It is not yet clear who breathed the deepest sigh of relief when the announcement was made that LeBron James had again departed the Cleveland Cavaliers; but this time, would be moving away from the Eastern Conference to the Los Angeles Lakers.
The King had dominated the East for 12 years: since the 2005/06 season when he was named the Most Valuable Player of the All-Star Game in his third season. But as apparent as that domination was, it didn’t translate into a Championship until he left Cleveland for Miami. It was at the Heat that LeBron’s influence over the affairs of the Eastern Conference revved to a higher level.
And it continued after he made a sensational return to the Cavaliers at the start of the 2014/15 season: between the 2010/11 and 2017/18 seasons, the teams LeBron James appeared for, dusted every team in the Eastern Conference and played in every NBA Final. That is why his departure from the East would have elicited a collective sigh of relief from teams in the conference; but for the Raptors, the case is different.
Toronto have been edged out of the past three post seasons by a LeBron inspired Cavaliers, with the Raptors going 2-12 in the playoffs over that period. The Cavaliers prevailed once in the Conference Finals, and twice in the semi-finals. The Raptors were swept the last two times, with the Cavaliers going on to win the Eastern Conference Championships. That is why the Raptors will be heaving a sigh of relief at LeBron’s departure.
But the lights of the North, and other teams not named the Philadelphia 76ers, Indiana Pacers or Milwaukee Bucks cannot assume they own the East just yet, because a new breed of stars in those three teams, who are of African descent, have started a glow that may just blind the rest of that conference.
Victor Oladipo (Indiana Pacers): Oladipo was descending into ‘good but not great’ category after his three years in Orlando, and one year at Oklahoma, were spent putting up decent numbers and getting good reviews without making any major impact. Then an innocuous trade took him back to Indiana. And the magic that was expected in Orlando, but never materialised, happened.
The Nigerian-American guard blossomed with the Pacers. In that magical 2017/18 season, he led the Pacers in scoring, became an All-Star for the first time, led the league in steals, was named in the All-Defensive and All-NBA Teams, and was named the Most Improved Player. In one season, he made Indiana fans forget the pains of losing Paul George to Oklahoma. And the indices show that Oladipo has more in the tank. The Pacers and the Celtics were the only teams that took LeBron and the Cavaliers to seven games in the East, with LeBron out of the way, Oladipo and Indiana may be the new names to fear in the Eastern Conference.
Joel Embiid (Philadelphia 76ers): No matter what happens, JoJo already has a place locked down in the hearts of the fans of Philadelphia 76ers. The rangy rookie from Yaoundé, Cameroon, has become the poster boy of a franchise that has been crying out for a new hero since Allen Iverson retired. But Embiid has the skills and the charisma to become much more than a Philly face; he can rule the East, and go on to rule the league, just like Olajuwon before him did in the West in the 90s.
Embiid missed being named in the All-Star team and missed Rookie of the Year honours because of the limitations of the multiple injuries he’d suffered since being drafted in his first year on court. But if there had been any doubts about his ability, he erased them all with a stunning second season, when most players hit ‘the rookie wall’ and experience a drop in performance. He led the Sixers in points, rebounds and blocked shots; and was named in the All-Star, All-Defensive and All-NBA teams. The Sixers returned to the playoffs after a five-year absence, and made it to the semi-finals where they lost to Boston.
Now that Embiid has added one more year of experience, the Eastern Conference and the league may be in for more from ‘The Process’, especially as a vacuum has been created by the departure of LeBron.
Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks): If there is one player who stands in a unique position in relation to LeBron James, it has to be Nigerian-Greek, Giannis Antetokounmpo. He and LeBron share the distinction of leading their teams in almost all the major statistical categories. Antetokounmpo led the Bucks in scoring, rebounding, blocks and minutes.
After three years during which he honed and elevated his game, the Greek Freak became a full-blown national sensation at the 2017 All-Star Game, when his dunks and scoring captured the imagination of the basketball world. At the end of that 2016/17 season, he was named the Most Improved Player, named in the All-Defensive team and received his first All-NBA accolade. He has since been named to his second All-NBA team following a hugely successful 2017/18 regular season, where he cracked a double-double average in scoring and rebounds for the first time.
The only ceiling left for Antetokounmpo to break, is the post season. In the five years he has been at Milwaukee, the Bucks have played in the post season three times, but were knocked out in the first round each of those times. Antetokounmpo has the game, now he needs to add the leadership that will carry the Bucks to, at least, the Conference Finals; when he does that, he would have taken a giant step towards his place alongside LeBron on that pedestal.
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