The team with the best record was a 53-win Detroit Pistons who were severely weakened by the loss of Ben Wallace. Without Wallace the Pistons were eleven games worse than the previous season. The prior season, at full-strength the Pistons defeated the Cavs. The defending champions Miami Heat were no longer looking too impressive as Shaq had started his decline, and were swept in the first round by a questionalbe Chicago Bulls team. Speaking of the Bulls, the Gordon/Hinrich/Deng-era Bulls were the third-best team in the East that season. I loved that team. Super gutsy, I think Gordon was underappreciated and underrated, but none of these guys ever emerged as true stars, and all of them basically started to fizzle out a few years later. This team being as good as it was is a clear example of how weak the conference was. So what was the Cavs path to the finals that year?

When they faced the Spurs, they were swept.

In the first round, they faced an Arenas Wizards team, a team that perpetually underachieved and has a well-documented history of their lack of seriousness towards the game. Washington was only 41-41 that year and had almost no bench. In the second round, they faced a 41-41 NJ Nets team. The Nets were five years removed from their last NBA finals appearance. This Vince Carter-led Nets team had no front-court, and was forced to play a 40-year-old Cliff Robinson 19 minutes a game and start Jason Collins at center. Collins was absurdly bad and averaged 2ppg, 4 rpg, and 36% FG in 23 mpg. Mikki Moore was the other starting big man and Bostjan Nachbar was the 6th man. Detroit was their first good team in the playoffs, and we’ve already covered why they were weakened. When they faced the Spurs, they were swept. LeBron leading such a weak team to the finals is impressive on one hand, but it also speaks volumes to how weak the conference was.

A team with Larry Hughes as its second-best player has no business in the NBA finals, and is a result of the “Leastern Conference” era. People keep bringing up that Jordan didn’t face a tough East, but his Eastern conference was regularly tougher than LeBron’s crop. I mean he swept a Shaq/Penny/Grant Orlando Magic team that looked like it was destined to become a dynasty. He defeated Patrick Ewing, a guy who is a bigger star than anyone James faced in the East that playoff run, regularly (and while admittedly the Knicks needed a second star, they were deep with tough role players). Someone brought up the Indiana Pacers as an example of a bad team, which just astonishes me. The Bulls only played the Pacers once in the playoffs, but that Pacers team was insanely tough, loaded with savvy vets, and was very deep. On top of that, Reggie Miller despite his somewhat so-so stats had an insane ability to just win games, anyone who saw him play in his prime knows that, and was certainly more dangerous than a guy like Vince Carter or even Gilbert Arenas.

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The Alonzo Mourning-Tim Hardaway-Jamal Mashburn Heat could have easily been a finals team, and in fact had a better record than those Cav teams. They were probably pretty close in terms of impact to the 2000-era Pistons team. I like how you picked a single year for LeBron but listed every star MJ faced for a decade. Mid 90’s Patrick Ewing wasn’t bigger than anyone LeBron had to face (KG, peak Howard) and the Reggie Pacers weren’t significantly better than the PG13 Pacers if at all. The Mourning Heat team was also legit but again, short lived (they only got Mash for half of ’97-’98 season and had a total of 2 elite years overlapping with MJ). If you cherry pick who MJ faced and just go by name recognition, sure. But LeBron has faced the Celtics for many seasons, the Bad Boys 2 for a couple of years and faced some of the toughest Final opponents ever. Not to mention that he faced an elite defensive player in his position on almost every Final (Kawhi,Iggy, KD) and also in his own conference his entire career (Prince, PP, PG).