The Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics have been the best two teams in the Eastern Conference this season.
Toronto is 40-16 and has gone 24-7 against Eastern Conference opponents and a ridiculous 24-4 in front of their home crowd. Boston is 40-18 and have thrived despite losing Gordon Hayward in the season opener.
But, it really doesn’t matter for one simple reason: LeBron James plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Leading the Cavs to three-straight NBA Finals after guiding the Miami Heat to four-straight, LeBron has taken part in the last seven Finals overall and has won three rings in that span.
Despite the recent transactions and the incredible movement of players around him, the Cavaliers are still 34-22 and are riding a four-game winning streak. With seemingly better reinforcements alongside him after the three deadline-day trades were completed, James is poised to make a run at his eighth-straight Finals and there’s no reason to doubt that he will get there.
He’s called “King James” for a reason.
Riding a three-game winning streak, LeBron and the Cavs arrived in Oklahoma City on Tuesday, ready to take on Russell Westbrook, Paul George and the Thunder. The result was a 120-112 victory and it was another day at the office for LeBron, who went 14-of-23 from the field for 37 points and added eight rebounds and eight assists in 40 dominant minutes.
On Sunday, as Celtics legend Paul Pierce watched while awaiting his jersey retirement, James led his new teammates to a 121-99 victory by posting 24 points, eight rebounds and 10 assists in just 28 minutes.
Playing without the slew of teammates that were traded away and also without his new ones who were not yet with the team, James led a starting group that included Jose Calderon, Cedi Osman, JR Smith and Tristan Thompson to a 123-107 victory on the road against the Atlanta Hawks in the game before that. He had a triple-double with 22 points, 12 rebounds and 19 assists in 41 minutes in that one.
And in the game before that, on the dysfunctional team that existed before the trades were made, James led his squad to a 140-138 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves. He went 16-for-22 from the floor for 37 points and added 10 rebounds and 15 assists for another triple-double.
Therefore, as long as the common denominator is James, a revolving door of players around him can filter through and the Cavs can still be successful. Although this is a small sample size, it essentially resembles what he's done throughout his career. Over the span of a week, LeBron led Cleveland to a victory over the surging Timberwolves with his old teammates, against the Hawks playing alongside reserves, against a great Celtics squad in his first game with his new teammates and against the Thunder on the road.
Whenever he suits up, the Cavs have a shot at beating anyone. When they win, it’s most likely due to his play. When they lose, the blame is almost never placed on him, since he’s one of the most consistent players in the history of the NBA.
The hypothetical question
If LeBron joined the Phoenix Suns right now, could he lead that team to the Finals in the East? What about the Sacramento Kings or the Hawks?
Of course the Suns and Kings don't play in the East, but it’s an interesting hypothetical question that has been asked repeatedly in recent years.
Is LeBron’s presence alone enough to guide any teammates he has to the Finals?
The simple answer is that he has already done something similar.
Looking back to the 2007 NBA Finals, LeBron led a less-than-stellar bunch of teammates to the Finals. Although they were swept by the San Antonio Spurs in a defensive-oriented series, LeBron led Cleveland to a 50-32 record in the regular season which was good enough to earn the No. 2 seed in the East.
He then led them past the No. 7 seed Washington Wizards in a sweep in the first round of the playoffs, then over the New Jersey Nets 4-2 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals before taking down the No. 1 seeded Detroit Pistons 4-2 to advance to the Finals.
In the Finals, Drew Gooden and Zydrunas Ilgauskas started alongside James in the frontcourt while Aleksandar Pavlovic and a combination of Daniel Gibson (two games) and Larry Hughes (two games) started in the backcourt. Anderson Varejao, Eric Snow, Donyell Marshall and Damon Jones came off the bench and held prominent roles as reserves.
Therefore, could LeBron take a squad like the Suns, who has budding superstar Devin Booker and a number of other talented young players to this year’s Finals if they were playing in the East? What about the Hawks, who have Dennis Schroder and a few productive frontcourt players on their roster like John Collins, Ersan Ilyasova and Dewayne Dedmon?
The answer could really be “yes”, and James is most likely the only player in the NBA who would possess that ability.
Legacy on the line
More than anything, LeBron knows that he needs to win at least six rings, which would tie Michael Jordan. There’s almost nothing else left for him to accomplish at this point, except for cumulative individual records.
That being said, he’s actually upset about the upcoming All-Star break, saying it couldn’t have come at a worse time for his new teammates.
While everyone has their own view on LeBron the person, there are a few undeniable facts about LeBron the basketball player. Not only is he one of the best to ever step on the court, but he’s also one of the hardest-working superstars there is. By all accounts (including his own), he doesn’t take any days off. Whether it’s getting up extra shots after practice, hitting the weight room or doing exercises before or after games, LeBron understands that success off the court leads to success on the court. Preparation is key.
Therefore, Cleveland has the rest of the season after the All-Star break to fine-tune their rotations and get into a groove before LeBron’s real season begins.
If the season ended right now, the Cavs would take on the Indiana Pacers in the opening round of the playoffs before squaring off against the winner of the series between the Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. If the Raptors won their opening round series against the Miami Heat and then took down the winner of the series between the Milwaukee Bucks and Washington Wizards, they’d advance to face LeBron and company in the Eastern Finals.
Would you take any of those teams over LeBron and the Cavs?
Probably not. For many, that answer wouldn’t be any different if Cleveland didn’t make any trades at the deadline, either. At this point, why would anyone rule out LeBron and his greatness? After all, we are all witnesses.