Every year, LeBron James makes the NBA Finals. Every year, some team stands in his way. This year, despite their loss to Cleveland on Sunday night, the Charlotte Hornets have the best chance to stop LeBron's seventh-straight Finals trip.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned in the last six years, it’s that the Eastern Conference belongs to LeBron James. The jersey he wears and his teammates have changed, but there’s been one constant: come June, the team representing the East in the NBA Finals will be led by the star forward from Akron, Ohio.
That’s not to say there haven’t been challenges, of course. It took seven games for LeBron to dispatch the Celtics in 2012 and the Pacers in 2013. Indiana, Chicago, and Toronto all managed to go to six games against the King. Ultimately, however, each of those attempts was futile, and LeBron (along with trusted sidekick James Jones) has gone to play for a championship in six straight years.
This year appears to be more of the same: the Cavaliers are the best team in the East again and heavy favorites to return to the Finals; the main mystery in the conference is which team can give them the toughest series on the way there.
Despite their loss to the Cavs on Sunday, the Charlotte Hornets could still be that team.
Steve Clifford and company have seen the clear blueprint laid out by those teams: play strong defense and slow the pace of the game. A great offense isn’t necessary, but it certainly helps. This Charlotte squad checks all of those boxes.
The Hornets will continue to have an elite defense this year under Clifford, especially if Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Roy Hibbert stay healthy. Kidd-Gilchrist is one of the few guys in the league that can slow LeBron down, and Hibbert has looked every bit as intimidating at the rim in he used to in Indiana. Cleveland’s ability to spread the floor could give Charlotte some trouble, but the Hornets should have enough talent on that end to slow the Cavalier offense.
As for the Charlotte offense, it’s looked surprisingly good considering the rash of injuries and the offseason departures of Al Jefferson and Jeremy Lin. Clifford crafted together a surprisingly capable offense last year, and it’s looking possible that he might do it again. One thing the Hornets have supposedly been missing has been a true superstar. Kemba Walker has done his absolute best this season to show that he is just that. His superb play early in the season is the main reason Charlotte has been so competitive. If he keeps it up, he might be able to drag the Hornets offense to a level good enough to keep Cleveland’s defense working.
Charlotte’s been playing quicker this season than most of the teams listed above did but there’s reason to believe that they’ll slow down. The team was slower in each of Clifford’s first three years in the Buzz City, and it’s likely this year will slow down to match that. That slow pace is an important factor: the fewer possessions LeBron has to show his talent, the greater his opponents’ chances of winning becomes.
There’s lots of talent in the Eastern Conference this year. The Raptors and Hawks have both looked particularly impressive in the young season, and the Celtics are full of talent. Of course, the reigning champion Cavaliers are the cream of the crop. The East’s best hope to upset those Cavs?
Kemba Walker and the Charlotte Hornets.