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LeBron James’ Eastern Conference Dominance May Be Coming To An End

For the last six seasons, a LeBron James team has represented the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. After leading the Heat to four straight Finals appearances and two appearances as a Cleveland Cavalier, it’s hard to imagine any team knocking LeBron off in the East. To get an idea for how dominant and lengthy this historic run of success has been, the last Eastern team to escape conference without the assistance of James was the 2010 Celtics, back when Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett were in the league, Paul Pierce was at the tail end of his prime, and Rajon Rondo was a star instead of a complete non-threat.

However, recent developments have created some room for doubt that the Cavs will breeze through the playoffs on their way to a third straight Finals:

Kevin Love’s Injury

The Cavaliers’ All-Star forward had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee on Tuesday. He will miss approximately six weeks. This is a huge blow to a Cavs team already weakened by injuries throughout the year, particularly to guard J.R. Smith. No injury has been as important as this, though. Love was averaging 20 points and 11.1 rebounds per game on the season, and was finally finding comfort in Cleveland after a rocky two years since being traded from Minnesota.

Coming off of six straight Finals appearances, it was predicted that James would rest more this season, handing the reigns of the offense to Love and Kyrie Irving, and saving his best for June. Heading into the All-Star break, however, James is second in the league in minutes played per game with 37.5, with Irving at 35.2. Without Love in the lineup, it will be even harder for those two to rest in-game or take nights off. There are two ways this could play out; LeBron could keep playing huge minutes and lose energy for the playoffs; or, LeBron could sit and the Cavs’ record could plummet as the season continues, giving the other teams in the East the opportunity to steal home-court advantage in the playoffs. In addition, the Cavs won’t be as scary if Kevin Love doesn’t come back for the playoffs at full strength. If he’s not playing like the 20-11 per game Love from before the All-Star break, the Cavs will be even more vulnerable in the playoffs.

The Serge Ibaka Trade

Through December 26, the Raptors had a historically good offense, averaging 112.3 points per game on 1.135 points per possession, which would make them the most efficient offense in league history if it had continued. Unfortunately for Toronto, it did not continue. The Raptors are 11-16 since December 27, and their out-of-date offensive scheme, based on isolation and little ball movement, has taken much of the blame.

Desperate not to drop from the ranks of the conference elite, the Raptors made a huge move on Tuesday, trading Terrence Ross and their 2017 first round pick to the Magic for Serge Ibaka. Ibaka fills Toronto’s desperate need for a power forward and a game-changer. With his athleticism, shooting ability, and skill at protecting the rim, Ibaka is essentially a better version of Patrick Patterson, who has been key to the Raptors’ success this season. When Patterson is on the court with Kyle Lowry, the Raptors outscore their opponents by 18.9 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. However, when Patterson is off the court, that drops to 0.9. Patterson’s ability to space the floor gives Lowry and Demar DeRozan more room to operate in their archaic isolation sets, but if that shooting big man is gone, it’s easier to collapse and suffocate those two with additional defenders.

Imagine how effective the Raptors can be when Ibaka shares the floor with Lowry and DeRozan. His averages for the season: 15.1 PPG, 48.8% FG, 38.8% 3PFG, 1.6 BPG. Perhaps his most important contribution will be his defense; Ibaka is a premier rim protector with the agility to guard away from the paint as well. With this trade, the Raptors have reaffirmed themselves among the East’s elite.

The Wizards Are Surging

Since December 4, the Wizards are 28-9 and have the league’s fourth-best net rating. John Wall has averaged 22.8 PPG, 10.6 APG, and 2.1 SPG, and Bradley Beal was an All-Star snub with his 22.2 PPG. Otto Porter has been a revelation, averaging 14.6 PPG, and shooting astoundingly well (53.4% FG and 46.5% from three). The only thing holding Washington back is its bench, and that could be remedied by some trade possibilities (the team has expressed interest in Will Barton, and Lou Williams and Taj Gibson are also possible trade targets). If the Wizards add players before the deadline to bolster their depth, they might be good enough to take down the Cavs even if Cleveland is at full strength, as evidenced by that incredible game the two teams played the day after the Super Bowl.

The Celtics Are Always Liable To Make A Trade

The Boston Celtics have been praised for all the assets that they’ve acquired, from lottery picks to good players on cheap contracts. However, they’ve also been maligned for not using them to make a trade. General manager Danny Ainge has sat back and waited for the right superstar to become available at the right price. So far, that hasn’t happened, and if no one becomes available that Ainge deems worthy of trading those picks for, he will happily use that draft swap with Brooklyn in this stacked incoming class.

But it’s possible that the right players are about to become available. Apparently, Ainge was deep in talks with Chicago on draft night about Jimmy Butler, and the combination of a disappointing season and inner turmoil could possibly drive the Bulls to offer Butler up for the chance to rebuild. In addition, the Pacers have lost their last six games, and star forward Paul George has been vocally frustrated all season. Team President Larry Bird has shown that he’s never too attached to a player to let him go, especially if he thinks he can improve the team’s future.

If either of those two, or any other stars, become available, nobody can trump the trade chips the Celtics have to offer. The Celtics are sitting pretty, riding a magical season from Isaiah Thomas, the off-season acquisition of Al Horford, and great performances from role players to the second seed in the East. They’ve already proven that they can hang with the Cavs, but they can only truly challenge Cleveland if they make a trade for one of the guys mentioned above.

For the first time in a long time, we may not see LeBron James in the NBA Finals. Then again, it’s hard to bet against this guy:

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