Who will take the Eastern Conference from LeBron James?

Art by Elliot Gerard and John Boyce   Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images    Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images
Art by Elliot Gerard and John Boyce Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images /

For the past six years, LeBron James has ruled the Eastern Conference. No matter how good the challenger has been or what issues his own team has has to work through, The King has made it to the NBA Finals. It’s a historic run, especially when you consider that it spans two different franchises.

As the 2016-17 season kicks off, this reality doesn’t appear likely to change. After winning a title largely because of LeBron’s GOAT-level play near the end of the series — remember that block? — it seems that LeBron’s, and by extension the Cavs’, grip on the Eastern Conference has never been tighter. Almost everyone is penciling Cleveland in for another trip to the Finals, and most are already tracing over the letters in pen.

So, short of a doomsday injury scenario, what would it take for this era to end, for the reign of other teams to begin? Could some actually pull it off this year? Is there a team on the way up that is preparing a coup for a year or two from know? Or is time the only thing capable of taking down the best player of this generation?

Art by Elliot Gerard and John Boyce

On our special day

In the short term, LeBron’s Cavs are the Eastern Conference’s version of the Justice League. There are ways to beat them and ways to take them down, but it’s not ever going to easy. The hypothetical scenario relies on a fair amount of both good luck and timing. It also requires some plan to slow down LeBron for four games in a seven games, as unlikely as that may be.

For now, the Toronto Raptors and the Boston Celtics appear to be the teams with the best chance of being competitive with Cleveland in the playoffs. Part of that is that they’ll probably be there at the end — most consider Toronto and Boston to be the second and third best teams in the East in some order. Simply being there is really half the battle and over the course of a long regular season and the playoffs, maybe something happens. Maybe LeBron actually gets hurt. Maybe Kyrie Irving can’t stay healthy or maybe the Cavs’ bench is just too thin and too old provide LeBron, Irving and Love with the kind of support they need.

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Toronto’s hope is that continuity, however muddled, plays in their favor. Their roster, led by Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, has really only added supplementary pieces over the past few years and those pieces have mostly been added because of how they compliment Lowry and DeRozan. Despite some limitations, Lowry and DeRozan are a duo that works well off one another. They’ve taken the Raptors to a level just below the NBA’s elite tier. Last year, Toronto won 56 games — just one less than the Cavs — and made it to the Eastern Conference Finals; there’s no shame in making it that far.

The Raptors, though, could have reasonably peaked last year. Lowry is at that age where a lot of point guards start to decline and DeRozan might have had his career year last season. This summer, they also lost Bismack Biyombo without adding a relatively good replacement (all due respect to Jared Sullinger), leaving them a bit thin at center behind Jonas Valanciunas. They also lack some of the offensive pace and shooting that’s really necessary to put pressure on the Cavs’ defense at its weakest points. While DeMarre Carroll is fine, he is not an elite LeBron stopper. He has the tools but he is not quite the unicorn that teams need to slow James.

The Cavs also doesn’t seem to fear Toronto or view them as an equal like they do Golden State and San Antonio. In 2015-16, the Raptors won three of four games against the Cavs in the regular season and then won two games at home in the Conference Finals, after the Cavs had won their first 10 playoff games. Even after those two losses, the Cavs never seem worried or really threatened by Toronto.

And what happened? The Cavs rolled through the next two games against Toronto and advanced. Nothing this summer has changed how the two teams match-up and the gap may have even gotten wider.

Boston, despite improving each of the past two years and adding Al Horford this summer, exists in a similar way. They are solid everywhere, but they aren’t great. They are probably going to look great in the regular season, but a playoff series against LeBron and the Cavs is a different animal.

The best compliment someone can pay Boston is that the Celtics, out of every team in the East, might be best equipped to have a competitive series against Cleveland in April or May. At the guard spots, Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley can pester Irving and J.R. Smith like no other duo in the East. Isaiah Thomas can score on Irving and force adjustments. As a team, Boston is versatile, smart, and are solid everywhere with room to grow internally.

They also haven’t advanced in the playoffs the past two years and might not be a good rebounding team. Against a frontline of Love and Tristan Thompson, that’s a recipe for disaster — just ask the Atlanta Hawks. They also don’t have a real LeBron stopper — Jae Crowder will try, but his track record isn’t much better than anyone else’s — and Boston might not have enough consistent shooting to really stretch Cleveland’s defense. When you compare Boston to Cleveland, they just come up short at a few too many spots.

In time, Boston could still be the team to take down LeBron and maybe they can swing their stock of assets into another star for this year. But as is, it’s probably not there.

Whatever happened to the Man of Tomorrow?

Three years ago, when LeBron was still playing for the Miami Heat, he seemed to have faced off with a future threat to his throne. James’ Heat teams may have faced their biggest tests against the Indiana Pacers, but they never seem worried as much as they did annoyed. Paul George, however, gave LeBron a foil who was both younger and could give him the best one-on-one battle of any player in the East. Even if the Pacers’ future was rightfully doubted because of their style, George was someone to watch as he headed towards his peak and LeBron theoretically left his.

