Unpacking the long-term playoff picture in the NBA’s East after LeBron James

Who will reign in the East now?

Who will reign in the East now?
Image: Getty Images

Last week, the NBA presented and christened its Eastern Conference Finals Trophy after Larry Bird. It was a well-deserved honor for an old Hick from French Lick, who helped pave the NBA’s Gilded Age. However, King James should be the most revered monarch over the East. LeBron was the Eastern Conference rep in the NBA Finals for eight consecutive seasons. To top it off, LeBron won every single Eastern Conference series he played in.

His grip on the East was in the modern age. The road to a Finals in the post-LeBron East, is less of a royal court and more of a royal rumble. However, variety is the spice of life, and that unpredictability has created more chaos, volatility and intrigue. The teams that window shopped 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 champs and guaranteed, for another year, that the East won’t have a back-to-back champion in the post-LeBron era. Giannis Antetokounmpo launched his official rule over 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 overachieving Indiana Pacers, Iso Joe’s Atlanta Hawks, Isaiah Thomas’ Celtics, and the Kyrie-Tatum Celtics. In the four Eastern Conference playoff Game 7s LeBron participated during the 2010s, he erupted for 35.8 points, 10.8 boards and 4.5 assists. More importantly, he went 4-0 in those matchups. In all four Game 7s, LeBron had a red dot trained on him amid a winner-take-all clash, and he emerged victorious all four times. Those wins enabled him to continue advancing, enhancing his legacy, demoralizing his peers, and keeping the crown affixed to his head.

LeBron was a flight above the highest echelon of singular talents out East. In the void left behind, the conference has become a mosh pit. In 2019, Toronto got over the hump in Year 1 post-LeBron on the back of a one-year Kawhi Leonard rental. Miami is striving to return to the NBA Finals after matriculating through the East as a fifth seed during The Bubble postseason.

Reaching an Eastern Conference Finals for the second time in three years and leading the entire conference from November to May, has demonstrated that the Bubble Heat weren’t a fluke, their first round sweep in 2021 was. Ironically, LeBron’s Lakers were the only thing between Miami’s fourth title and the East having dominion over the league.

Still reaping the rewards of Danny Ainge’s team composition, the Boston Celtics’ window is wider than any young core in the Eastern Conference. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are only 24 and 25, which means they are still a few years away from the beginning of that prime juncture in an NBA star’s career where their athleticism and basketball IQ intersect at their apex. Robert Williams is still in his first season as a starter and Marcus Smart, the Defensive Player of the Year’s four-year contract extension, doesn’t kick in until next season.

The East will still have to contend with Milwaukee in 2023 and beyond. Boston was forced to the brink by a Bucks squad missing Khris Middleton, their second-leading scorer. Giannis Antetokounmpo is still the scariest player on the planet, but his superhuman feats not being enough was a shocking outcome. For years, we got used to LeBron being the deus ex machina. Giannis is a juggernaut but abdicating the throne after one season puts into perspective how difficult it is to scale the Eastern Conference.

Opponents have a year to adjust. Everyone scouts you harder. The additional grind wears perennial contenders down, hunger diminishes, the rim spontaneously grows a lid, and injuries occur at inopportune times. Game 7s are inevitable but tricky propositions. As we saw from Phoenix out west, off-nights in single-elimination games can sneak up on you. It’s a testament to LeBron’s epochal talent that he was able to survive the gauntlet and reach the NBA Finals in eight consecutive seasons.

Will anyone ever match LeBron’s decade-long mortgage on the East? Probably not. This doesn’t have to be a permanent setback for Giannis, though. LeBron experienced his own Game 7 loss to the defending champion Celtics in 2008 when he was 24. If Giannis rebounds, he’ll have approximately time to put his own stamp on the Eastern Conference. He’s no longer present in the postseason or on the East half of the bracket, but LeBron’s shadow still casts an enormous shadow.

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