LeBron James has reached the NBA Finals seven straight years, a fact that many people attribute to playing in a weak Eastern Conference.
They use this as part of the fight to elevate Michael Jordan over him, but Jordan didn’t have too much to go through in his Eastern Conference as well. It clearly has been the weaker of the two conferences during the reign of King James, but that’s something that has never changed.
After age finally caught up to the Celtics in the late-80’s, the next team that took over the Eastern Conference was the Detroit Pistons. They were crowned NBA Champions in 1989 and 1990, but they dropped down to just 50 wins after winning that second title and would never reach that mark again during the Isiah Thomas-era.
This meant the Michael Jordan dynasty in the 1990’s that everyone raves about began in what was a very wide open Eastern Conference, which was very different from the situation LeBron James found himself in when he formed his “super team” in Miami.
|1991 Bulls||2011 Heat|
|First Round||Knicks (39-43)||Pacers (41-41)|
|Second Round||76ers (44-38)||Celtics (56-26)|
|Conference Finals||Pistons (50-32)||Bulls (62-20)|
LeBron James did not have an easy path to the Eastern Conference Finals in his first year with the Miami Heat. Their second round opponent featured a championship caliber Celtics team that had tons of fire power with their “Big Three” from the 2008 championship season all in place plus Rajon Rondo had become an All-Star caliber point guard by then. The Heat took care of Boston in five games and then had to play a Bulls team that had won 62 games and featured a healthy Derrick Rose in what was his MVP season, knocking Chicago off in five games as well.
It is easy to argue that the Eastern Conference has gotten weaker during James’ seven straight runs to the NBA Finals, but today it still looks a lot like what Jordan was going up against in 1998 when he won his last championship.
|1998 Bulls||2017 Cavaliers|
|First Round||Nets (43-39)||Pacers (42-40)|
|Second Round||Hornets (51-31)||Raptors (51-31)|
|Conference Finals||Pacers (58-24)||Celtics (53-29)|
That Pacers team – coached by Larry Bird – was probably better than last year’s Celtics squad that the Cavaliers downed in five games, but that’s really the only break that James and the Cavaliers got compared to the path that Michael Jordan had to take in 1998 with the Bulls. Cleveland had to beat a Toronto Raptors team that featured an All-Star duo of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry in the second round, a team that is at least equal – if not better – than a Hornets team that featured Glen Rice and Anthony Mason.
One issue that the conference had during both the Jordan and LeBron-eras was the fact that a second team never fully established themselves as the biggest challengers to their thrones. The Bulls faced six different teams in the Eastern Conference Finals during their six trips to the NBA Finals and LeBron James has faced five over his seven trips. Even when Michael Jordan left the league to go play baseball, nobody could step in and take command. The New York Knicks were conference champs in 1994 but couldn’t make it out of the second round a year later while the Orlando Magic had lost in the first round a year earlier before reading the NBA Finals in 1995.
The Miami Heat did square off against the Indiana Pacers in back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals – 2013 and 2014 – but that’s really it in terms of running into the same team at the end. James has technically faced the Celtics twice in that round, but the meetings were five years apart from each other and Avery Bradley was the only holder from the 2012 team that also made the 2017 Eastern Conference Finals. Bradley didn’t even play in that first series. He had started the team’s first ten games of the 2012 postseason, but was sidelined in the second round due to a shoulder injury.
James also beat the Detroit Pistons back in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals, before he ever formed what people saw as a “super team.” He hasn’t had to face Detroit in that round during his current streak of seven.
Some people will always look at the rings, but the fact that has won his conference eight times – including seven in a row – shouldn’t be diminished because he plays in a “weak” conference. It’s the same competition that Jordan only came out on top against six times in his career, and the longer this goes on for James the better it should look on his resume, no matter how many times Golden State beats him in the NBA Finals.