LeBron James has made it to the NBA Finals the last seven straight seasons. Teams in the Eastern Conference have attempted to topple James from the mountain top for years, but most haven’t even come close. Some would say LeBron’s Cavs are at their most vulnerable this season, but every Eastern team that’s tried to dethrone the King has ultimately been disbanded.
The latest contender to LeBron’s Eastern crown is the Toronto Raptors. Toronto played the Cavaliers this week, but despite scoring 79 points in the first half, still lost to LeBron’s team. James was masterful in the win, notching 35 points, 17 assists and 0 turnovers. The Raptors have the 1-seed all but wrapped up this season, but that hasn’t mattered to LeBron in the past. James’s teams have been the 1-seed only twice in recent years.
There have been only three teams LeBron has never defeated in the playoffs: the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Miami Heat, and the Orlando Magic. Here’s a look at the Top-10 challengers ultimately disbanded by LeBron James over the years.
No. 10 – 2006-2008 Washington Wizards
The Washington Wizards believed they should have, or at least could have, defeated LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers during this run. Led by Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antwan Jamison, these Wizards were a brash and physical group. But they were never able to knock LeBron from the mountaintop, despite his subpar Cleveland teams. After a third straight first round defeat, the Wizards fired coach Eddie Jordan. Butler and Jamison would be traded within two seasons, and Arenas never fully recovered from a series of injuries. Washington would bottom out soon thereafter, eventually landing John Wall in the NBA Draft as a cornerstone to rebuild.
No. 9 – 2010 Cleveland Cavaliers
LeBron James’s first run in Cleveland came to an end in the summer of 2010 when he decided to take his talents to South Beach. This seismic move reshaped the Eastern Conference for four years. James and the Cavaliers were a staple in the East playoffs, but his second-round defeat at the hands of the Boston Celtics in 2010 signaled his exit. James left a flawed roster behind. The second-best player on the 2010 Cavaliers was Mo Williams. The trotted out a nearly 40-year-old Shaquille O’Neal and a number of useless veterans. James abandoned his hometown for the Big 3 in Miami. Cleveland would suffer over the next four seasons, averaging only 24 wins a year in LeBron’s absence.
No. 8 – 2014 Brooklyn Nets
LeBron James was coming off two consecutive championships when the Brooklyn Nets mortgaged their future for a chance to dethrone the King. In what is now largely considered one of the worst trades in league history, the Nets sent three first round picks to Boston for past-their-prime stars Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry. The Nets hired newly retired Jason Kidd as their coach, and they boasted the largest payroll in the league. After sweeping the Miami Heat in the regular season, Brooklyn had their chance to beat LeBron in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Heat would win the series easily, however, 4-1. After the season, Garnett would be traded to Minnesota and Pierce would sign in Washington. Jason Kidd was traded as a coach to the Milwaukee Bucks. By the 2015 season, the Nets would be in full rebuild mode.
No. 7 – 2014-2016 Atlanta Hawks
This Atlanta Hawks squad was known as Spurs-East for a time. The 2014-15 Hawks finished with a franchise-record 60 wins and the 1-seed in the East, despite not having a superstar. The core of Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver, coupled with longtime Gregg Popovich assistant Mike Budenholzer as head coach, climbed to the summit of the East, only to find themselves knocked off by LeBron James in consecutive seasons. James and his Cavaliers swept the Hawks in both the 2015 Conference Finals and the 2016 Semifinals. Within two seasons, the superstar-less core would be disbanded via trades and free agency. The Hawks are now among the worst teams in the NBA.
No. 6 – 2010-2015 Chicago Bulls
Most pundits early this decade pegged this iteration of the Bulls to be the team that knocked LeBron from his perch atop the Eastern Conference. Chicago’s squad featured MVP Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and a young Jimmy Butler. They would face LeBron four times in the playoffs over six years, and lose every time. Despite having home-court advantage and the 1-seed in 2011, the Bulls fell to LeBron and the Miami Heat 4-1. After losing to LeBron’s Cavs in 2015, Chicago fired longtime coach Tom Thibodeau. The Rose-Butler-Deng-Noah-Boozer core (as well as Taj Gibson) would be broken up over the course of the next several seasons. Chicago has been rebuilding ever since.
