves for the playoffs.
This cannot be stressed enough, this is the first time in a long time that multiple teams can contend for the East. If LeBron was still in Cleveland, regardless of who his teammates were, the general consensus would’ve been that all these teams loading up is nice, but unless they can prove they’ll beat LeBron and the Cavs in a playoff series, no one is buying anything. But the King of East is gone, and roadblock has gone with him. Now, it’s up for grabs, and it has made the NBA all the more exciting for it.
Well, until they meet the Warriors in the Finals.