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The Life Cycle of Eastern Conference Contenders in the Age of LeBron

The Bulls, Pacers, and Hawks all rose to the top of the East before falling apart. Can the Celtics avoid a similar fate?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The NBA should be able to set the Eastern Conference to autosim mode. After all, LeBron James has been to the Finals seven seasons in a row, and the gap between James’s teams and the competition only seems to be widening. The Cavaliers have lost just five Eastern Conference playoff games in the past three seasons, with six sweeps in nine series. While the Western Conference is 10-deep, the East is basically LeBron.

But James’s teams haven’t even been the best in their conference in most of those years, at least according to the regular-season standings. Just twice in that seven-season run, in 2012–13 with Miami and in 2015–16 with Cleveland, has LeBron’s squad entered the playoffs as the no. 1 seed.

It’s an odd phenomenon. I remember noticing that Game 1 of this year’s Eastern Conference finals between the Cavs and Celtics was in Boston and thinking, "Wait, did I miss Games 1 and 2?" It was so obvious that LeBron’s Cavs were superior that I totally forgot that playoff seeding indicated they were the underdog.

Clearly, there is an extent to which James does not value the regular season. There’s no other explanation for how his very good teams routinely turn the corner and become great once the postseason starts. I don’t think it’s that James doesn’t try during the regular season; it’s just that he embraces the idea that surviving the regular season is more important than winning it. He takes games off, a decision that sucks for paying fans but is undeniably smart for the teams whose fate rests on his aging shoulders. (Atlas took a break, too.)

Still, the other teams that earned no. 1 seeds in the East this decade didn’t do so solely by beating a bored LeBron. Take the Hawks, for example. In 2014–15, they won 60 games, a number that typically signifies a great team rather than a good one. Only 75 teams in history have managed 60 wins.

LeBron helped sweep them in the 2015 playoffs, and again in 2016. On Sunday, Atlanta lost the fifth and final member of its 2014–15 starting lineup when Paul Millsap decided to sign with the Nuggets. The Hawks built something great, witnessed firsthand the greatness of the significantly greater thing they were supposed to compete with, and then ditched their approach as quickly as possible. They were like a pack of vicious dogs moving in for a kill that suddenly heard fireworks and scattered in the presence of a force they could barely understand, let alone defeat.

We’ve now seen this play out a few times: Teams become good enough to plausibly go head-to-head with LeBron, and they abruptly vanish with little fanfare. They came at the King and missed, which is not advisable. With Boston capturing the East’s top seed this year and then emerging as a focal point of this week’s free-agency frenzy, it’s worth looking back in an effort to predict whether the Celtics’ fate will be the same as those of the LeBron challengers that came before them.

Chicago Bulls (2010–11, 2011–12)

Chicago earned the top seed in the Eastern Conference in each of the first two seasons that LeBron played with the Heat, and yet it never posed a serious challenge to Miami. The Bulls won the first games of playoff series against the Heat in 2011 and later in 2013, but lost both 4–1.

Derrick Rose and LeBron James (Getty Images)
Derrick Rose and LeBron James (Getty Images)

It’s unfair to say the Bulls were felled entirely by LeBron. The franchise’s trajectory changed drastically after Derrick Rose suffered the first of many career-ruining knee injuries during the 2011–12 playoffs. It’s worth reflecting on how unfortunate Rose’s injury was; I don’t think any MVP in league history has ever fallen off so fast. Rose was dynamic and exceptional on the court before he got hurt, and hasn’t been a game changer since. I don’t know if the Bulls were good enough to beat LeBron regardless of Rose’s health, but they never got to find out. (Oddly, the Timberwolves seem determined to figure it out.)

The Bulls’ connection to these teams technically ended last year, when Rose and Joakim Noah both went to the Knicks. But it really ended with that 2012 injury. The events that followed — a fruitless 2014 trade that netted next to nothing for Luol Deng; the 2014 release of a rapidly deteriorating Carlos Boozer; the 2015 firing of head coach Tom Thibodeau — were subtext.

Indiana Pacers (2013–14)

The Pacers pushed Miami for regular-season Eastern supremacy for a few years, in part because Lance Stephenson made it his personal mission to irritate LeBron, in part due to their spectacular and physical defense, and in part due to Paul George’s emergence around 2012 as one of the NBA’s best players. Indiana was a beautifully constructed team: George was a star, Roy Hibbert was briefly the NBA’s firmest interior presence, David West was (and still is) one of the toughest dudes in the league, and role players like Stephenson and George Hill focused on locking people down. The Pacers led the NBA in defensive efficiency in 2012–13 and 2013–14.

