It’s been nearly a decade since a new dawn has washed over the Eastern Conference and the reason stands 6-foot-8 and weighs at least 250 pounds.
Whenever things begin to look bleak in Cleveland, we convince ourselves that light will engulf another Eastern city. Tendrils of a rose-pink sky have been spotted in Chicago, Indiana, Toronto and Boston, but the sun has always failed to reach those skies.
By now you know LeBron James is in his eighth-straight NBA Finals as the Cavaliers and Warriors face off for the fourth-consecutive June. Overall, LeBron has been atop the East in nine of the last 12 seasons.
He picks his spots and, yes, you’ll see him fail to complete a defensive rotation here and there, even in the playoffs, but it’s foolish to bet against him as long as he’s in the East.
LeBron’s body of work is so impressive that whenever an imperfection appears in his more than $1 million per season body, a whole day's worth of hot takes is cultivated. You can’t deny that at 33, with 500 more playoff minutes under his belt than any other player in the history of the basketball, this postseason is arguably his best. He’s averaging 34 points, 9.2 rebounds, 8.8 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.1 blocks on 54.2% shooting. His PER these playoffs is second only to the absurd 37.4 he posted in 2009. He may not be able to get by on simple athleticism anymore, but he’s a savant and has no problem making sure everyone knows it.
We keep waiting for him to show real regression, but he continues to find a way to meet or even exceed his own unreal expectations. He’s owned the Eastern Conference longer than a third of the NBA’s owners have possessed their franchises.
The Celtics had LeBron on the ropes, but couldn’t finish him despite taking a 3-2 lead over the Cavaliers with Game 7 at home (where the Celtics had previously been undefeated). If LeBron can extend his Finals streak with a team that was turned over at midseason then who can keep him from extending his dominance into the next decade?
The postseason became a fairytale for the Celtics after needing seven games to beat the Bucks in the first round. Brad Stevens unlocked supersized versions of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier while $50 million in salary watched from the sidelines.
It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the Celtics won’t be the favorites in the East with Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward healthy, and another summer for Danny Ainge to fine tune the roster.
Before we lock them in for 65-plus wins, however, let’s consider the task of reintegrating Irving and Hayward into a lineup that flourished with a balanced offensive attack. Tatum is ready for primetime, but a cap will be placed on the level of production we saw in the playoffs. They will be a title contender, but wholly different than they were just a few nights ago.
A possible (and unexpected) internal meltdown notwithstanding, Philadelphia looks like the 1B to Boston’s 1A as the conference moves forward.
Brett Brown has been awarded with an extension, keeping one of the only stable faces the franchise has had since things were torn down. Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric and Markelle Fultz form quite the foursome, even if it takes Fultz another year or two to figure things out. Bryan Colangelo will roll them out for a combined $42.4 million next season and $48.4 million in 19-20.
They could prove to be both the problem and the solution to the LeBron problem if they are able to turn a meeting with him in free agency into the NBA’s next super team.
The Hawks, Magic, Bulls, Nets and Knicks are all two years away from being two years away. The Pistons, Heat, Wizards and Hornets could either take steps forward next season, or find themselves even further from contention than the two-from-two crowd as they’ve yet to hit bottom.
That leaves the Raptors, Pacers and Bucks as the only other threats to the throne.
Toronto chose firing Dwane Casey over trying to move Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan or Serge Ibaka and the issues here run deeper than just talent. They are far from the first team to get annually blocked by LeBron, but they are the most recent. Let’s assume LeBron remains with Cleveland and the roster is similar: Not many would pick the Raptors in a seven-game series.
The Pacers pushed Cleveland to seven and Victor Oladipo is a superstar, but at least some of that series can be attributed to the Cavs still getting familiar with each other. If Myles Turner and Domas Sabonis develop and they add an elite point guard, Indiana may be able to push the Cavs in the coming years.
Milwaukee has a number of question marks -- does Jabari Parker have a future there? How will Mike Budenholzer deploy Giannis Antetokounmpo? Did Terry Rozier forever ruin Eric Bledsoe?
Despite that, the Bucks have the second best player in the conference with significant room for him to grow. If the Bucks can unearth his full potential, he may be the only singular talent that can stand between LeBron and the Finals very soon.
The Man Himself
LeBron has a $35.6 million player option for next season, but has insisted that no decision will be made on his future until Cleveland’s season is over. That has done nothing to curb speculation that he could leave his hometown team for a second time.
Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer reported that he will listen to pitches from the Cavaliers, Rockets, Lakers and Sixers this July. The Warriors and Clippers are betting options in Las Vegas, but even there those odds are long.
LeBron is incredibly self aware, which means he has already considered what it would mean to leave the East. Playing alongside James Harden and presumably Chris Paul with Houston may mean a higher chance of winning a title, but he’d have to go through the Warriors just to get to the Finals. Los Angeles has advantages, but they’d have to sign someone like Paul George as well while continuing to groom Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram. The Lakers might extend his career, but the immediate road to the championship round would be much bumpier.
If LeBron wants to put himself in the best position to go to a ninth, and then tenth and eleventh, straight Finals, he’ll delay his free agency by a year and exercise his player option for 18-19. The Cavaliers could retool by using the No. 8 pick and, just maybe, by finding someone willing to eat the contract or J.R. Smith or Jordan Clarkson.
Doing so would allow LeBron to drive deep into the playoffs with the Celtics as the only roadblock. He could then assess the state of both the East and the NBA overall before deciding on his future.
You can forecast as much as you want, but by now we should know better than to doubt LeBron. He’s eclipsed the rest of the East for most of his career.