LeBron's move starts fresh scrum for East's Finals spot

NBA.com Global on Oct 09, 2018 06:52 AM
LeBron's move starts fresh scrum for East's Finals spot
BOSTON, MA - MARCH 11: Victor Oladipo #4 of the Indiana Pacers shoots the ball against the Boston Celtics on March 11, 2018 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com

Mike Budenholzer would have us believe the timing of his move to the Central Division was a mere coincidence.

Had nothing to do with LeBron James’ decision this summer to vacate. Nah, not at all.

“There’s no doubt about his impact on the Eastern Conference,” Budenholzer said the other night, before his Milwaukee Bucks played their preseason opener against Chicago. “But every year, whether LeBron’s in the East or he’s not, you start the season and feel like, if you’ve got a good roster and can get better … you’re not going to be worried about anybody.

“I think Boston, Philly, Toronto, Indiana, Miami, Washington, you can keep going all the away down, Detroit, everybody feels like they’ve got a chance. And maybe more so because LeBron is in the West now.”

Some of Budenholzer’s peers were more open in their appreciation of the four-time MVP’s relocation.

“Thank God, right?” Washington Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “I’ve only been in the East two years and that was enough.

“He has frustrated a lot of teams, a lot of fan bases, a lot of coaches. He’s gonna go down as one of the best, if not the best, to ever play the game. But he’s gone, he’s done. So there’s somebody else that is going to win the East.”

Said new Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse: “The facts were there. For eight years, it was impossible. We thought it was possible -- somehow, there’s got to be a way, right? -- but there wasn’t.”

There is now. Some team other than James’ will represent the East in The 2019 Finals. And you need a few years on you to recall the last time that happened.

It was in 2010, when the Boston Celtics eliminated James’ Cavaliers in six games and sent the NBA’s most celebrated player into his first round of free agency. That was the Paul Pierce-Kevin Garnett-Ray Allen Celtics, with Shaquille O’Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas splitting time at center for the Cavs.

“You think about it, I’m the last coach to beat Golden State in the [pre-Finals West, in 2014] playoffs,” the Clippers’ Doc Rivers told NBA.com last month. “But this is crazier: I’m the last coach to beat LeBron in the East. That is a long time ago. What it tells you is how dominant LeBron has been in the East.”

James notoriously took his talents to Miami that summer, and his Big Three dominated the East from 2011-14.

And when his self-described, four-year undergraduate education in winning was complete, James returned to the Cavaliers and packed the on-court success with him. That pushed his run of Finals appearances to eight (and nine overall, with titles in 2012, ‘13 and ‘16).

His teams’ W-L record in the East side of the playoffs over those eight years? A withering 96-27 (.797).

Now that James has moved his game to southern California, though, the East is unleashed. Rivals that were frustrated by the big, beautiful wall James and his various teammates built between them and the NBA’s championship round, and opponents who wound up cursing their parents’ procreative timing, have gotten a happy reprieve.

The Age of LeBron for them now means a couple of regular season meetings and nothing at all after that till, for one of them, June.

“It is open,” Rivers said, “But the top teams are still the top teams.”

Does Boston ‘got next?’

The Celtics don’t want the East to be open. They want a line of succession to hold, based on their near-miss last spring when Cleveland and its King wriggled free in Game 7. That experience, along with gain from the pain of Gordon Hayward’s (season-long) and Kyrie Irving’s injuries, at least makes Boston the first among uncrowned equals in the conference.

This squad defensive has the depth, the talent, the chops, a lot of youthful hunger and the most praised coach (Brad Stevens) in the league. Minutes might be hard to come by for some, which could test chemistry. But the Celtics got a boost there when Irving, a free agent next summer, essentially pledged his long-term loyalty to start October.

No more Raptors speed bump

Psychologically, none of the East contenders should feel as refreshed and revived as Toronto. Their Cleveland nemesis was a handful on the court, sure, but seemed to set up shop in the Raptors’ heads as well. When they failed to pounce on Game 1 of their East semifinal series last spring -- despite ranking as the conference’s No. 1 seed and boasting tremendous depth and a variety of looks -- the Raptors were for all intents done.

They fired their Coach of the Year winner, Dwane Casey, and promoted Nurse. They grabbed Spurs refugee Kawhi Leonard for what might be a one-year rental, the NBA’s most likely LeBron stopper who won’t have to worry now about that nasty duty. In the process, they broke up the tandem of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry that some felt had grown too comfy.

Sixers ready for their close-up

If you believe Joel Embiid, the East already is locked up by Philadelphia, with the formidable and confident center vowing big things for his still-developing club. The Sixers have as much potential to improve from within as anybody in the league, given Embiid’s potential, Ben Simmons’ obvious room for growth as a shooter and the gap between Markelle Fultz as a Draft prospect vs. Fultz as a spun-around rookie.

Philadelphia added shooting and Brett Brown coaches tenacious defense. There is some question whether Fultz or Dario Saric can be the reliable third option for these guys, and their biggest challenge remains durability. Embid, Simmons and Fultz need to play upwards of 210 games, combined, to give us a real sense of what the Sixers can be.

Searching for Indiana’s upside

The Pacers got more right last season than almost everyone expected, from the resiliency they showed in coping with Paul George’s abrupt departure and the return GM Kevin Pritchard got from trading George to OKC, to impressive gains on the court at both ends and in the standings (a six-victory improvement).

The trick now is repeating that and taking everything a few strides further. Victor Oladipo won’t win a second consecutive Kia Most Improved Player award (no one has), but he can demonstrate his All-Star season was no adrenaline-fueled fluke. His partner from the Thunder trade, Domantas Sabonis, has the game and pedigree to get better every year. Big man Myles Turner marked time last season and needs a healthy, intense start-to-finish breakout season. Meanwhile, much of the excitement about Indiana comes from some surgical summer additions, with scorer Tyreke Evans, shooter Doug McDermott and strongman Kyle O’Quinn plugging specific holes in the rotation.

Who’s the ‘someone else?’

Rivers, in his recent swift assessment of the East, said “There’s always a new team” are at least three that bubbles to the surface over the course of 82 games. There candidates in the East, owing to significant changes with two of them and a possible overhaul of the third.

Milwaukee has Budenholzer and his staff in place, replacing the Jason Kidd/Joe Prunty crew from 2017-18, with high hopes and early preseason signs of changes at both ends. The Bucks also have arguably the No. 1 player in the conference in Giannis Antetokounmpo, now that James is gone.

Washington, a disappointment given John Wall’s and Bradley Beal’s early yet unfulfilled showings as a dynamic backcourt, added Dwight Howard. He ought to have enough game and pride left to satisfy the diminished individual expectations for him.

Then there’s Miami, a solid ensemble group that might end up coalescing around All-Star Jimmy Butler if the trade flirtations with Minnesota pan out.

Without James blocking everybody’s path this season, the newfound openness and evenness in the East -- only three or four of last season’s 15 All-NBA selections will play here this season, pending Butler’s whereabouts -- has everyone feeling perked up.

“The Warriors have proven they’re going to be the team to beat every year, the way they’re constructed,” Brooks said. “But the East has some really good teams.

“I think all the coaches and teams already were competitive anyway. Look, you wanted to knock LeBron off. But he’s gotten a lot of coaches fired and a lot of players traded. Now it’s definitely wide open.”

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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