LeBron James

LeBron James may not take home his fifth MVP trophy, but the star is still the most important player on the planet.

A gray-haired maestro sits stoic on the sideline. Three Hall of Famers’ bones ache and creak while roaming around the court, each step a precious, calculated output of energy. The latter days of spring have arrived, reminding us of a mantra that has been a product of 17 years of dominance: Do not bet against the San Antonio Spurs.

Gregg Popovich & Co. resurrected this belief once more during the past six months, ensuring nobody mistakes an old group of veterans for a team that is over the hill. Just one broken play away from back-to-back championships, the Spurs’ process has appeared better than ever since the turn of the decade.

Across conferences, a 6’8” savant’s agenda is coming to fruition behind a beaming smile. Overcoming speculation, LeBron James continues to finesse, overpower and do everything in between to his opposition. In doing so, the best player in basketball has guided a first-year core toward becoming the odds-on favorite to reach the NBA Finals.

An unstoppable force and an immovable object, this pair of figures combined for eight championship appearances and four titles in the last eight seasons. Two obvious mantras lay dormant as the league attempts to build on one of the most exciting playoffs in recent memory: Never bet against the Spurs. Never doubt the playoff resilience of James.

The 2014-2015 campaign is doing its best to render these assertations irrelevant.

The gantlet

San Antonio enters the playoffs without first round home-court advantage for just the second time since 1999. Flying around like an errant super ball in a spacious Toys R Us, the No. 3 Los Angeles Clippers are the first threat to the Spurs’ dominance. A difficult task lies ahead for those refusing to doubt San Antonio’s ability to nab a third consecutive Finals appearance.

Lying dormant is what the Spurs do best, but the arms of Popovich’s postseason prowess can only reach so far. Particularly when Oracle Arena, home of the 67-win Golden State Warriors, has been rocking so loud that there are allegations the noise level should be illegal.

MVP-candidate Stephen Curry and the Warriors will pose a threat if and only if the Spurs are able to get out of the terror-zone that is the bottom half of the Western Conference playoff bracket. Houston, Dallas and Los Angeles, the three teams that accompany San Antonio, won a combined 162 games this season. Average that out and the result, 54 wins, would be good enough for the No. 2 seed out East.

Who’s got it better than Cleveland?

Swapping coasts, James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love take to Boston with a 2-0 series lead. The four-time MVP has never lost a first-round matchup. Looking deeper into the Eastern Conference, the Cavaliers have worries in their own right. Despite the first-round success, Chicago and Atlanta potentially loom.

Head coach Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls historically give James fits on the offensive end. On the opposing side of the floor, Derrick Rose’s extended absences allowed swingman Jimmy Butler’s scoring ability to evolve and flourish. The addition of Pau Gasol to match with Joakim Noah in the frontcourt allows for even greater depth in Chicago, as Nikolas Mirotic, Taj Gibson and Aaron Brooks all finished in the top-11 in Sixth Man of the Year voting.

The Atlanta Hawks, led by Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer, quietly strung together the most wins in franchise history (60). The slightly undersized Hawks use their speed to relentlessly fly around the court on the defensive end, while six players average between 10 and 17 points in a balanced offensive attack. Of course, it helps that Budenholzer spent 18 years under Popovich before kicking off the new system in Atlanta last season.

Engineered giant killers

Teams surrounding James and Popovich are designed to dethrone the dynamic duo. The minefield out West has it all: the offensive juggernaut in Los Angeles, a true inside-out presence in Houston and just about everything amazing about basketball in the Bay Area. While the Spurs have proved to be unbelievably adaptive over their period of dominance, the reward for outplaying Los Angeles and the second-round Texan opponent will be a conference finals matchup with the best team in basketball. This is San Antonio’s toughest task yet.

Out east, each potential Cavaliers opponent has at least two wing or post defenders capable of denying the best player in basketball. That is just the reason why single-star teams do not succeed in June. As a whole, the Cavaliers’ offensive output is simply too much to handle for any team in the talent-deprived conference.

An unstoppable force and an immovable object. One of the two has held the world championship the last three seasons, while both are nearly a decade into shared dominance. One reign faces overwhelming opposition in the West, though there remains an underlying motto that isn’t going away anytime soon: Never bet against LeBron James.

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