No. 5 – 2011-2014 Indiana Pacers
Of all the teams LeBron faced in his current run as King of the East, arguably none came closer to stealing the crown than the Indiana Pacers. Led by Paul George, Roy Hibbert, David West and Lance Stephenson, the Pacers would push LeBron’s Miami Heat to the edge in three straight seasons. But LeBron would ultimately get the better of them each time. The Pacers held a 2-1 series lead in 2012, and pushed the Heat to seven games in 2013, but could never break through. The physical Pacers could never manage enough offense, and the stellar core would eventually be disbanded. The Pacers saw Stephenson sign with Charlotte in 2014, then allowed West to leave in free agency and traded Hibbert in 2015. The team wouldn’t renew head coach Frank Vogel’s contract after the 2015-16 season. And ultimately traded away Paul George in 2017.
No. 4 – 2007 Detroit Pistons
Much like Michael Jordan a generation before, LeBron would need to get over the Detroit Pistons hurdle before taking control of the East. The Pistons won the NBA Championship in 2004, and controlled the East for the next several seasons. They made it to the Finals in 2005 (losing to the Spurs) and lost to the Miami Heat in the 2006 East Finals. In 2007, they lost to LeBron’s Cavaliers team 4-2. LeBron’s dominant performance in Game 5 of that series, where he scored 29 of Cleveland’s final 30 points, remains one of James’s signature performances. This series win marked James’s first Eastern Conference Championship. After that series, the Pistons’ core of Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace would finally be disbanded.
No. 3 – 2010-2012 Boston Celtics
Although the Pierce-Garnett-Allen-Rondo Celtics defeated LeBron in the 2008 and 2010 playoffs, back-to-back playoff defeats at the hands of LeBron’s Miami Heat teams would ultimately end Boston’s Big-4 era. In 2011, LeBron’s Big-3 Heat defeated the Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals in five games. In 2012, though, it looked as if the Celtics would again deny LeBron his NBA Title when they took a 3-2 series lead in the Eastern Conference Finals. But in what is arguably his greatest post-season performance, James staved off elimination with a 45-point, 15-rebound effort to overwhelm the Celtics in Boston. That offseason, Ray Allen would sign with the Heat. In 2013, Pierce and Garnett would be traded to Brooklyn, and head coach Doc Rivers would leave to coach the Los Angeles Clippers.
No. 2 – The Big-3 era Miami Heat
The Big-3 era in Miami started with a pep rally where LeBron famously promised “not five, not 6, not 7” championships. LeBon would led the Heat to four straight NBA Finals and a pair of NBA titles. Miami inexplicably collapsed in the 2011 Finals against the Dallas Mavericks, but the 2014 Finals against the Spurs exposed the Heat’s roster as being too old. By the end of his run in Miami, the Heat relied too heavily on LeBron. Dwyane Wade missed a number of games due to injury, and veterans like Shane Battier and Udonis Haslem could no longer provide the support the King needed. When LeBron chose to return to Cleveland in 2014, the Heat scrambled to fill out the roster. Chris Bosh’s NBA career would be cut short in the intervening years due to blood clots. Wade would sign a free agent deal with the Chicago Bulls, then eventually rejoin James, this time in Cleveland. Wade had since returned to the Heat.
No. 1 – The 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder
In retrospect, the 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder might be the most talented NBA team to not win a title. The Thunder made it to the Finals in 2012 with a roster that included Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka. Oklahoma City featured a home-grown Big-3, having drafted their potent trio. Heading into the Finals with home-court advantage, the Thunder took a 1-0 lead over LeBron and the Heat. But they wouldn’t win another game. Miami rolled the Thunder 4-1 for LeBron’s first NBA championship. In a surprise move, the Thunder would trade James Harden in the offseason to the Houston Rockets. Then, in 2016, Oklahoma City would watch Kevin Durant sign with the Golden State Warriors in free agency.