Talking about who’s coming out of the Eastern Conference in the NBA has practically been a waste of time and breath for the last seven years.
LeBron James, while in Miami and Cleveland, was always the answer.
Some of LeBron’s most formidable Eastern Conference Finals opponents during this run were the Celtics in 2012 and the Pacers in 2013 and 2014. LeBron hasn’t had a seven-game series in the Eastern Conference Finals since returning to Cleveland in 2015. The Cavaliers swept the Hawks in 2015, beat the Raptors in six games in 2016, and the Celtics in five games last season.
The incomparable irony is that the most qualified person, in my opinion, to now potentially stand in the way of LeBron’s eighth straight NBA Finals is now his former teammate, Kyrie Irving.
Stephen A. Smith brought up what it would mean if LeBron were to lose to Kyrie in the playoffs on ESPN’s First Take this week.
I still don’t believe any team in the East is truly prepared to dethrone LeBron. The usual suitors, Boston and Toronto, are respectably in place to at least compete with Cleveland if and when the time comes this postseason.
The Cavs’ visible vulnerability has been a point of emphasis for those who believe that their issues could become their downfall this time around. They’ve rearranged their roster twice and consistently struggled with rhythm and identity throughout stretches of this season.
Despite their flaws, the Cavaliers have LeBron James. It’s going to take more than timely shooting and sound defense for a team to prevent one of the greatest of all time from reaching the NBA Finals again.
The NBA playoffs generally boil down to the performance of stars. The way I see it, Kyrie Irving is the only star in the East capable of outdueling LeBron if he had the opportunity.
There’s the obvious footnote that the two were teammates for three years. Irving experienced three consecutive NBA Finals with LeBron. He made the biggest shot of the 2016 Finals and maybe of his career to win his first ring.
Kyrie says he'd be "lying" if he didn't say he learned a lot from LeBron.
— Basketball Society (@BBallSociety_) September 1, 2017
He’s been to the biggest stage and has conquered it.
Irving’s experience in the Finals and with LeBron adds to his qualification as his most worthy adversary. It’s also his moxie as an offensive juggernaut. Kyrie is simply one of the hardest players to stop when he gets going, a trait that becomes a treasure when it comes to the biggest moments.
While I would have more belief in the Celtics’ ability to take the East with a healthy Gordon Hayward, I still think the Celtics have the kind of personnel around Irving that can give the Cavs issues. Their scorers and playmakers in Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Al Horford go with their swiss army knives in the likes of Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris, and Terry Rozier.
Most importantly, the Celtics have Brad Stevens, whose influence on the culture of the franchise has everything to do with their potential. They have the ability and the mentality to out-execute and out-grit you. Those are invaluable qualities in the playoffs. Having 28 of their 53 wins come on the road says something. As does the ability to win 50+ games without Gordon Hayward all season and having multiple players miss time with injuries.
Since Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis last played a game…
Marcus Morris: 21.9 points, 6.3 rebounds, 50% FG, 51.4% 3PT
Terry Rozier: 18.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists
Jayson Tatum: 17.9 points, 6.2 rebounds, 50.4% FG, 44.4% FG
And the Celtics are 7-2.
— Jay King (@ByJayKing) April 1, 2018
From this perspective of needing to rival LeBron with eligible star power, here’s how I rank the qualifiers in the East right now:
- Kyrie, Celtics
- Simmons/Embiid, Sixers
- Beal/Wall, Wizards
- Lowry/DeRozan, Raptors
In truth, I believe that Simmons and Embiid are the most dangerous star combo on paper for LeBron to have to deal with, but I wouldn’t have as much faith in them to go toe-to-toe with LeBron as I would Irving with his Celtics.
The Sixers have what it takes to cause serious damage, though. They have elite inside/outside presence and versatility at several positions. But the magnitude of actually beating LeBron likely requires the kind of star power that has experienced at least something similar to such a profound task. Thus, I’m led to give Kyrie the edge.
It’s still a team game. One person is never solely responsible for winning a game, let alone an entire playoff series. One person doesn’t beat LeBron James.
My contention is that Boston has the star who has the best chance of disrupting LeBron’s NBA Finals streak if they were to help put him in that position. Kyrie Irving has the most proven ability of any other Eastern Conference star to go at it with LeBron in heavyweight fashion.
The most sincere competitive opposition for LeBron James in the Eastern Conference this postseason is his teammate of the last three years if they are to meet.
Otherwise, I’m pretty sure the winner of the East will be another easy answer.