LeBron James making five consecutive NBA Finals appearances - and his sixth in nine seasons - is nothing short of remarkable in the modern era of the NBA. For my money, James's five-straight championship appearances is far more impressive than the eight-straight championship appearances by Bill Russell's Boston Celtics from 1959-1966. Because while Russell can't help being born in 1934 as opposed to 1984 (in James's case), it doesn't change the fact that Russell's Celtics competed in an NBA that had just eight teams when their streak began in 1959 and only 10 teams when the streak came to an end in 1967. Moreover, in those days teams only had two rounds of playoffs before getting to the NBA Finals and the first round of playoffs was a best-of-five-series.
In today's modern NBA, James has delivered five-straight NBA Finals appearances while going through three best-of-seven playoff series in each season to get there and in a league that now has 30 teams (15 per conference) all competing for championship glory. And number five - set to begin Thursday evening against the Golden State Warriors - might be James's most impressive given that he has taken an inexperienced Cleveland Cavaliers team and turned them into NBA Finals participants in just one season.
And yet, when looking at James's remarkable run it has to be done so within the context of the conference James and his Cavaliers play in: the perennially laughable Eastern Conference, not-so-affectionately labeled the "Leastern Conference" on the pages of this website since 2008.
Even casual sports fans are aware of the joke that the Eastern Conference has become. This past season, three of the Eastern Conference's eight playoff participants had records of .500 or worse. Comparatively, the Western Conference's 10th-seeded Phoenix Suns would have secured an Eastern Conference playoff spot with their 39 wins. And going back to all but one in the last 10 seasons, the Eastern Conference has had playoff participants with .500 or sub-.500 records while their Western Conference counterparts routinely miss the playoffs despite having 44-plus win seasons. For example, in 2007-08 the Warriors won 48 games but couldn't get into the playoffs and it happened again last year when the 48-win Suns finished ninth in the NBA's superior conference.
But knowledgeable NBA fans know that this is actually an old story, and I contend that it goes back to the summer of 1993. More on that shortly.
With James ascending to his fifth straight and sixth overall NBA Finals beginning this Thursday, the inevitable comparisons to Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson and their six and nine, respectively, championship appearances are coming out left and right. But just like we need to put James's six appearances within the context of the conference he plays in, the same has to be done when looking at Jordan and Johnson's combined 15 NBA Finals appearances.
For those old enough to remember, the Eastern Conference of the 1980s was as competitively brutal - if not more so - than the Western Conference of today. From the dawn of the decade through the mid-1980s, teams had to contend with Julius Erving / Moses Malone's Philadelphia 76ers - who competed in three NBA Finals - followed in 1984 by Charles Barkley's 76ers. Throughout the entire decade, Larry Bird / Kevin McHale / Robert Parish's Boston Celtics were a dominant force, competing in five NBA Finals between 1981 and 1987. Don Nelson's Milwaukee Bucks won 49 or more games for eight straight seasons between 1979 and 1987 - winning 55-plus games four times in that span. Dominique Wilkins's Atlanta Hawks won at least 50 games four seasons in a row from 1985 through 1989. Whether the New York Knicks were led by Hall of Famer Bernard King (early 1980s) or Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing (mid-to-late 1980s) they were never an easy out. And at the tail end of the decade and into the early 1990s, Lenny Wilkens's Cavaliers came into their own led by Mark Price, Brad Daugherty and Larry Nance.
And I haven't even gotten to the Detroit Pistons yet, who - led by Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, Joe Dumars, Dennis Rodman and the remainder of the legendary "Bad Boys" - brutalized the conference from 1983 through the early 1990s, competing in three straight NBA Finals from 1988 through 1990 and winning back-to-back championships in the latter two of the three.
So when a shooting guard from North Carolina named Michael Jordan joined the Chicago Bulls in 1984, one has to understand the landscape of the Eastern Conference that Jordan had to play in. And those were the days before the NBA disallowed hand checking. The days before "flagrant ones" or suspensions for fighting were even in the NBA vernacular. And thus, it should be of no surprise to anyone that it took Jordan seven years to get to his first NBA Finals.
Meanwhile, when Magic Johnson joined the Los Angeles Lakers in 1980 he found a Western Conference not nearly as competitive as its Eastern Conference counterpart. In fact, throughout Johnson's 12-year career with the Lakers the NBA Western Conference featured multiple .500 or worse teams in the playoffs in every season except one. With the exception of the 1980-81 season (Johnson was injured) and 1985-86 season (Johnson's Lakers were bounced by Hakeem Olajuwon / Ralph Sampson's Houston Rockets in the conference finals) Johnson's Lakers decimated the Western Conference competition annually in the playoffs, not once playing in a pre-Finals seventh game until 1988. While the 76ers, Celtics and Pistons took turns beating each other up in the East, it was often Johnson's Lakers awaiting them in June.
This isn't to take anything away from Johnson's nine NBA Finals appearances and five rings in 12 years (which could easily have been more had Johnson not abruptly retired due to his HIV diagnosis in 1992 at the age of 32), it's just to say that some context is in order.
