Athletes love to play the "nobody believed in us" card. Most of the time it couldn't be further from the truth. It's usually some team that, you know, pretty much everyone believed in. But whatever. It's understandable. When you're playing at the highest level, you have to create any edge you can find. When the Lakers recently clinched the Western Conference's No. 1 seed, however, LeBron James really went above and beyond with the imaginary bulletin-board material.
"They said I couldn't do it," James said, via the L.A. Times. "I'll enjoy this one. They said I can't do it."
LeBron is obviously referring to the chatter he's long heard about having played all but two seasons of his 17-year career in the weaker Eastern Conference. This much is true. It doesn't detract from LeBron's greatness in any way, it's just a fact. There is no chance he would've advanced to eight straight Finals through the West. His teams lost five of those series for crying out loud. It just would've happened a round earlier in the West. And this, of course, is to say nothing of the cumulative effect of tougher first- and second-round series in this conference.
That said, what is absolutely not true is this idea that people said LeBron couldn't succeed in the West. If someone said that, that person is a certified idiot. I mean I'm sure there were a few Twitter trolls piping off here and there, but not one single person with even half a basketball brain once uttered the words: "LeBron cannot lead the Lakers to the No. 1 seed in the West."
That never happened.
It's a figment of LeBron's imagination.
What a lot of people said -- and I was, and still am, one of them -- was that life in the West was going to be a lot harder for James. And it has been. For years LeBron was able to basically take the regular season off in the East, and even the first few rounds of the playoffs. If last season's Lakers team, prior to the Anthony Davis trade, was in the East, nobody would've bet against them making the Finals. It might not have happened. But nobody would've bet against it.
In the West, there was no chance. And LeBron knew there was no chance. That's why he wanted to -- and eventually succeeded in -- trade just about the entire long-term Lakers' future for Anthony Davis. He was hoping to get Kawhi Leonard, too. From the moment Davis joined the party, the Lakers haven't been talked about as anything other than a top-flight championship contender, if not the outright favorite.
Clinching the No. 1 seed? Even LeBron, no matter what he says, doesn't actually believe anyone doubted his ability to do that with Anthony Davis as a wingman. That doesn't mean everyone predicted it would happen. I picked the Nuggets in the preseason, and guessed the Lakers would be No. 2, but that was merely a function of my not knowing how seriously the Lakers would take the regular season. To their credit, and to LeBron's credit, they took it very seriously. They brought it just about every night. LeBron has a legit MVP case as such.
Either way, when people questioned whether LeBron could enjoy the same kind of dominance in the West, it had nothing to do with the regular season. It's always about the playoffs. That's where the West becomes a minefield through which LeBron has never had to walk.
Don't get that twisted. I'm not saying the Lakers can't come out of the West or that they won't eventually win it all. For the record, I believe they will do both. I believe LeBron James is still the best player in the world and probably the best ever, and if you give him Anthony Davis as a teammate, there's not a basketball game on the planet he can't win. I also believe there is a certain amount of insecurity in the knowledge that you have traveled an easier path, and LeBron knows he did that for years in the East.
This is why I will continue to scream from the rooftops that conferences need to be eliminated in the NBA. We all want the best players and best teams on an equal path, with equal opportunity for prime time matchups short of an NBA Finals. If you're really the best, prove it against the best, the whole way, not by taking a cab through the first 20 miles of the Boston Marathon and then hopping out to do battle for the last six.
The East-West imbalance has, to some degree, evened out this season, and even last season with the exception of the Warriors hovering over everyone. And yes, I'm aware the Celtics were a tough test at the end of the Garnett-Pierce-Allen run, as were the Pacers at the start of Paul George's rise or the Bulls with MVP Derrick Rose. But over the course of LeBron's career, neither the depth nor the top end of Eastern Conference competition has been anywhere close to the West. There's just no way to argue otherwise.
So, yeah, when LeBron came to the West, there was something for people to question again. But the second Davis came aboard, those questions went away. LeBron can tell himself otherwise, but they did. The Lakers clinching the No. 1 seed is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a surprise to anyone. Nobody got proved wrong. In fact, just about everyone got proved right. The Lakers are a two-headed monster. Just the way LeBron planned it.