Again King of the East, LeBron Faces Few Looming Threats to Conference Reign

Ethan Skolnick@@EthanJSkolnickNBA Senior WriterMay 28, 2015

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Following shootaround, still several hours prior to the opening game of what was expected to be an entertaining and relatively even Eastern Conference Finals, LeBron James sat inside a locker stall next to Kendrick Perkins and Mike Miller, shaking his head and rolling his eyes. He hadn't been enamored with the line of questioning during his just-completed media session, when he was asked to compare the current Atlanta Hawks to the Pistons of 2004, and felt as if he were being trapped into saying something that might be portrayed as unflattering toward either side.

"They're always trying to make everyone my rival," James muttered, before bouncing a few of those, from Detroit to Washington to Boston to Indiana, back and forth with a couple of reporters. "I'm tired of it."

You know what all of those other East teams are tired of, after nearly a decade of his dominance?

Seeing him.

Losing to him.

Losing the right to be deemed rivals.

None have proved worthy, not since he got even with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and the Boston Celtics for beating him in the second round in 2008 and 2010, and not with the Orlando Magic only getting out of the first round once since eliminating him in the conference finals in 2009.

He's now advanced out of the East in each of the past five postseasons, beating Chicago, Boston, Indiana, Indiana again and then Atlanta to do so, and lifting his overall series record in the East to 23-4. He's now faced 12 of the 15 East franchises at least onceβ€”all but Toronto and his two teams, Cleveland and Miamiβ€”and he's beaten all but Orlando at least once.

Oh, and he's just 30.

So he's not edging especially close to the plank of his prime.

May 26, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers center Tristan Thompson (13), guard J.R. Smith (5), forward LeBron James (23) and guard Iman Shumpert (4) react from the bench during the fourth quarter against the Atlanta Hawks in game four of the Ea
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Until he does, can any other team claim the conference title?

It's a reasonable question, considering how many different ways he's won it, with two different organizations, with young and veteran teams and with and without home-court advantage. And more frequently the latter, with five of his marches to the Eastern Conference championship coming as a No. 2 seed. He's won when he's been at his most efficient and his least efficient but his most aggressive. He's won when All-Star teammates (such as Chris Bosh in 2012 and Kevin Love in 2015) have endured serious postseason injuries and missed more than half of the games prior to the NBA Finals.

It's a reasonable question, too, because no East team currently seems much of a threat.

The Hawks? We didn't see them at their best this postseason, and especially not in the Cavaliers' comfortable sweep, but it's increasingly obvious that their best wouldn't have been sufficient anyway. Now they need to decide whether to keep the core together, even though the return of Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll wouldn't raise their ceiling, and they're still short on rebounders and playmakers.

The Bulls? Assuming Jimmy Butler returns, and assuming Tom Thibodeau doesn't, and assuming the second isn't a setback (it probably is), they're still counting on Derrick Rose staying healthy and Joakim Noah finding his former form. Plus, James has no fear of that franchise, with his 4-0 series record better than against any other foe.

The Wizards? The backcourt is the conference's best, and Otto Porter showed a pulse, but they still counted plenty on Pierce, who may bolt. In their current form, they probably don't have enough.

The Raptors? Fundamentally flawed, with a general manager (Masai Ujiri) who may choose to rebuild rather than reload. The Bucks? Promising with the return of Jabari Parker but still essentially in their infancy. The Celtics? Danny Ainge has more chips than a snack aisle. But his roster is currently stocked with seventh men. The Nets and Knicks? Buried in their respective boroughs. The 76ers and Magic? They might be a concern for James' kids, but not now, not yet.

CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 2:  Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat talks with LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the first half at Quicken Loans Arena on April 2, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,
Jason Miller/Getty Images

The Pacers and Heat? This is where it gets interesting, due to his history with each. Both could be 50-win teams again as soon as next season, provided that Paul George and Chris Bosh continue progressing toward full health.

Still, the Pacers couldn't beat James in three straight postseasons with a roster that was superior to what Larry Bird is taking into this offseason. And while the Heat have begun reassembling an impressive ensemble, who is their frontman? Bosh was inconsistent in that role prior to a blood clot sidelining him for the season. Dwyane Wade turns 34 in January and is coming off his highest usage rate since 2010. Goran Dragic has never taken a team to the playoffs in a primary role. Hassan Whiteside must show he can sustain what he started last season, now with the world watching from the start.

You don't necessarily need a superstar to beat James, but you probably need someone who made one of the three All-NBA teams. Detroit had two second-teamers (Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace) in 2006, San Antonio had a first-teamer (Tim Duncan) in 2007, Boston had a first-teamer (Garnett) and a third-teamer (Pierce) in 2008, Orlando had a first-teamer (Dwight Howard) in 2009, Dallas had a second-teamer (Dirk Nowitzki) in 2011 and San Antonio had a second-teamer (Tony Parker) in 2014. The only exception was 2010, when none of the Celtics were chosen, but Boston still bounced the Chosen One.

Yet this season, only two other players from the East filled one of the 15 All-NBA slots; one of those was James' teammate (Kyrie Irving), and another (Pau Gasol) will be 35 in July.

So it is quite possible that the player who will keep James from the NBA Finals isn't even in the East yet. Maybe that changes if the NBA chooses to realign; Anthony Davis, if still with New Orleans, or Marc Gasol, if still with Memphis, would stiffen the East competition if their franchises were moved out of the West. Or maybe it will require a player to move East, a player of the caliber of, say, Kevin Durant.

What if Durant chooses to return to the site of his childhood, to play with John Wall and Bradley Beal in Washington? What if he takes some of the cap space that Pat Riley's been hoarding for 2016, to repair the "generational team" that came apart when James left? What if DeMarcus Cousins, or some other West stalwart stuck in a hopeless situation, ends up with Boston, under elite young coach Brad Stevens?

Some East executive may need to orchestrate that sort of addition, because a rivalry seems unlikely to occur organically from the current roots in the East. Or they can just wait James out, hoping he suddenly has a hankering for minor league baseball, until the official, merciful arrival of his one and only rival:

Father Time.

Ethan Skolnick covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is a co-host of NBA Sunday Tip, 9-11 a.m. ET on SiriusXM Bleacher Report Radio. Follow him on Twitter, @EthanJSkolnick.


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