When Sports Illustrated senior writer Lee Jenkins penned a letter in the voice of LeBron James announcing his return home to the Cleveland Cavaliers on the days leading up to July 11, 2014 the NBA was ready for a power shift, especially in the Eastern Conference. James’ Heat had dominated the four years he spent in Miami. They took part in 12 series against Eastern Conference teams, and they won them all.
James started devouring opponents and forcing core blow-ups beginning with his original days in Cleveland, dismantling the Detroit Pistons, specifically in 2007. Since then he’s been writing more chapters to his incredible legacy, but the stories don’t change much. Sunday evening in Toronto was the end of another chapter, not only for the legacy of James, but potentially the Toronto Raptors as a franchise.
The Raptors are at a crossroads. They don’t know whether they’ll be good enough with this core to outlast James, or if they’re better off rebuilding and waiting until the East is winnable again. James played the played the role of grim reaper for the Raptors, as he has for so many other franchises.
Toronto must now decide if it is worth shelling out $200M to keep Kyle Lowry around only to have a ceiling of finishing behind James for the next few years. Similar dilemmas have been faced by plenty of other Eastern Conference opponents during the career of James.
The Detroit Pistons, Boston Celtics, Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers (potentially twice) and now, potentially the Raptors, just to name a few, have had their franchises significantly altered by the sheer presence of number 23.
Detroit witnessed the coming out party of LeBron James first hand when he scored 25 straight and 29 of the last 30 to shut their championship window. The Celtics had an opportunity to eliminate James and the Heat, at home, in 2012, but he put in one of his best performances of his career to save the season, and later end theirs en-route to his second title. The Hawks had a 60-win team swept out of the playoffs and a 48-win team swept out by James before failing to re-sign Al Horford, trading Jeff Teague, and hand the Cavaliers Kyle Korver. The Bulls had to get rid of Derrick Rose because he was owned by LeBron (I was going to put attempt to rebuild, because they were going to, but they’re not good at it), and now they waste Jimmy Butler’s prime in mediocrity. The Pacers have been dismantled once after failing to get past Miami and now may be trading off star Paul George after being shown the quick door this year by the Cavaliers.
When James shifted back to Cleveland from Miami there was a change in the power in the Eastern Conference, but only because he was the change. May 15, or 17, depending on the result of the series between Washington and Boston, will begin his 7th straight Eastern Conference Finals appearance, and 9th overall. The only time he reached the fight for the Eastern Conference belt and failed to come away victorious was in 2009, when the Cavaliers lost in six games to the Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic. It would be a shock to the basketball world if James and the Cavaliers don’t advance to The Finals this year, no matter who the final intra-conference opponent is.
Since the Eastern Conference power shifted to James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, the Cavaliers are a remarkable 32-4 in the playoffs against east foes. Their sole losses have come to the Chicago Bulls in the semis of 2015, and the Raptors in the 2016 conference finals.
In summary, Sunday’s victory over Toronto concluded their eighth series in the east since the start of the 2015 postseason. The victory also put the finishing touches on their sixth sweep in those series. The 32-4 record is a 73-win pace if stretched out over the course of an 82-game season. That’s being done while facing playoff teams, teams that have a cumulative regular season record of 391-265.
James and his teammates aren’t exactly devouring cupcakes. They’re feasting on the best that the league can offer. Before one jumps out and says that the Eastern Conference is the lesser of the two and that the Cavaliers should be this dominant, take a step back and compare this Cavaliers run to that of the Golden State Warriors in the same timeframe, only against Western Conference opponents.
Since the beginning of the 2015 postseason the Golden State Warriors are 31-8 against Western Conference opponents, good enough for a 65-win clip if stretched out over a complete regular season. A would be record eight games behind the Cavaliers. The Warriors have also done this against worse competition than the Cavs, albeit slightly. The cumulative record of Western Conference playoff opponents of the Warriors from the start of the 2015 postseason is 388-268, three games worse than that of Cleveland’s Eastern Conference opponents.
Simply put, James has been historically dominant.
The Raptors never stood a chance, and no team in the East realistically has since the Chicago Bulls held a 2-1 lead before James ripped the hearts out of Chicagoans with a buzzer beating jumper from the left baseline in Game 4 of the 2015 Eastern Conference Semifinals.
The championship window for that group of Bulls slammed shut the moment James scratched David Blatt’s inbound play and drew one up for himself.
If we’re being realistic, the current editions of the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards probably don’t have much of a chance, either, especially with the tear the Cavs are on currently. They’ve won 11 straight playoff games, dating back to Klay Thompson’s infamous “Man’s Game” comments prior to Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals.
That was the day the NBA’s version of the Undertaker was angered, and he hasn’t slowed down since.
Honestly, when the grim reaper comes around, it’s best to accept the inevitable death.