LeBron James has made eight NBA Finals appearances in the last ten years. Such a reign of dominance has put him into the conversation for greatest player of all time.
But for the last six years of those appearances, LeBron clashed with the Golden State Warriors or the San Antonio Spurs. His Eastern Conference rivals built on the way are now opponents he'd see in the NBA Finals, much to their relief. Now is the time for James to re-write the rivalries within the conference and who will be true postseason obstacles for the King.
It's hard to believe with all the elite players and franchises out West, but there's the possibility for the first ever postseason showdown between James and many greats.
The Familiar Rivals: Los Angeles Clippers
No Western Conference team will have more postseason experience with James than the Clippers. As the conference's two top dogs, these franchises are on a collision course in the conference finals. The seeds of rivalry have been growing for years. From the upswing of the Clippers since the Lob City days to the inter-city showdowns, this is a true rivalry that's brewing.
These rivalries pre-date the return to Cleveland and stretch as far as a full decade. When LeBron's reign atop the East began with the Miami Heat, the incumbent Eastern Conference Champions were coached by Doc Rivers. Doc built teams so strong defensively, and so attuned to James' vulnerabilities, that slaying the Celtics was seen as a more daunting task than beating the best of the West.
As those Celtics faded and Rivers' stars aged, the Indiana Pacers stepped up in their stead. Their leader: Paul George.
George and LeBron went to war in consecutive Eastern Conference Finals. The complicated web of entanglement continues with Frank Vogel, current Lakers coach and the vocal guys on the sidelines for those Pacers. Vogel constructed the gameplans for the tough, defensive-minded team that pushed the Heat in successive years.
But the only one who toppled the King was Kawhi Leonard, former Finals MVP in 2014 after a complete dismantling of the Heat. Leonard's game has matured since, particularly on offense, to the point where he's as consistent of a scorer as he is a defender.
A few veteran role players with playoff experience against LeBron will be at the ready. Patrick Patterson, Joakim Noah and Marcus Morris all did battle with his dynasties and could provide valuable tutelage for the newcomers.
There are so many latent, already-significant storylines between these two rosters that a battle in the league's penultimate series would be one for the ages.
Old Friend, New Foe: Oklahoma City Thunder
A potential second-round matchup between the Lakers and Thunder does loom, especially with OKC playing so well of late.
The pulse of their team belongs to Chris Paul, the Banana Boater enjoying a renaissance amidst a funky bunch of youngsters and castoffs alike. To think that we've never seen a Chris Paul-LeBron James postseason contest is almost shocking. They've been staples atop the league for so long and enjoyed postseason successes, but never faced off.
This might be the year. CP3's teammates are short on experience against LeBron, but do have some of the better wing defenders in the West. They have veterans wise enough for how to value a best-of-seven series, like Steven Adams and Danilo Gallinari, and youngsters too immature to know how outmatched they might be. Billy Donovan has constructed elite defensive gameplans in the past (see Golden State Warriors, 2016) and has never seen a team buy in more than this group.
Of course, natural rivalries come from first-time showdowns. Could we see a coming-out party for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on the national stage if the Thunder get to L.A.? OKC is an interesting target for this group.
Old Face, New Place: Houston Rockets
It feels like a generation ago, but Russell Westbrook and James Harden have both met LeBron in the NBA Finals before. Both were young and secondary players to Kevin Durant, but their experience will be invaluable moving forward.
If the Rockets and Lakers have a second-round showdown, it will be a contrast in styles. The large, physical Lakers against the shooting, iso-driven Rockets. Harden facing a team with relatively few strong perimeter defenders. The overwhelming physical presence of Anthony Davis down low.
What a showdown this series would be.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).