Are Raptors the next regular-season juggernaut to be broken up by LeBron?

Eric Smith and Michael Grange speculate on what the next move will be for the Toronto Raptors.

The Toronto Raptors found themselves in familiar territory when they were swept in the second round by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Yes, it was the third consecutive season in which the Raptors were shown the door by James. But they also joined a long list of Eastern Conference teams who dominated the regular season only to encounter the greatest player of his era in the playoffs and have their season cut short as a result.

For the Raptors, the most recent sweep has brought the team’s future into question. Team president Masai Ujiri already answered one of those questions by firing Dwane Casey on Friday.

But more questions linger.

Can you win a title with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan as your go-to stars? Will change occur behind the bench? Do you explore the trade market to improve your chances of beating James next year, or hit “reset” and go in an entirely different direction?

Again, they are not alone.

For over a decade, these are the types of franchise-altering questions good teams have had to face in the wake of meeting James in the playoffs.

Five teams have built consistent winners with a seemingly clear path to title contention, only to be steamrolled by LeBron in the playoffs. In his 15 years in the NBA, he has had a greater impact on the landscape in the East than any other player, and it’s not even close.

Here’s a look at all of the Eastern Conference powerhouses James has owned in the post-season, and the changes they made to their rosters in the aftermath. What do the fates of those franchises tell us about Toronto’s outlook and potential plans this summer?

DETROIT PISTONS

The story: The mid-2000’s Pistons were one of the more improbable powerhouses in the NBA’s modern era.

A roster pieced together with reclamation projects (Rasheed Wallace), hidden gems (Ben Wallace) underdeveloped talents (Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton), perfectly fitting role players (Tayshaun Prince), and experienced veterans (Lindsey Hunter, Elden Campbell, Antonio McDyess and others), the Pistons were pillars atop the East, winning 50 games or more for seven straight seasons between 2002 and 2008.

They won a title in 2004, beating the star-studded Los Angeles Lakers, and returned to the NBA Finals the following year, losing in seven games to the San Antonio Spurs.

In 2006 the team encountered a 21 year-old LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the second round of the playoffs. It was James’s first post-season appearance, and on a roster devoid of talent, he pushed Detroit to seven games before losing.

The next year would be different.

Detroit and Cleveland battled it out again in 2007, this time in the Eastern Conference final, a series you can point to as James’s true breakout moment as an NBA superstar. Despite winning 53 games that season, the Pistons were powerless to stop LeBron. In Game 5, he erupted for 48 points in a double-overtime win. He scored the last 25 points for Cleveland, the signature moment of his career to that point coming at the 1:55 mark of the video below:

The Cavs won the following game, and took the series. The two teams met again in the playoffs in 2009 in the first round. The Pistons were swept in four games, behind 32 points per game from James.

The aftermath: By 2009, the writing was already on the wall for Detroit. They had traded Billups to Denver early in the season in exchange for Allen Iverson, an experiment that decidedly did not work out.

In the year that followed their playoff exit, the team let Wallace sign with Boston and, while staples like Hamilton and Wallace remained, the Pistons embraced the youth movement, handing out major minutes to the likes of Jonas Jerebko, Rodney Stuckey, Will Bynum, and Charlie Villanueva.

Prince and Wallace stayed on the team for three more seasons, but never managed to finish above .500 after striking out on a series of signings and draft picks.

After getting swept in 2009, it took Detroit seven years to return to the post-season when, in 2016, they were swept again … By the James and the Cavaliers.

CHICAGO BULLS

The story: If there was ever a team fit to compete for championships, it was the Derrick Rose-era Chicago Bulls. Anchored by a superstar, who was the youngest MVP in league history, and with a versatile, defensive-minded roster, Chicago was the East’s top seed between 2010 and 2012, topping 45 wins each season between 2010 and 2015.

But alas, the Bulls had the unfortunate luck of running into LeBron James during both his Cavaliers and Heat tenures.

In 2010, the Bulls lost in the first round to Cleveland with James averaging 32 points per game in the five-game series, shooting 56.7 per cent from the floor and 54 per cent from beyond the arc.

The following season James took his talents to South Beach. In Chicago, Rose won league MVP in just his third season and Tom Thibodeau took home Coach of the Year honours. After winning 62 games in the 2010-11 regular season, the Bulls made easy work of their opponents until the Eastern Conference final, when they were bounced after Game 5 by the new-look Heat.

