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LeBron Is the Eastern Conference’s Savior

He’s made a career out of putting an end to the dominance of the Western Conference

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Today is LeBron James Day on The Ringer. We figured nothing else was happening in the NBA world, so why not celebrate Bron, right? Thanks, Vlade and Vivek! Seriously, though, LeBron is having such an interesting season — on top of the most interesting career — and we wanted to look backward and forward with a collection of short posts about him. You can find all the posts here. Go ahead and make your trades. There’s only one King.

Less than two weeks before LeBron James was drafted, Tim Duncan stood on a stage at the then–SBC Center in San Antonio and received the Finals MVP trophy, after leading all players in total points and rebounds in the 2003 NBA Finals. The Spurs had just won their second title. It was the fifth straight championship won by a Western Conference team, the type of dominance unseen since the Eastern Conference’s run of championships from 1959 to 1970. But that June, there looked to be no end in sight of the Western Conference’s hold on the league.

In one of his more underrated accomplishments, LeBron James would be the one to pry off that death grip.

After the Spurs’ title in 2003, three out of the next five champions came from the East. But they were one-year aberrations, rather than a sign of an upward trend for the conference.

The Pistons would become a nice story in 2004 — a team without a true superstar that collectively beat the favorite Lakers. In 2006, the Miami Heat beat a Dallas Mavericks team that was on a dream run without any prospects of becoming a dynasty. In 2008, Boston’s Big Three rekindled the team’s rivalry with the Lakers and beat them in the Finals, but they couldn’t keep Kobe’s crew from winning the next two years.

Drafted in his oh-so-symbolic all-white suit, LeBron was the hero the East needed. It would eventually be up to him to deal with the burgeoning dynasties that came from the West.

In 2007, LeBron took his first crack at the Spurs in the Finals. Surrounded by a roster so bleak it would probably make 2017 LeBron clamor for not one, not two, not three, but probably four or more playmakers, LeBron led all players in total points and assists. The Cavs were still swept.

After falling to the Celtics in the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals, and with no rings to his name, LeBron had a decision to make: Go west and make his own history there or stay in the East, whether in Cleveland or elsewhere, and give the conference a fighting chance in the Finals against whichever force came out of the West.

By deciding to stay in the East to forge a team with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in South Beach, LeBron made getting to the Finals a habit, one that continued when he returned to Cleveland two years ago. During his six straight Finals appearances, he has stifled three would-be dynasties from the West:

Oklahoma City Thunder

First came the Thunder. With Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden, OKC could have been a rampant force in the league had it not simply become the team on the other side of LeBron’s first title in 2012. Imagine if the Thunder had won that series. Their young core would have become an unsplittable atom and the West could have had another long-term powerhouse worthy of a title every season.

After losing to LeBron, the Thunder were plagued by injuries the following years and haunted by the trade that shall not be named. Keeping Harden doesn’t guarantee a title, but it’s hard to argue they’d be worse off with him than they were without him. Kevin Durant’s departure this past summer was the final nail in the coffin of their hypothetical dynasty.

San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs, as relevant in 2013 as when LeBron was drafted, were hoping to bolster their dynasty by taking title no. 5, with more potentially on the way. After winning in ’99, ’03, ’05, and ’07, they were looking to make an unprecedented second run at a sequence of championships thanks to both the longevity of Duncan and the surging star that is Kawhi Leonard. Six years after their last title, this looked like the beginning of a second dynasty.

But instead, they were the victim of a motivated LeBron and one of the greatest shots of all time. They came back to beat the Heat soundly in 2014, but the damage was already done. The Spurs would win their final title of the Duncan era without ever going back-to-back.

Golden State Warriors

In the past three years, the league has gone through superstar upheaval. LeBron returned to Cleveland, while Duncan retired and Durant joined the rising tide from the Bay Area. That’s where the next West dynasty now lives.

The Warriors have quickly become the next would-be dynasty in the West. With arguably three of the greatest shooters in the history of the league and one of the most dynamic players ever as an anchor, the Warriors’ rise as the West’s next power could have easily resulted in two straight titles, with a shot at a third one coming this summer. Even before Durant chose to go there, the Warriors could already claim a 73-win regular season in 2015–16. This created a sense of futile helplessness around the league: No one could or would beat this team.

No one but LeBron, that is. Continuing his Finals streak put LeBron right in the path of another West superpower. In 2015, he nearly overcame them with a depleted Cavs roster. In 2016, he led one of the most impressive series comebacks ever and the Cavs did what no one else, whether from the East or the West, thought they could: beat the Warriors.

At this point, only an injury or a sorcerous Trade Machine concoction — I see you, Pelicans — likely can stand in the way of these teams meeting once again in the Finals this year. The Warriors are LeBron’s latest feuding rival, the next dynasty he seeks to stifle as the savior of the East.