LeBron James gets to the NBA Finals every year, masking the East's mediocrity.
Lately, he's been the underdog and the finals' outcome has been predictable.
That doesn't seem like the best thing for a championship series, though James representing the East is a better finals option for the NBA than a Kyrie Irving-less Celtics squad or the uninspiring Raptors.
James provides the star power to drive TV ratings. So the NBA hasn't needed the best teams in the finals; it has had the best player.
"The real answer is it's better to have both," said Scott Rosner, the academic director of the sports management program at Columbia University. "The NBA, if you step back from it, has been very much on an upward trend, you can argue more than any of the other big four sports leagues. There's a lot of different reasons for that, but clearly it's a star-driven league."
For eight years running James has provided the glimmer of hope that the JV against the varsity really can be competitive. He can almost single-handedly create compelling basketball. Still, he's on the verge of losing in the NBA Finals without winning more than a game for the fourth time. Nonetheless, fans are still watching in huge numbers.
It's been a nice run, but the NBA probably needs to think about getting the best teams in the finals when James isn't.
He could leave Cleveland as a free agent this summer, maybe even head West. And once he's done slipping on his Eastern Conference champion hat every spring, the problem that's been concealed by his immense talent comes into full view.
The Larry O'Brien Trophy won't be awarded before Friday night in Cleveland, or maybe sometime next week back in California. But the NBA championship was essentially decided on Memorial Day in Houston, when the Warriors rallied to take Game 7 from a Rockets team that was the only one with a realistic chance to beat them, and would likely be beating Cleveland now.
"To me, Houston wasn't just one half away from advancing to the finals. They were one half away from winning a championship," ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy said.
That's why Van Gundy advocates a playoff format where the top 16 teams were seeded by their records. That would allow any two teams to meet in the final round, rather than the current system that mandates East against West.
"Listen, I'm for the best teams meeting in the finals," Van Gundy said. "I'd be fine if they played the conferences for travel purposes through the year to minimize how many times you'd have to go cross-country. But I've always been for the top 16 records should be in the playoffs, and I would be absolutely fine if you then seeded 1 through 16, regardless of what conference you played in during the regular season."
Commissioner Adam Silver continues to say concerns about too much travel make that change impossible for now. James has said he prefers the traditional East-West format, and it's hard to blame him since it's helped provide him such a smooth path to the finals. Even in a season like this, when he doesn't have the strongest of teams around him — and one of the worst in the league defensively — he can carry them through seven-game series in the East.
Silver said he looked it up and found that James has had 59 different teammates during his run, so it's not as if his teams need continuity and cohesiveness. All it's taken to play for the title the last eight years is James.
"My point before, if you have LeBron James playing with 59 different players over eight years, it means that presumably the team LeBron is on is going to be a dominant team," Silver said. "Whether they get to the finals every year is a separate issue."
They almost certainly wouldn't have won more than one round this season, where as the sixth-winningest team in the league they would have been slotted to meet the third-seeded Warriors in round two in a 1-16 format.
That could create must-see matchups in every round of the nearly two-month march to the championship, but it comes with risk to the league.
Having James home in mid-May would be disastrous from a business standpoint. His mesmerizing performances against the Celtics, when he played all 48 minutes in a Game 7 victory in Boston, catapulted ESPN to the most-watched Eastern Conference finals since 2012. And questions about his future dominate the sports headlines as long as the Cavs are playing.
If the East loses its most imposing player and most important personality, the league and its marketing partners would be left to sell an NBA Finals matchup lacking its marquee product.
"It is certainly a situation where all things being equal you'd rather have your best teams with your best players in it, your superstar players in it," Rosner said. "That said, given your druthers would really prefer to have a competitive series."
There are only a handful of teams considered legitimate championship contenders. The number could grow even smaller this summer after James makes his future plans.
"Can our system be improved upon?" Silver said. "I think it can. I think it's something we're constantly looking at."
Better hurry. James won't be around forever.