Dennis Rodman was eight years away from melting down on live television while being interviewed on CNN the last time a LeBron James-less team had represented the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals.
The year was 2010. The same year the New Orleans Saints defeated the Indianapolis Colts at Super Bowl XLIV; clay court demigod Rafael Nadal won just his fifth title at Roland Garros; the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1961; Ke$ha’s Tik Tok ruled the airwaves; and 33 Chilean miners were dramatically rescued after 69 days of shaking hands with the devil underground.
Meanwhile, in the NBA, non-LeBron James-led Eastern Conference teams have had to endure shaking hands with mediocrity over the past eight seasons. After 2010, it has all been LeBron James in the NBA Finals for the East. That streak is still alive.
Over those eight seasons, we’ve seen teams in the East undergo several transformations with the goal of unseating LeBron in the East more than winning the NBA title.
Paul George’s Indiana Pacers didn’t pass the test. The same case with the All-Star-laden and 60-win Atlanta Hawks in 2014-15. Of course, we’re not going to forget the most recent version of the Toronto Raptors, whose then-coach Dwane Casey had spent an entire season introducing several modifications on both offense and defense that all looked effective all year long before LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers ripped Toronto’s heart out in the playoffs.
There are a many more others LeBron James had left wasted in his past NBA Finals runs.
But the end of LeBron’s dominance in the East could be coming to an end because of a very convenient reason – he might finally, for the first time in his career, move to the dog-eat-dog world of the Western Conference.
LeBron James ditching the East would be like taking Argentina out of Group D in the upcoming 2018 World Cup, leaving Iceland, Croatia, and Nigeria. All of a sudden, it becomes anybody’s group to win.
If LeBron does indeed pack his bags for the West, which Eastern Conference teams stand the best chance of taking over in the East? Let’s look at some of the top candidates.
The Celtics came so close of ending LeBron’s run of consecutive NBA Finals appearances by pushing the Cavs to the hilt of a best-of-seven Eastern Conference Finals. Boston was able to hold the neck of Cleveland for that long despite not having Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward in the playoffs.
Their absences even acted as a blessing in disguise as it helped expedite the maturity of Boston’s youngsters such as Jayson Tatum, who has already cemented himself as among the future stars of the league – if he’s not one yet. Terry Rozier will enter the next season teeming with moxie, thanks to his play in lieu of Irving. Jaylen Brown is only going to get better. Marcus Smart was an integral piece last season for the Celtics, and he could leave in the offseason via free agency, but Danny Ainge is smart enough to be relied upon to find a solid replacement should that happen.
Heck, who knows, the Celtics might just bring back Avery Bradley, a pending free agent, next campaign. Bradley could plug the hole that could be left by Smart on defense while also being a bigger offensive threat.
A lack of a true center hurt the Celtics in 2017-18, but the upcoming offseason gives the team an opportunity to lock one down. It’s worth noting that the Celtics are currently $6.4 million above the salary cap. Then again, Ainge is a master behind the desk, one who could engineer a sneaky-great trade to address the team’s remaining issues.
So long as Boston has Irving, Hayward, and Tatum, the Celtics are definitely going to be a force in the East – with or without LeBron in the conference by next season.
Vegas and several other online sportsbooks are in unison in the belief that the Sixers are among the chalks to win it all next season. Early future odds show that Joel Embiid and company have one of the shortest prices to win the NBA title in 2019.
Oddsmakers surely have in mind the possibility of LeBron staying in the East, and if he does, it’s going to be likely with either the Cavs or the Sixers. The public perception, however, is so leaning towards LeBron departing The Land that the Sixers are the top favorite team in the East to get the services of the three-time NBA champion.
This is a big reason why the Sixers have better odds than the Celtics, who swept them in the second round of the playoffs, per Kevin Bradley of Bovada (h/t NBC Sports.)
“We expect the odds to look much different within six weeks as LeBron James makes his free agency decision,” sports book manager Kevin Bradley of Bovada said. “We are trying to protect the teams that we believe he might go to and give more value to teams we perceive to be out of the running. There is value to be had if you think you know where LeBron will end up as odds will drop drastically after he signs.”
Even if LeBron looked the other way and breaks Embiid’s heart by wasting all the big man’s efforts in wooing the four-time league MVP to come to Philly, the Sixers are still expected to continue trending upwards, at least in the East.
Embiid and Ben Simmons are the duo of rocks Philadelphia is built upon. A full year of playing together and the experience of playing in the playoffs should only serve the two well going forward. Markelle Fultz should be healthy and over any hindrances that held him back from playing to his potential last season. While they may lose J.J. Redick to free agency, the Sixers have over $30 million to use in finding another shooter in the market.
Wayne Ellington is an option and could come with a much cheaper price tag. A backup big man is also a priority for the Sixers this offseason with Amir Johnson’s contract set to expire in the summer — though, signing even someone like an Ed Davis or a Dewayne Dedmon could give the team a much more formidable frontcourt.
The Sixers finished last season inside the top 10 in both offensive and defensive ratings, and with their core intact for at least another year and money to spend, Philadelphia is definitely in a terrific position to compete for the crown in the East.
Apparently, the Raptors could not wait for LeBron’s decision to make one of their own in terms of whether to keep Dwane Casey at the helm of the team or kick him out of Canada. Now it’s up to Nick Nurse to steer the team. Fortunately for Nurse, he inherits a still-loaded lineup that, if it had not crossed paths with LeBron in the playoffs, could have played the role of the sacrificial lambs in the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors.
It’s possible that in the event that LeBron officially leaves the East, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry would drop down on their knees and cry tears of joy for days, thanking the basketball gods for taking out the biggest thorn in their sides; the man who put up this kind of numbers in the second round against Toronto.
Total stats from the Cavs-Raptors second-round series:
136 points, 33 rebounds, 45 assists and 7 steals
Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan COMBINED:
138 points, 30 rebounds, 46 assists and 6 steals
— Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) May 8, 2018
Assuming the Raptors won’t blow the roster up, Toronto has a strong lineup they will be carrying into the 2018-19 season. DeRozan and Lowry are still a fantastic tandem. Serge Ibaka disappeared in the last postseason, but a new coach in Nurse could light a fire underneath him. Jonas Valanciunas forms a beefy frontcourt with Ibaka. Fred VanVleet, who sparked the Raptors’ elite bench last season could walk away from the team via free agency, but Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell, Delon Wright, and Jakob Poetl are all going to be back to complement the starters.
All told, the Raptors, who were a top five team in both offensive and defensive ratings last season, remain a huge threat in the East, especially in an Eastern Conference landscape without the Tyrannosaurus Rex that is LeBron James.