Every year of LeBron James‘ reign, since his first season with the Miami Heat, comes coupled with an Eastern Conference playing catch up. The regular season and playoffs are largely academic, every win and loss, a bit of information which buoys the inevitable conclusion of a LeBron James Finals appearance. Basically, this picture of Usain Bolt smiling back at what is technically supposed to be competition adequately describes LeBron James’ relationship with the Eastern Conference.
But James, if he is in fact human, will one day get old, and every year of demonstrated mortality will only make the status of his Eastern Conference dominance more tenuous. Say what you will about LeBron James, destroyer and harbinger of basketball narratives, but he has never had a proper in-conference rival during his prime. The only way for this to change is if the Cleveland Cavaliers take a step back or another team takes a step forward. Well, let’s assess the likelihood of both realities.
In regards to whether the Cavaliers will take a step back, it is most instructive to look at the second half of their season, after Tyronn Lue had been given a chance to settle into his role as head coach. Though he actually sported a worse record than his predecessor during his 41-game regular season tenure, he laid the foundation for a more up-tempo, three-happy Cavaliers team which destroyed worlds during the first two postseason rounds.
Of the Cavaliers’ five most-played lineups adjusted for pace during David Blatt’s run, three of them featured the slow-footed Timofey Mozgov at center, and two of those lineups sported a negative Net Rating. After Lue took over, only two of their five most-played lineups featured Mozgov, and their eventual starting lineup of Kyrie Irving–J.R. Smith-LeBron James-Kevin Love–Tristan Thompson got 334 minutes of burn compared to the 131 they got in the first half of the season. The Cavaliers’ rotation definitely became more focused, with that starting lineup playing 371 minutes during the post-season and sporting a +18.5 Net Rating.
The postseason success of Cavaliers’ lineups where Richard Jefferson took Kevin Love’s spot in the rotation (+24.9 Net Rating in 72 minutes) suggest an amenability toward stylistic switches, so long as the lineup adjustment provides sufficient spacing for James and Irving to create. Postseason lineups where Channing Frye took Love’s spot in the rotation, while only playing 14 total minutes, crushed teams while playing at a schizophrenic pace. New acquisition Mike Dunleavy will occupy this spot in the rotation if Frye is unfit. The next phase of LeBron’s career will feature him as the de facto point guard in lineups surrounded by shooting, with Irving playing as a secondary ball-handler and shot creator. The Cavaliers would do well to add some defensive versatility to their roster; Iman Shumpert is as spacey as he is athletic and the loss ofMatthew Dellavedova will effectively kill some of the Cavaliers’ most productive bench lineups. To do this they still have the Mid-Level and Bi-Annual Free Agent Exceptions, as well as a $9,638,554 Trade Exception. Otherwise, they might be relying on Jordan McRae to make a leap into the rotation.
It should also be noted that J.R. Smith is still a free agent and locking him up after a career year will definitely require a lofty, though ultimately worthwhile, financial commitment. Doing so will bring back the Cavaliers’ best statistical lineup and create the league’s best storyline (sorry,Golden State): J.R. Smith, defending NBA Champion.
All this said, both iterations of Cavaliers’ teams suffered uninspiring defeats to dormant clubs, and inspired some of LeBron’s most aggressive passive-aggressive leadership of his career. They did not seem to hit their stride or exhibit any particular stylistic identity until the playoffs began. The Cavaliers beat a 73-9 Warriors team en route to probably the league’s most storied championship, but also, in retrospect, perhaps the most surprising. If they exhibited any championship caliber play, it was fleeting at best, and the team seemed burdened by the expectations incumbent upon any team with LeBron James. Maybe the championship will allow the Cavaliers to unleash the pace-and-space outfit they started to perfect as the season wound down, or perhaps the team without much regular season margin for error will experience a post-championship swoon.
It seems worth noting that the 2012-2013 Miami Heat, in the season after James’ first championship, wrecked the NBA, riding a 27-game winning streak to a 66-16 regular season record. Granted, the enterprise fell apart toward the end of the next season, but it is worth wondering if a honeymoon season follows every monkey-off-the-back LeBron James championship. The Cavaliers will definitely have a blueprint to seeing, and maximizing, this potential.
The rest of the Eastern Conference, however, represents a mixed bag.
The Toronto Raptors did well to patch up a roster which lost some key depth in free agency, they might get DeMarre Carroll healthy for a full season, and they have enviable lineup versatility. They will have their choice of either downsizing with Carroll at the power forward spot and Cory Joseph sharing the backcourt with Kyle Lowry as the off-guard, or playing Patrick Patterson at the power forward spot with Joseph coming off the bench. If Bruno Caboclo or Delon Wright can crack the rotation, the Raptors might actually have a better roster than last year’s team which went 56-26 and narrowly missed out on the conference’s best record.
The Boston Celtics seem to always be teetering on the edge of contention, one trade away from leveraging a bevy of trade assets for the next star, or stars, who will carry a talented roster toward contention. Brad Stevens might be the league’s best coach, he certainly is the most coach-y looking coach, and new acquisition Al Horford gives them a veteran competence they have sorely lacked. Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley both had terrific seasons last year, whileIsaiah Thomas was an All-Star. Brad Stevens’ offense always seems to generate open perimeter looks for big men, and Al Horford shot 34.4% from deep as a center last season. This team might not be a contender to win the East, but they finished 48-34 last season with a mishmash of talented players. This year’s roster has a bit more structure, and is far more top-heavy. Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Al Horford comprise a terrific veteran core whileMarcus Smart and Jaylen Brown will be allowed to further develop at their own pace.
The New York Knicks are essentially a skeleton’s closet of former LeBron James playoff or narrative foes. The newly acquired Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah lurked throughout James’ Heat tenure, while Courtney Lee was a part of that 2009 Orlando Magic squad which eliminated James in the Eastern Conference Finals. The prevailing joke around the league is that Knicks general manager Phil Jackson put together a team which could have challenged LeBron James in 2011, and while there is some tongue-in-cheek truth to that, the better joke is how this team’s best lineup does not maximize the team’s asset makeup. As evidenced by Carmelo Anthony‘s Olympic performance, as well as the precedent left by the 54-28 Knicks team of 2013, the Knicks are best served with Anthony at the power forward spot. Playing him at that spot means either Joakim Noah, the recipient of a 4 year, $70 million contract this off-season, or prized rookieKristaps Porzingis will have to see the bench. The silver lining is that the Knicks will be able to ride the flow of the game, seeing whether Porzingis or Noah fit best against a given opponent, and finish games with Anthony at the power forward spot. Elsewhere, the Knicks did well to add depth with Brandon Jennings as the backup point guard and Justin Holiday as an underrated throw-in in the Derrick Rose trade. The Rose acquisition warrants a separate post in itself, though it is fair to say the Knicks’ season rests upon the collective knees and achilles of their two point guards.
The East has belonged to LeBron James since 2010, and all good things must come to an end. Unfortunately for the rest of the conference, this upcoming season comes with as many questions for ancillary contenders as it does for the conference’s royalty. Prepare for another season of win-loss academia, and perhaps another 20-game winning streak from the league’s most familiar conference champion.
Spark Sports Analyst