LeBron James celebrates his dunk in the third quarter against the Celtics during Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals at TD Garden on May 25, 2017, in Boston. (Elsa / Getty Images)
As the car carrying the Bulls contingent traveled to the Cleveland airport on July 3, 2010, cautious optimism hung in the air.
Jerry Reinsdorf, John Paxson, Gar Forman and Tom Thibodeau had just spent three hours at a downtown Cleveland office building, pitching LeBron James and his representatives on why choosing the Bulls in free agency would lead to a reprise of the Michael Jordan-led dynasty and multiple trips to the NBA Finals.
That happened. It just didn’t happen with the Bulls.
On Thursday, James will lead the Cavaliers into a third straight showdown against the Warriors in the NBA Finals. It’s James’ seventh straight Finals appearance since he listened to Reinsdorf pitch global business and marketing opportunities, pairing the Bulls’ and James’ brands, while he connected with Thibodeau on many aspects of basketball philosophy.
To this day, plenty of skepticism exists throughout the league that James and Dwyane Wade, who had taken two meetings with Bulls brass over the previous two days, entertained the Bulls seriously.
But in October, Wade confirmed what the Tribune and another media outlet reported at the time: that the Bulls were a Luol Deng trade to the Clippers away from possibly landing the same Big Three — James, Wade and Chris Bosh — that took the Heat to four straight NBA Finals.
"I know LeBron’s eyes were here," Wade said in October. "I know my eyes were here."
Photos of Dwyane Wade, who signed with the Bulls after a 13-year run with the Heat.
Consolation prizes have become the norm in the Eastern Conference. And it’s not like the Bulls didn’t know what was coming in 2010 when they traded Kirk Hinrich to the Wizards for basically nothing but salary-cap space to try to land James and Wade. The Deng deal with the Clippers would have created the space to add Bosh.
James’ teams have ended three Bulls seasons since that free-agent pitch — as well as the one just before it in 2010. That includes 2011, the Bulls’ lone conference finals appearance since the Jordan era ended, back when Derrick Rose’s knees hadn’t betrayed him and the future looked bright.
James’ hold on the Eastern Conference continues to have ripple effects beyond the fact Wade wouldn’t currently be a Bull if James hadn’t left the Heat in 2014 to go back to Cleveland.
Consider this: The Celtics and Bulls held serious trade talks in June centered on Jimmy Butler, an attractive piece in part for his experience guarding James. Now the Celtics are widely expected to use the No. 1 pick they won in this month’s draft lottery on Washington guard Markelle Fultz, a building block for the future.
Similarly, if Wade exercises his $23.8 million option to play a second season in Chicago and the Bulls pick up Rajon Rondo’s option to reprise the "Three Alphas" with Butler, the moves will be viewed as a precursor to a largely treading-water season. After all, the Bulls were 41-41 this season and edged into the postseason as the eighth seed.
The Bulls banking on developing their young core of players and preserving salary-cap flexibility for a possible big splash in 2018, when the contracts of Wade and Rondo would come off the books, can be read as a nod to James’ dominance. Teams have to start planning for the post-LeBron era, much like strong Eastern Conference teams in the ’90s planned to pounce past the post-Jordan Bulls.
Just as Jordan foiled so many strong teams during the dynasty years — the Lenny Wilkens-coached Cavaliers, the Jerry Sloan-coached Jazz — James is doing the same now.
Photos of the Bulls legend and NBA Hall of Famer through the years.
It was nice of James and the Cavaliers not even to pretend to care about the No. 1 seed as the regular season wound down. That saved the Bulls from another James-fueled elimination and pushed them into a matchup with the Celtics.
The signature moment from the James-Bulls connections has to be his game-winner over Butler in Game 4 of the 2015 Eastern Conference semifinals. Playing without the injured Pau Gasol, the Bulls had a chance to take a 3-1 lead at home against a Cavaliers team with a hobbled Kyrie Irving.
Instead, James buried a 21-footer with 0.1 seconds left over a strong contest by Butler directly in front of the Bulls bench. Two games later, the series ended. Eighteen days later, the Bulls fired Thibodeau.
"He made a great play," Thibodeau said that night of James’ game-winner. "That’s what great players do."
Eras come and go in sports, and James’ hold on the Eastern Conference ultimately will loosen. The Bulls benefited from employing the game’s best player for so long that it feels painfully poetic they’re on the short end now.
Close to seven years have passed since the Bulls had their audience with James in that Cleveland office building, a meeting that excited the organization, flush with possibilities for the future. Instead, James chose the Heat, and at 32 and having moved back to the Cavaliers, he continues to own the present, with no signs of slowing in the near future.
His 2017 postseason averages of 32.5 points on 56.6 percent shooting, eight rebounds and seven assists in 40.9 minutes are enough to give any organization pause. It’s King James’ world in the Eastern Conference, and everyone else is looking up at the throne.