George then got hurt, basically missing LeBron’s entire first season back in Cleveland with a broken leg. Last year began looking like the player he was before. This year, at age 26, his career is back on track and he’s quite possibly the second best player in the conference. George also has his eyes squarely on the Cavs and thinks his team can take down LeBron and Cleveland this year.

“This is supposed to be the best dude in the NBA. I’m trying to challenge him,” George told  Michael Lee of The Vertical. “I know what I’m up against. Now it’s, ‘I’m ready. I’m ready for you. I’m a veteran. I know you, you know me. Let’s meet here, let’s get this job done.’ I’m prepared. I’ve had time to figure this out. I’ve had time to lick my wounds. I’m ready.”

George (rightfully) had his sights set high but his team may not be quite there to back him up. Myles Turner is perhaps his most promising teammate, but he’s just in his second year. Jeff Teague is maybe an upgrade at point guard, but it’s much a different fit than with George Hill. And then there’s Monta Ellis at two guard who really doesn’t fit with Thaddeus Young at power forward.

Aside from George – who also still has to improve in some areas to really hit LeBron’s level — the Pacers are at a clear disadvantage against Cleveland at every position. Throw in a new coach whose style doesn’t appear mesh directly the organization’s vision and it’s not hard to see this team not being quite ready to compete. Perhaps in a year or two, when LeBron declines just a bit and George theoretically peaks, Indiana’s window will open.

The Pacers also will have a challenger over the next few years, a Pistons team whose core all fits together and is (mostly) a progressing along the same timeline. Detroit faced the Cavs in last year’s playoffs and, despite being swept, never backed down in four close, competitive games.

On paper, the Pistons also play a style that presents some problems for the Cavs. The Reggie Jackson-Andre Drummond pick-and-rolls present issues for Cleveland’s defense that can be countered, but not in a way that totally eliminates the problem. If Stanley Johnson and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope can develop into knockdown shooters (which is never a guarantee), Detroit’s rotation is full of the type of players you need to beat Cleveland. Having Stan Van Gundy as a coach certainly doesn’t hurt either.

Quite literally at the center of their efforts is Drummond. At 23, he’s still growing and maturing as a player. In time, he should become a star and he’s close now. Forget what you think of his inability to hit free throws: Drummond does and will get better at so many other things on the court that his free throw shooting does not completely invalidate him as a star, especially if rule changes ultimately happen. In the not-too-distant past, Van Gundy coached a team with lots of shooting and a star center inside, his 2009 Magic beat LeBron’s Cavs, made the Finals and were good for a few more years after that before it imploded when Dwight Howard wanted out. It’s a different-ish league now, but that style of play still can work at the highest level.

Right now, though, might be too soon for the Pistons and losing Jackson to start the season won’t help them have a chance at a surprise run at the No. 2 or No. 3 seed. Without them avoiding Cleveland until the Eastern Conference Finals — and some luck — it’s hard to see Detroit having a shot at dethroning LeBron just yet.

Last Son

Perhaps the best, most realistic argument for who will take down LeBron involves look ahead towards the future of the Eastern Conference, beyond the immediate future. This admittedly involves a bit of guess work because it’s incredibly difficult to predict how good teams will actually be in five years, but there’s one team whose whole process involves banking on the value of time.

That team, of course, is the Philadelphia 76ers. While the Colangelos’ leadership team means they may not be as willing to play the long(est) game, it’s still going to take time and slow, incremental growth for this team to be good.

A look at their roster only reinforces this truth. No. 1 pick Ben Simmons — who may not even play this year and also happens to be repped by LeBron’s agent — has work to do as a shooter and is going to need time to properly adjust to the NBA. If he’s really going to be the Sixers’ point guard, a learning curve is inevitable because all young point guards need time to develop. Fellow rookie Joel Embiid, for how good and exciting he’s been in the preseason against some legit NBA centers, is going to adjust to playing basketball after sitting out the last few years, and he could get hurt again at any time. All of the rest of their young pieces — Nerlens Noel, Jahil Okafor, Dario Saric and the to-be-named prospect they’ll select in the upper half of the lottery next year — still need time too.

Philadelphia has some roster juggling to take care of. In the current NBA, a team can’t functionally have three high-minute bigs on their roster without the three all complementing each other. To date — partially because Embiid hasn’t played — there’s no reason to believe Embiid, Noel and Okafor can all coexist on the court. Add in Saric and a move seems inevitable. Noel, as good as he might be, might be the best candidate for a trade because of his looming extension and his direct overlap with Embiid.

But again, no matter what happens with the roster, they really do need to still trust the process. Simmons is just 20. Embiid is 22. Saric is 22 and the Sixers aren’t just going to stop adding young players in the next few years; the theoretically primes of their planned cornerstones are still six or seven years away from their present.

By then, with a few smartly timed moves and the right development, the 76ers could be really good. And by then, assuming he’s still playing and doesn’t abdicate his throne by leaving the East, LeBron will be in his late 30s. So maybe that’s the way you beat LeBron — you wait and trust in your players’ ability to peak when LeBron can’t be LeBron anymore.

All kings die someday.