LeBron James’ homecoming in 2014 was inconceivable after the controversial way the King left Cleveland in 2010. But after winning two titles in four years with Miami, James announced his return to ‘The Land’ after a Finals loss to San Antonio. The King’s focus was to bring a title to the Cleveland Cavaliers and even said, “I don’t plan on going nowhere. I don’t have the energy to do it again.”
Yet here we are. LeBron is trading in his Cavs jersey once again, this time for the purple and gold uniforms of the Los Angeles Lakers. James’ four-year stint with Cleveland did yield a championship as he promised. It also featured three Finals losses to the Golden State Warriors, the latest being a 4-0 sweep that further pushed James out of Cleveland and into the arms of another team.
LeBron’s move to Miami took the Heat from a first-round playoff exit in 2010 to a 58-win team and an NBA Finals appearance in 2011. His return to Cleveland turned the 33-win Cavaliers into a 53-win team that also reached the Finals. LeBron’s track record of altering the league means the landscape of the NBA is bound to change in the 2018-2019 season.
As it currently stands, here are the biggest impacts of LeBron’s move to the City of Angels, both for his team and the league as a whole.
A Rivalry Renewed
The Lakers and Celtics have combined for 33 of the 70 NBA championships. Their legendary battles in the 1980s saw superstars such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird compete at the height of their careers. The rivalry saw a resurgence in the late 2000s with Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett stepping into the starring roles.
The narrative is already in place with former teammates James and Kyrie Irving standing on opposite sides of the fence. The Celtics won 55 games last season and were a game away from reaching the Finals without their two best players. With James moving West, the C’s are the favorite to win the Eastern Conference and set up a potential finals date with the Lakers.
LA hasn’t been the same since winning the 2010 championship. They continued to drop in the rankings before missing the playoffs in 2014-2018. LeBron’s move to Los Angeles brought along free agents Javale McGee and Lance Stephenson in just the past 48 hours, with the potential of Kawhi Leonard as well.
Team rivalries in the NBA certainly aren’t what they used to be, but have the potential to take over now that the Lakers have a true superstar on the team.
A new Beast of the East?
The Eastern Conference has been a cakewalk for LeBron James-led teams for the past eight years. The King’s eight straight finals appearances are the most since the Celtics’ Bill Russell, Sam Jones, Tom Heinsohn, and Frank Ramsey in the 1950s-1960s.
As the de facto best player in the conference for nearly a decade, James’ departure leaves a huge opening in the East. Many of the players that were nipping at James’ heels as the second-best player in the East have since moved West.
A few names that come to mind as the East’s best player: Joel Embiid, Kyrie Irving, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Victor Oladipo. Irving and Oladipo are each 26 years old, Embiid is 24, and Antetokounmpo is 23. Irving is the only player on the list with a championship, but has also missed a good chunk of his career due to injury. Embiid has shown promise as one of the best big men today, but is only in his second active season and has only played 94 total career games. Oladipo proved he can carry a team and won the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. The Greek Freak was poised to be an MVP candidate this past season, but his youth showed when playoffs rolled around.
Iron Sharpens Iron
The NBA Playoffs have been lackluster for the past few years because everyone knew how they would end up. Now that James has taken his talents to southern California, there will inevitably be a team or two in the West that wins nearly 50 games, but won’t make the playoffs. This also means every playoff game will matter that much more.
The Lakers, Warriors, Rockets, Thunder, Pelicans, and Jazz are all top-tier teams in the league that happen to be in the same conference. This leaves above-average teams like the Timberwolves, Trailblazers, Nuggets, Spurs, and even the Mavericks to fight for the remaining playoff spots. We could potentially see the Warriors and Rockets face-off in the second round of the playoffs.
This puts pressure on the Warriors as much as anyone else. Golden State’s title in 2017 saw the Dubs go 16-1 in the playoffs. In 2018 they were pushed by wounded Spurs and Pelicans teams before going to a seven-game series against the Rockets. Now, not only do the Warriors have to face better teams in earlier rounds, but they also have to compete against James up to four times in the regular season as opposed to two. The same goes for teams like Houston, OKC, and New Orleans.
Perhaps it’s time for Adam Silver to consider a playoff format change.
Reach Cory on Twitter @MrCoryLeeSmith