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The East Will Always Be at the Mercy of LeBron James

The regular season, the postseason, the offseason: every stage is influenced by the King. An entire conference will watch with bated breath as James attempts to reach the Finals for the eighth straight year. Because they know the outcome will alter their future, too.

LeBron James overpowering a group of Eastern Conference players Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The question came right away, because it was the only question that mattered.

What is it about this matchup that gives you guys so much trouble?

For the third straight year, the Raptors were eliminated by LeBron James. And so, for a third straight year, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan searched for an answer to the question that every Eastern Conference player of consequence has had to face over the past seven years. A variation of the query kept coming throughout the seven-minute press conference following Monday’s crushing Game 4 defeat. With Lowry disappearing deeper into his chair or his cap’s brim at the sound of every one, DeRozan did his best to find different ways to verbalize a shrug.

Even the day after, back in Toronto, the LeBron Question loomed: “Somebody has to [beat LeBron] at some point,” Lowry told reporters in exit interviews. “We always want it to be us.”

Whether or not the Raptors will get the opportunity isn’t totally up to them. While James has ruled the East for the past seven years and is in position to do so again despite binging orange slices just to finish the Cavaliers’ first-round series, he is presumed to be a serious flight risk to the West this offseason. Cleveland has won its first two series, with the supporting cast springing to life just in time to bury Toronto again, but the particulars of its postseason—a lacking defense, a heavy workload for a player creeping up on two decades in the league, one of the team’s precious few young players refusing to enter a game—align with the reasons why James would want out in the first place. If the playoffs have changed anything about the long-term outlook of the East, it’s that the Celtics and Sixers now look like they could be just as formidable roadblocks to the NBA Finals in a year or two as the Warriors and Rockets are now. Considering the young Lakers’ moderate growth this season, the thought of going West may be even more appealing than it was around this time last year. But until James makes that decision, or any decision, the Eastern Conference is still at his mercy.

In the wake of being swept out of the playoffs by the Cavs for the first time last season, team president Masai Ujiri doubled down on the Raptors’ core, but with an important caveat: He structured free-agent deals for Lowry and Serge Ibaka to create a clear three-year window. (The Raps reportedly weren’t willing to give P.J. Tucker a fourth year for this reason.) Lowry and Ibaka were paid handsomely, but would be under contract only through 2019-20. Jonas Valanciunas and C.J. Miles have player options for that season; DeRozan’s player option from the deal he signed in 2016 comes one year later. “The way we’ve constructed it now,” Ujiri said last July, “we’re on a two- or three-year plan and if that doesn’t work, then we know what to do.”

For about 75 games, the strategy appeared prescient. A rapid coming of age by a few key youngsters and a time warp of the offense to the current era was all the Raptors needed to glo up to the East’s best team. They won 59 regular-season games and ranked in the top five for offense and defense efficiency—indicators of an elite-level outfit. Even after watching DeRozan’s offensive game regress to the Triassic period and the team as a whole turn shell-shocked in the third quarter of Game 2, it’s hard to ignore all the data suggesting there’s a damn good team hiding under a mound of last-rites blog posts. The rumored coaching change may be all that’s needed.

It’s a similar argument to the one that used to be made for the Lob City Clippers staying the course: Ignore the uncontrollable and outlier instances—the injuries, the bizarro playoff gaffes, the internal drama—and they were just as good as virtually any team in the league. They passed the Pepsi Challenge. That comparison, given what we know now about the many beefs simmering among the Clippers’ principals, may sound as promising as relationship advice from Sid and Nancy. But there are key differences to consider: Toronto’s two best players are a laugh track away from a buddy comedy, it has already made a conference final, and its front office has shown it can mine and mold complementary talent in a way that Doc Rivers could only daydream about on the back nine. The biggest hurdle keeping the Raptors from that elusive Finals berth is one Chris Paul has never had to worry about: facing Playoff LeBron.

James’s inevitable age-induced decline probably should’ve begun by now. But while his defense did take a noticeable dip and he quick-kicked possessions more than ever, James’s production in his age-33 season improved. He played more games than ever before, and more often than any player in the league. Virtually all of his per-36-minute numbers rose, as did his efficiency from behind the arc and at the free throw line. He’s logging more minutes than any player left standing this postseason, and his playoff PER leads all 160 qualifiers and ranks second in his career. If the spectrum of superstar twilights ranges from Duncan to Washed Kobe, LeBron’s is shaping up to be a Point Timmy.

Should that version of James stay put in the East, either with Cavs or perhaps as the final piece of the Process, the Raptors will have a problem. As much evidence as there is in Toronto’s favor, there’s even more that suggests it will become just another team in the long list of East greats unable to trump their generation’s greatest player—the Photoshoot Pacers, the Derrick Rose Bulls, the Patrick Ewing Knicks, the Tim Hardaway Heat, and so on. Three years may start to feel more like a prison sentence than an opportunity. In that case, you can argue that Ujiri’s best move would to blow it up sooner than later (like he intended to when he first took over in Toronto), to at least get something for the key players under contract.

If there’s any solace for the Raptors, it’s that they’re not alone. A Pacers team armed with a proven star in his prime, potential cap space, and confidence after pushing the Cavs to the brink in Round 1 must weigh whether to push now to or slow-play its rebuild in Victor Oladipo’s image. Pat Riley, channeling his inner Tony D’Amato, sermonized to the assembled press last week on … well, on a lot of things, but chief among them was the quest of finding the Heat’s next “transformative player” while still fielding a capable playoff team. And the Sixers, a reported suitor on James’s short list, will have to balance the prolonged dance that comes with every LeBron free agency with cashing in its hoard of cap space and assets elsewhere.

That’s the cruel irony for the Raptors: Even after LeBron turned them into chum for GIF piranhas, they’re still at his behest this offseason. A team can focus on optimizing its own situation, or prepare contingency plans based on how the market fluctuates. But LeBron dictates the market. His long recruiting process in 2010 led to the Bulls throwing money at Carlos Boozer to round out their rising contender. In 2014, poor Gordon Hayward, then a restricted free agent, visited Cleveland expecting an offer sheet before he left, but Rich Paul called then–GM David Griffin on the day of his arrival. The news that LeBron was taking meetings was enough to put the Cavaliers’ entire offseason plan on hold.

Any major organizational decision becomes an exercise in risk management, and at some point a decision-maker has to zoom out to come up with a probability for success in the current landscape. And it’s impossible to dole out a proper prescription, for the Raptors or virtually every other legitimate contender in the East, without the most essential information: where the best player is going. All these years later, and LeBron is still the queen on the chessboard. Everyone else is just trying to maneuver around him.