LeBron James not ready to give up Eastern Conference throne

Michael Lee

NEW ORLEANS – LeBron James owes NBA commissioner Adam Silver a debt of gratitude. If Silver hadn’t decided to replace James’ injured teammate, Kevin Love, with his vacation-deprived buddy, Carmelo Anthony, the game’s best player would’ve entered Sunday’s All-Star Game as the oldest player on the floor at 32. The concept that the former headband-wearing wunderkind could’ve reached the status of eldest statesman was as unfathomable to James as the possibility that his other All-Star teammate, Kyrie Irving, could spark a discussion in 2017 about whether the world is actually flat. The latter happened and the former was avoided, much to James’ delight.

“It was a breath of fresh air when I’d seen ‘Melo … because I see I’m not the oldest guy on this team anymore,” James said with a laugh about the soon-to-be 33-year-old Anthony, adding that the close call “put everything in perspective, as far as where I come from and how long I’ve been playing this game. At the same time, it’s a humbling thing to know that I’m still at an All-Star level, the way I’m playing the game right now at my age, as long as I’ve been playing, with the miles that I’ve been playing.”

But just as James was in no hurry to be the resident geezer in his 13th All-Star appearance, he’s even less willing to surrender an Eastern Conference reign that hasn’t been witnessed since Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics in the 1960s. James has been the common denominator – the king of the conference – for six straight Finals representatives, with the conquered including a former MVP and two All-Star quartets and the conquests celebrated in Miami and Cleveland.

“Only been six? Feels like longer than that,” Toronto Raptors All-Star guard Kyle Lowry, a member of the last East team to jump up and get beat down in the conference finals, said of James’ dominance.

LeBron James has been to six straight NBA Finals. (AP)
LeBron James has been to six straight NBA Finals. (AP)

James’ run has been so unrelenting because he’s been responsible for assembling the only legitimate super teams in the East while also possessing the shape-shifting brilliance capable of compensating for any roster flaws. Ever since the Celtics ended his first stint in Cleveland in 2010, James has never been without a stellar supporting cast, going from Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh with the Heat to Irving and Love with the Cavaliers. The separation has been so vast that no true rival has emerged – either from a team or an individual player. And executives in the East have had to evaluate whether it’s worth making the move – or moves – that could disrupt this run or if it’s best to wait out James’ eventual decline.

“It’s incredible,” Anthony, one of the rare stars who switched conferences in an effort to challenge James, said of his friend’s run. “I think he understands what works for him and he takes advantage of it. Everybody wants to beat LeBron. Everybody wants to beat whatever team he’s on. It’s been like that for a while. It’s going to continue being like that … until they actually beat him.”

The Raptors announced their intentions last week to take another swipe at nudging James off his throne by pulling off a major deal for Serge Ibaka. The Celtics have been engaged in discussions with the Chicago Bulls about landing All-Star Jimmy Butler in a move that could elevate a squad that already is in second place in the conference but has more upgradable assets than it can handle. The Washington Wizards have had the conference’s best record since December and are interested in stabilizing a flimsy bench before the trade deadline for a possible meeting in May with James. But even with more teams lining up to take him out, James’ Cavaliers are 7-0 against Boston, Washington and Toronto this season, still making him an overwhelming favorite to make his seventh consecutive Finals appearance.

The Raptors hope Serge Ibaka can help them knock off James and the Cavs. (AP)
The Raptors hope Serge Ibaka can help them knock off James and the Cavs. (AP)

“He’s arguably the best player in the world,” Isaiah Thomas said, “but everybody is here to compete and nobody is going to back down, just because it’s him. You know you’ve got to go through him to get a championship. You’ve got to go through the Cavaliers. That’s what everybody is focused on.”

With Love out for another five weeks because of knee surgery and J.R. Smith still recovering from a broken left hand, James can understand why others might perceive some vulnerability within the Cavaliers. James has been accustomed to having teams challenge him, but he keeps finding ways to push them back down the slide. “We haven’t been healthy pretty much all season, but I feel, if I’m in the lineup, and I’m healthy and I’m feeling good, we’re going to have a chance,” James said. “That’s the way I feel and that’s the way our guys feel as well. Because it motivates them, when someone goes out and they start doubting the guys on our team [who are] ready to go.”

James has the most Finals appearances of any active player with seven and has been feasting on the perennially inferior stepbrother conference for much of this decade. Losing to San Antonio and Boston in his first stint in Cleveland taught him the importance of a three-star super-team model. Losing to Orlando after winning his first MVP award in 2008-09 taught him the importance of being surrounded by long-distance marksmen. The teams that have defeated James since he began stampeding the East benefited from him inexplicably vanishing (Dallas in 2011), from using a year of redemptive anger to fuel an annihilation (San Antonio in 2014) and from James losing both of his star wingmen in the postseason (Golden State in 2015). James takes advantage of the slightest mistakes and rarely makes any of his own.

“I don’t think you have another player like that in this league that can dominate in so many ways,” Wizards guard John Wall said. “So when you’re playing him, you try to take something away and give him one thing but at the end of the day, he ends up getting everything he wanted.”

The Hawks made one of the more surprising deals of the season, shipping 3-point specialist Kyle Korver to Cleveland and giving James one more shooter. The Korver deal had All-Star Paul Millsap worried about his future in Atlanta until the organization declared him off the trading block – but the situation remains somewhat perplexing.

“We really didn’t know what to think. All we knew was Kyle was going to the Cleveland Cavaliers, which is a team we see ourselves competing against. It was tough for us to understand, but it’s basketball. That’s how the business works. It’s something we have to deal with. But we’re up to the task,” Millsap said. “He’s put us out the past two years. But we can’t let that dictate or deter us from what we want to do. We feel like we’re a good team. We feel like we have the pieces to compete against him or even possibly beat him. We’re 1-0 against him this year, so we’ll see what happens.”

Toronto’s trade for Ibaka addressed a glaring need for a veteran, two-way power forward and has raised the expectations for a team that has fallen to fifth in the East after a blistering start. “We’ve got to put the product on the floor. You know, you’ve got to see it,” Lowry said. “Serge is going to come in and we’re going to put pressure on him to come in and be Serge. Block shots. Rebound. Run the floor. Shoot threes. We’re going to put a lot of pressure on him, because we need that. And we believe in what he can bring. We’re all trying to compete. We all want to go to the Eastern Conference finals. We all want to get to the Finals. We all want to win championships.”

At some point, James will have to relinquish control of the East but he’s determined to make sure that doesn’t happen anytime soon – or until he decides to call it quits. “It’s motivating. It’s great to know that everyone is trying to build their team to try to get to where you are, to try to knock you off,” James said. “It’s also a humbling factor, to know that I’ve been in this position for so long … I work on my game. I work on my craft. And to know that my numbers are right up there with my MVP seasons, it just lets me know I’m consistent. You can always book me for whatever my numbers say. Sometimes they’re more. Not going to be less, not that many times.”

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