Whether it be his four years in South Beach, or his three years since returning to Cleveland, for a combined seven-straight postseasons all Eastern Conference roads to the NBA Finals have gone through LeBron James.
Last year ‘the King’ swept his way past the Indiana Pacers and the Toronto Raptors, before dropping just one game to the Boston Celtics on route to his seventh consecutive NBA Finals appearance.
The excellent Celtics coach Brad Stevens chalked up enough schemes to give the Cleveland Cavaliers problems, but with the support of one of the league’s best isolation players, Kyrie Irving, the Cavs negotiated the Eastern Conference finals comfortably, before succumbing to the Golden State Warriors in five games.
In the off-season, Irving shook James and the Cavs when he put in a trade request. His move to the Celtics, and the Cavs’ roller coaster season, set up a mouth-watering prospect of the former dynamic duo going head-to-head, until news surfaced that injury would rule Irving out of the postseason.
Now, the number two seed, who also saw new recruit Gordon Hayward go down with a fractured tibia and dislocated ankle six minutes into the season opener against the Cavs, have an uphill challenge to reach the Conference Finals again.
The Toronto Raptors secured the number one seed in the East with a franchise best 59 wins. After being swept last year, their star player DeMar DeRozan conceded, “if we had LeBron on our team too, we woulda won.”
On paper Drake’s Raptors should be the class of the conference, but when DeRozan and Kyle Lowry come face-to-face with the kid from Akron, there appears to be a sense of inevitability.
One team with the players and the confidence to knock off LeBron’s Cavs are the Philadelphia 76ers. Currently in the midst of a franchise best win-streak, the Sixers have two generational talents in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
It has been a long road back to being a competitive team for the franchise that has been asking their fans to trust ‘the process’, but just two years after finishing with a 10-72 record, the team from Philly have their best chance of making a deep run in the Playoffs since Allen Iverson’s 2001 MVP season.
This year may be too soon for the Sixers to realise their potential, but if they can keep their two key players fit in the coming seasons, they may well become the dominant force in the Eastern Conference for the foreseeable future.
The Indiana Pacers led by Victor Oladipo, Dwyane Wade’s Miami Heat, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks, and John Wall and Bradley Beal’s Washington Wizards, will all be hoping to make some play-off noise in a Conference that is considerably weaker than the West.
Despite making three consecutive NBA Finals appearances, the Cavs have struggled to find their feet since losing Irving. At the All-Star break, the Clevelanders blew up their constructed roster to add George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson, and Larry Nance Jr. in exchange for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Channing Frye, Wade, Iman Shumpert, Derrick Rose, and their own 2018 first-round pick.
The Sixers’ late surge, and final day 35-point blow-out victory over the Bucks, has pushed the Cavs down to the fourth seed. In his seven-straight trips to the NBA Finals, James’ teams had all reached the second seed at least. Given the dominance that he displayed in last year’s Playoffs, however, anything other than an eighth-straight trip to the NBA Finals for ‘the King’ would be a huge surprise.