LeBron James, new-look Cavs finding open path to NBA Finals at perfect time

Joe Morgan, Sporting News

LeBron James and the Cavs appear to be vulnerable. The questions come. Will they actually miss the NBA Finals this year? Will this force James to consider another team as a free agent? And then everyone remembers that Cleveland plays in the East, and that no team is beating James in a seven-game playoff series.


But if there ever was a year that King James' reign would come to end, it felt like this would be it.

After early-season drama and a wild trade deadline, the Cavs were left with a young and relatively untested roster. And while several pundits felt that Cleveland’s deadline moves did improve both the short-term and long-term outlook, they were still more vulnerable in the East than they had ever been before, looking to become a cohesive unit with little time left before the playoffs.

Since the complete roster overhaul, Cleveland is 17-9. While the Cavs have looked unstoppable offensively at times, they don't give off an air of invincibility.

Defensively, they have been an embarrassment, often showing complete indifference to the concept of team defense. (Yes, even LeBron has been guilty plenty of possessions.) The Cavs' defensive rating (109.5) is the second-worst mark in the league behind only the lowly Suns (110.7). Opponents have regularly torched the Cavs in the paint and on corner 3-pointers, the exact kind of shots modern NBA teams should try to discourage.

The Cavs' defensive woes and relative inexperience on top of an immense workload for James had many curious to see how the Eastern Conference playoffs would play out.

And then the past week happened.

Irving’s season-ending knee procedure took the team with the best chance to dethrone James out of the equation. Behind the NBA's top defense and Coach of the Year candidate Brad Stevens, the Celtics could have challenged the Cavs and forced James to use all of his talents. With Irving sidelined, Boston could struggle in the first round against the Bucks, Heat or Wizards.

But what about the Raptors, the East's top team? Their 59 wins are a product of a much-needed culture reset. Toronto has become much less stagnant on offense, as team assists, 3-point attempts and pace are all up from past years. The Raptors' bench overhaul has produced one of the best reserve units in the NBA. They have the third-best net rating in the league behind only the Rockets and Warriors. They are solid defensively with switchable players. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have also been their usual productive selves.

But we have seen great regular seasons out of the Raptors before. Toronto's success should not go unnoticed, but unfortunately for the Raptors, they always seem to hit a ceiling. They have been knocked out of the playoffs the past two years by the Cavs, including last season's decisive sweep in the conference semifinals.

Hey, what about those "Process" guys in Philadelphia?

The 76ers have won 50 games in a season for the first time in 17 years. They have won more games this season than the past two seasons combined. The Sixers are also gelling at the right time, winning their last 14 games, with the last six victories coming without Joel Embiid in the lineup.

Ben Simmons has been a revelation. The likely Rookie of the Year has been unguardable during Philly's winning streak, including a 27-15-13 triple-double in an exciting win over Cleveland on Friday.

But the Sixers are incredibly young. The starting unit has a total of 88 playoff games as a team — with all 88 coming from veteran shooting guard J.J. Redick. If Embiid's injury lingers, that will severely hurt their chances to advance. The Sixers have a bright future ahead, but it is hard to believe that they are ready to beat James in a playoff series.

This year is different by definition. The Cavs aren't the same team, and in certain areas, they've gotten worse. But in a weakened East, it's hard to bet against James dragging this new group to another NBA Finals.

What they do when they get there is another story. Just don’t expect the path to be all that difficult.

Ki Monique
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Ki is an actress, tv personality, and reporter. She has many hobbies and talents. Her father is a retired military veteran.