Last week, the NBA presented and named their Eastern Conference Finals Trophy after Larry Bird. It was a well-deserved honor for an old French Lick hick who helped pave the way for the NBA’s golden age. However, King James was to be the most revered monarch in the East. LeBron was the Eastern Conference representative in the NBA Finals for eight straight seasons. To top it off, LeBron won every single Eastern Conference series he played in.
His grip on the East was unprecedented in modern times. The road to a finale in the post-LeBron East is less a royal court and more a royal rumble. Variety is the spice of life, however, and that unpredictability has led to more chaos, volatility, and intrigue. The teams that window-shopping while LeBron collected rings are finally making up for lost time.
Boston’s 109-81 win over Milwaukee in Game 6 of the NBA Finals deposed the reigning NBA champions and guaranteed another year that the East would not have a back-to-back champion in the post-LeBron era. Giannis Antetokounmpo established his official rule of the East last summer, but he’s no LeBron.
Between 2011 and 2018, LeBron-led teams defeated Derrick Rose’s Chicago Bulls, Doc Rivers’ Boston Celtics, Paul George’s Indiana Pacers, Iso Joe’s Atlanta Hawks, Isaiah Thomas’ Celtics, and Kyrie-Tatum’s Celtics. In the four Game 7 Eastern Conference playoffs that LeBron competed in in the 2010s, he averaged 35.8 points, 10.8 boards and 4.5 assists. More importantly, he went 4-0 in those matchups. In all four of 7 games, LeBron was trained on him with a red dot in a winner-take-all fight, and he emerged victorious on all four occasions. These victories allowed him to keep moving forward, bolstering his legacy, demoralizing his peers and keeping the crown on his head.
LeBron was flying high above the top tier of unique talent in the East. In the resulting void, the conference has become a moshpit. In 2019, Toronto overcame the Year 1 hump after LeBron on the back of a year-long lease from Kawhi Leonard. Miami is targeting a return to the NBA Finals after matriculating as the fifth seed in the East during The Bubble’s postseason.
Reaching an Eastern Conference Finals for the second time in three years and leading the entire conference from November through May has shown that the Bubble Heat was no fluke, but rather their first-round win in 2021. Ironically, the Lakers were of LeBron was the only thing standing between Miami’s fourth title and the East dominating the league.
Still reaping the rewards of Danny Ainge’s team composition, the Boston Celtics are broader than any young core in the Eastern Conference. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are only 24 and 25 years old, which means they’re still a few years away from beginning that pinnacle in an NBA star’s career, where their athleticism and basketball IQ will cross at their peak . Robert Williams is still in his first season as a regular and Marcus Smart, the Defensive Player of the Year’s four-year extension, does not start until next season.
The East will still have to deal with Milwaukee in 2023 and beyond. Boston was marginalized by a Bucks squad that missed Khris Middleton, their second-best scorer. Giannis Antetokounmpo is still the scariest player on the planet but his superhuman performances weren’t enough which was a shocking result. For years we’ve grown accustomed to LeBron being the deus ex machina. Giannis is a juggernaut, but stepping down from the throne after one season puts into perspective how difficult it is to climb the Eastern Conference.
Opponents have one year to adapt. Everyone picks you harder. The extra grind wears down perennial competitors, hunger subsides, the rim spontaneously grows a lid, and injuries occur at inopportune times. Game 7s are inevitable but tricky propositions. As we saw in Phoenix to the west, free nights can sneak up on you in single-elimination games. It’s a testament to LeBron’s game-changing talent that he was able to survive the gauntlet and reach the NBA Finals in eight straight seasons.
Will anyone ever be able to take LeBron’s decade-long mortgage on the East? Probably not. This doesn’t have to be a permanent setback for Giannis, however. LeBron experienced his own Game 7 loss to the defending champions Celtics in 2008 at the age of 24. If Giannis bounces back, he’ll have about time to make his own mark on the Eastern Conference. He’s no longer a presence in the postseason or the eastern half of the bracket, but LeBron’s shadow still casts a tremendous shadow.