A rematch two years later saw the same result, granted that season Rose blew out his knee and played only 10 games. He was back in action by the following post-season, with the same supporting cast of Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer, along with up-and-comer Jimmy Butler. It didn’t matter. In 2015 Chicago faced Cleveland, who again were led by James, and again dismantled the Bulls in the second round.

The aftermath: After the better part of six seasons lost at the hands of James, the Bulls attempted to rebuild on the fly. With Rose’s health limiting his ability to lead a team, Chicago built internally around Butler, acquiring veterans like Pau Gasol to help remain competitive. It worked – sort of – with a post-season appearance in 2017 to show for it.

But the Bulls were merely a consistent .500 team by then and, this past season, embraced a full-on rebuild. Chicago traded Butler for Zach LaVine while building around first-round pick Lauri Markkanen and prospects like Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis.

BOSTON CELTICS

The story: For years the Celtics were to James what the Pistons were to Michael Jordan. The veteran Boston squad led by the “Big Three” of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce knocked James out of the second round of the playoffs in both 2008 and 2010.

Boston would go on to reach the NBA Finals in each of those seasons, but once James formed his own “Big Three” in Miami, it marked the eventual end of that Celtics era.

Boston lost to the Heat in the playoffs in 2011 and 2012 in a gruelling seven-game Eastern Conference final during where James averaged 33.6 points and 11 rebounds in a whopping 45 minutes per game.

James’s Game 6 performance stands out. With his team facing elimination down 3-2, he erupted for 45 points and 15 boards.

The aftermath: With an aging roster, Boston’s window was effectively shut. The next season, they made the playoffs but lost to the New York Knicks in the first round.

The Celtics responded by orchestrating a massive deal with the Brooklyn Nets that sent their veteran core of Pierce and Garnett away in exchange for a haul of draft picks.

The team found a diamond in the rough when they acquired Isaiah Thomas, who flourished in Boston and kept the Celtics in the playoffs.

All the while, Boston used those picks – as well as their own and others acquired via different deals – and drafted extremely well. Terry Rozier, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart — key pieces of the current Celtics — were all original selections in the draft.

Combined with cap space that acquired the likes of Al Horford and Gordon Hayward, those picks helped establishing a core that is flourishing today and about to square off with James once again in the conference final.

INDIANA PACERS

The story: The Pacers were James’s biggest Eastern Conference foe during his Miami Heat tenure.

Indiana had built a strong team with a defensive identity around the likes of Paul George, Roy Hibbert, George Hill and David West. They were consistent winners between 2011 and 2014, including a 56-win season back in the 2013-14 to wrap up the top seed in the East.

But the team had already been wiped out by James and the Heat for two straight seasons by then. In 2012, the Pacers were bounced in the second round and in 2013, the two teams went to battle in a seven-game conference final series. Despite their success in 2014, the Pacers again encountered LeBron at the same stage, this time losing in six games.

The aftermath: The following summer, George broke his leg and the Pacers missed the playoffs. When he returned to full health the next season, the Pacers returned to the post-season. Still built around George, they were eliminated in the first round for two straight seasons, prompting them to finally make a change and deal their all-star forward to the Oklahoma City Thunder last summer. At the time, the trade for Victor Oladipo and Damantis Sabonis was trashed — the Pacers had dealt a star for a role player. But Oladipo surprised everybody, making his first All-Star team and became the front-runner for the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award.

In the span of one year, thanks to one trade, the Pacers had a new identity built around a new star.

ATLANTA HAWKS

The story: Perhaps the team that most resembles the Raptors in terms of build and situation, the Hawks first ran into LeBron James in 2009, getting swept in the second round.

Six years later, after a string of first-round playoff exits, Atlanta won 60 games in the regular season, earning the East’s top seed. Like Toronto, Atlanta’s strength was their depth, and although they had all-star talent (four all-stars that season in a weaker conference), the Hawks lacked a true superstar.

Their core of Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver, and Jeff Teague was enough to dominate the regular season, and their head coach, Mike Budenholzer, won Coach of the Year. But once the second round of the 2015 playoffs rolled around, the Hawks were swept by James and the Cavaliers. The following year? They were swept again, this time in the second round.

Sound familiar?

The aftermath: Having already lost Horford to free agency following the last sweep at the hands of the Cavaliers, Atlanta still managed to make the playoffs in 2017, but were knocked out in the first round by the Washington Wizards.

That cued a complete rebuild. The Hawks let Millsap walk in free agency and are currently mining for high-potential prospects in the NBA draft, where they are projected to draft fourth overall.

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