It was never enough. They pushed their series against Miami to six games as a no. 3 seed in 2012, took LeBron and Co. to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals in 2013, and won 56 games to earn home-court advantage throughout the 2014 postseason. And that was it. Indiana then pulled off the rare feat of missing the playoffs just a year after earning the top seed, a result of George missing all but six games of the 2014–15 season with a leg injury. Hibbert and Stephenson quickly faded to irrelevance; West began taking league-minimum salaries in his pursuit of a ring; head coach Frank Vogel was fired after the 2015–16 season; and an era of Pacers basketball officially ended with George’s trade to the Thunder last week.

When the Pacers were swept by the Cavs in the first round of the playoffs this April, George noted that it was "real frustrating to continue losing to the same team, or the same person." It would be his last game with Indiana.

LeBron James and DeMarre Carroll (Getty Images)
LeBron James and DeMarre Carroll (Getty Images)

Atlanta Hawks (2014–15)

In retrospect, Atlanta’s 60-win season in 2014–15 will look like one of the strangest one-off successes the league has ever seen. Yet the Hawks had a unit so cohesive that their entire starting five won Player of the Month honors after a 17–0 January. (This happened two years ago. I swear.) Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague, DeMarre Carroll, and Kyle Korver complemented one another perfectly in head coach Mike Budenholzer’s offense. There was no reason to expect them to thrive as they did — they had gone 38–44 the year before — and it did not continue, as they dropped to 48 wins the next season. They had just one moment when they seemed on the brink of challenging LeBron, and even then they clearly were not good enough: The Cavs swept Atlanta in the 2015 Eastern Conference finals. A year later, Cleveland swept the no. 4 seed Hawks out of the playoffs again.

Some of the subsequent deconstruction of that roster was self-induced: The Hawks didn’t need to trade Teague to the Pacers; they unwittingly chased Horford by signing Dwight Howard in 2016; and they apparently didn’t extend a contract offer to re-sign Millsap this offseason. They even traded Korver to LeBron’s team last season, allowing their best shooter to chase a title with the Cavs. Regardless, Horford and Millsap presumably left town knowing Atlanta wasn’t going to get over the LeBron hump.

Boston Celtics (2016–17)

The Celtics are in an odd situation — they’re competitive now, winning 53 games last season thanks in large part to Isaiah Thomas’s emergence as a superstar. But they also have a slew of future assets — seven first-round picks in the next three drafts, including what should be relatively high selections coming over from the Lakers and Nets.

LeBron James (Getty Images)
LeBron James (Getty Images)

On the one hand, it seems like the Celtics are more committed to the future than the present. They couldn’t pull off a trade for Jimmy Butler or Paul George, even though they theoretically had the pieces to land either. They reportedly tried to deal Jae Crowder, a starter, to help make the team younger. And after winning the 2017 lottery to secure the no. 1 pick, they decided to trade down rather than take Markelle Fultz, a move that appeared to prioritize obtaining future picks over getting the best player in the short term.

But Boston also just added Gordon Hayward to a team that earned the no. 1 seed in East last season. It’s perhaps the best signing a franchise made this offseason; Hayward should be an excellent fit for a team that already has a star point guard and star center. And he’ll probably get along with head coach Brad Stevens — they’ve met before, I think.

I don’t believe Hayward will be enough to push the Celtics past LeBron in 2018. Hayward is a great signing, but Boston didn’t seem particularly close to beating Cleveland in the Eastern Conference finals — the one game they won in the series seemed fluky — and he alone likely won’t be able to bridge the enormous gap between the two teams. But unlike the other franchises mentioned above, the Celtics shouldn’t suddenly disappear. They have the luxury of being able to attempt to simultaneously compete now and assemble a young core that could outlast LeBron. Boston’s front office would have to screw up in a big way to not turn seven first-round picks over three drafts into a bunch of talented players.

Waiting out LeBron is a dangerous game. He’s 32 and has shown no signs of decline — in fact, the past few years of his career have been his most productive. Normal basketball players are expected to decline in their mid-to-late 30s, but James is not a normal basketball player.

The Bulls, Pacers, and Hawks had to come to the realization that they had missed their shot. I don’t know if the Celtics will ever beat LeBron at his apex, but then again, they might not have to.