LeBron James Might Be Leaving Door Ajar For Celtics In Eastern Conference

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — Is this happening again?

According to a USA Today report, LeBron James is feeling a bit disgruntled with the way business is being run in Cleveland, and “it doesn’t take a wild imagination to see him elsewhere – especially if he feels there’s a better opportunity for him to win a championship with another team” after the upcoming season.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

It was, of course, seven summers ago when LeBron announced that he’d be taking his talents to South Beach, because he felt the Miami Heat gave him the best opportunity to win titles. He proved himself to be correct by winning a pair of championships in his four years with the Heat.

Now, after Golden State dominated Cleveland with a five-game Finals win and then spent the offseason trying to improve, James is starting to wonder about his chances of winning a second title with Cleveland in the coming years.

“Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert dismantled the front office, declining days before the draft and free agency to bring back general manager David Griffin and vice president of basketball operations Trent Redden,” USA Today’s Jeff Zillgitt wrote. “Gilbert’s decision left the Cavs without the franchise’s top two front-office execs at a critical time, and it left James frustrated and concerned about the team’s ability to put together a roster that can better compete with Golden State.”

Zillgitt mentioned the feeling around basketball that LeBron may be eyeing a move to Los Angeles, where he and another star cold join a young core and immediately contend in the West.

While a lot can happen between now and next spring, the LeBron possibilities figure to play an integral role in shaping the Eastern Conference. Specifically, it could open the door for the Boston Celtics.

Coming off a season in which they earned the No. 1 seed in the East before getting outclassed by the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals, the Celtics added Gordon Hayward in free agency. The No. 3 overall pick of the 2016 draft, Jaylen Brown, appears ready to make a leap in his second year, while 2017 No. 3 overall pick Jayson Tatum looks capable of making some impact as a rookie. With Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford already in place, there’s reason for Celtics confidence heading into the season.

However, reasonable expectations still place them a step below Cleveland in terms of talent. LeBron is just that good, and so is Kyrie Irving. Throw in Kevin Love, and it takes a lot to get past the Cavaliers when they are at their best.

Yet if one were to seek optimism for the Celtics’ chances of getting past Cleveland in the Eastern Conference, one need only look back to that spring of 2010, when LeBron’s frustrations sent him leaving Cleveland for the first time. That year, the Cavs finished the season as the No. 1 overall seed in the East with a 61-21 record. The Celtics were fourth, at 50-32.

Both the Celtics and Cavs buzzed through their first-round opponents, setting up an Eastern Conference quarterfinals matchup — the first playoff meeting between the two teams since the memorable seven-game series in 2008.

The Cavs won Game 1 at home, 101-93. The Celtics evened things up with a 104-86 win in Game 2. The Cavs won big in Boston for Game 3, 124-95. In Game 4, James shot 7-for-18 (and 0-for-5 from 3-point range) in a game the Celtics won by 10. And in Game 5, back on his home court, James shot 3-for-14 as the Celtics rolled to a 32-point victory.

In a do-or-die Game 6, James shot 8-for-21 — albeit with 19 rebounds and 10 assists — as the Celtics won a game that was never really close after halftime.

For his performance, James received negative national attention for probably the first time in his career. While many people questioned what in the world could have happened to James, Dan Gilbert went out and said flat-out that James quit on the team.

“He quit — not just in Game 5, but in Games 2, 4 and 6. Watch the tape,” Gilbert said. “The Boston series was unlike anything in the history of sports for a superstar.”

While history has shown Gilbert to look mostly petty for his comments after LeBron left Cleveland, the idea of a quitting LeBron in that 2010 series as a way of easing a move to Miami is one that still has life to it. The results — 34 percent shooting from the field, 15.4 percent shooting from beyond the arc, three straight losses by an average of 17 points — speak louder than the speculation.

It’s not that LeBron quit, per se. But with the allure of creating a superteam in Miami with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh awaiting him, it was more a situation where once the adversity and challenge presented itself to James, he didn’t have quite his normal level of fight in him.

It’s happened once, and so it stands to reason that it could possibly happen again. And if it does, nobody should stand to benefit more than the Celtics.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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