Which brings us to Jordan's six NBA Finals appearances and why the Eastern Conference has been a joke since 1993. For starters, Jordan broke through to the NBA Finals in 1990 in what had become a 27-team league. Prior to the 1988-89 season, the NBA had 23 teams and expanded to Charlotte and Miami (1988) and then Minneapolis and Orlando (1989) over two years. For a moment, just imagine taking all of the talent in today's 30-team NBA and consolidating the cream of the crop into 23 teams. You'd get a much more competitive NBA (hence why the 1987-88 season - the NBA's last before modern day expansion - was the best in history).
In my opinion, Jordan's first "three-peat" from 1991 through 1993 is far more impressive than Jordan's second three-peat from 1996 through 1998. Even though the NBA expanded to 27 teams after the conclusion of the 1987-88 season, the league had not yet welcomed high schoolers nor the influx of raw foreign talent that would come during the mid-1990s. In other words, the NBA during Jordan's first three-peat was a much more competitive NBA than during his second.
During Jordan's first three-peat, just to get to the NBA Finals his Bulls still had to go through Thomas's Pistons (no longer championship caliber but still a 50-win team), Barkley's 76ers, Ewing's Knicks, Wilkins's Hawks and Price's Cavaliers. And when he got to the NBA Finals, Jordan had to take down Johnson's Lakers (1991), Clyde Drexler's mighty Portland Trail Blazers (1992) and Barkley's Suns (1993). Now that's a three-peat!
During and after Jordan's
suspension-forced retirement-to-baseball hiatus from 1993 through 1995, the NBA opened up the flood gates to high schoolers, raw foreigners and then expanded again (Toronto and Vancouver) in 1996, further diluting the league's talent pool. It would take nearly a decade later (late 00s) for the league's talent pool to catch up - especially with the league adding a 30th team (Charlotte Bobcats) in 2005. So it should be a surprise to no one that Jordan's Bulls of the latter 1990s decimated the Eastern Conference and the NBA in general akin to what Johnson's Lakers did to the Western Conference in the 1980s. Point being, there's a reason why Jordan's Bulls won an NBA record 72 games in the 1995-96 season and did no worse than 62 wins two seasons later: the NBA kind of stunk back then (against the Utah Jazz in the 1998 NBA Finals, Jordan's Bulls scored over 90 points just twice and in the 80s in the other four games ... yuck).
But as bad as the NBA was in the mid-to-latter part of the 1990s, the Eastern Conference - beginning in 1993 - was worse, and began a decades' long trend of being an inferior conference which is still apt today. What's the magic of 1993, you might ask?
This story is actually born out of tragedy.
In the summer of 1993, the Eastern Conference lost three of its top four shooting guards in one summer. While Jordan "retired" to play baseball, both Drazen Petrovic (28) of the New Jersey Nets and Reggie Lewis (27) of the Celtics died. Petrovic's death came in a vicious car accident whereas Lewis died from a heart attack while shooting baskets. It would take both teams nearly a decade to recover from those respective tragedies. Meanwhile, by the time Jordan returned to the NBA in 1995 he found an Eastern Conference that no longer featured Bird or McHale (retired), Thomas (retired), Wilkins (playing overseas) or Barkley (playing in the West) and a very diminished Ewing. Reggie Miller's Indiana Pacers and Alonzo Mourning / Tim Hardaway's Miami Heat and Shaquille O'Neal / Anfernee Hardaway's Orlando Magic would prove to be somewhat worthy foes, but only Miller's Pacers took Jordan's post-1995 Bulls to a seven-game series (1998). The rest of Jordan's post-1995 playoff series were walkovers. And then when Jordan departed again in 1998, the Eastern Conference went down another notch and never really recovered - a combination of dumb luck (top draft picks landing in the West), dumb owners and dumb general managers.
With the exception of James, his former Heat teammate Dwyane Wade and perhaps Allen Iverson, Vince Carter and (briefly) Derrick Rose, the NBA's premier talent has predominantly resided in the West since the mid-1990s. Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, Chris Webber, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Yao Ming, Pau Gasol, Carmelo Anthony, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Steve Nash all had / have had their best seasons in the West. And now Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Anthony Davis are all on Western Conference squads. Which makes this chart even more impressive when one considers Bryant's seven championship appearances and Duncan's six:
As you can plainly see above, like Jordan before them in a brutal Eastern Conference, both Bryant and Duncan had to battle through a brutal Western Conference to achieve NBA Finals success. Conversely, James has been the beneficiary of a pathetically weak Eastern Conference and, to his credit, has feasted on the conference as he should. Just as Johnson feasted on the Western Conference thirty years earlier. (And Bird only besting a 50-plus win team 10 times is very surprising.)
As a die-hard Denver Nuggets fan, I often hear: " ... if only the Nuggets played in the Eastern Conference ... " To which I have two responses.
One: they don't and won't ... ever.
And, two: WHAT IF THE SPURS PLAYED IN THE EASTERN CONFERENCE?!! Would Duncan have been to 12 NBA Finals by now instead of just six?!
Given this decades' long imbalance, many in the NBA punditry world believe the league should go to a "top 16" playoff format as opposed to a conference-based playoff format as has been used since the dawn of the league itself. Even our SB Nation colleague Tom Ziller even came up with a more creative way to solve the NBA's seemingly perpetual imbalance by proposing a regional-based conference format (that I really like, actually).
But until any of that happens, we are left with the system as-is and a great player in LeBron James benefiting greatly from it.