LeBron James is 2-4 in the NBA Finals.
Don’t worry, this isn’t a hot take about why we’re all overrating LeBron. I’m not revealing myself as some LeBron truther who’s here to tell you that everything you think about the King is wrong and that we shouldn’t lump him in with Michael Jordan and the legends of NBA lore.
Without getting into an argument about where exactly LeBron falls in the all-time pecking order, it’s safe to say he’s one of the four best non-centers ever, along with Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, probably. You can argue he’s the best in that group, but it would be hard to argue someone else in there over him.
Regarding his 2-4 record in the Finals, that shouldn’t define his legacy. The Bills lost four Super Bowls in a row, but how far down the list of top 10 quarterbacks ever would you have to go before you get to Jim Kelly? With all those division titles in the 1990s, will Greg Maddux be remembered as a loser despite reaching 355 wins?
If LeBron played in the Western Conference, he probably wouldn’t have made it out of a competitive West six times, but he probably would have a better winning percentage in the Finals he did make. Does he get the same flak if he’s 2-1 in the Finals, even if it means he got knocked out of a few Western Conference Finals series?
It’s not as if he played poorly in the Finals every time that he lost. As everyone saw against Golden State, the great team is going to have the edge over the great individual more times than not, and LeBron met up with some great Spurs teams in 2007 and 2014. Playing the Mavericks in 2011 was a slightly different story, with Dirk Nowitzki putting his cape on, in what LeBron would likely admit wasn’t his best effort.
Basketball is a team game, and when we look at LeBron’s four Finals losses, we see that he didn’t get much help in several of these series. He wasn’t perfect either, but it’s hard to win a championship when multiple players don’t make major contributions.
The first trip against the Spurs was the biggest mismatch. LeBron dragged that Cleveland team to the Finals, where he found a Spurs team hitting on all cylinders. In the four-game sweep, he played less than 33 minutes per game. For reference, that’s a full quarter of basketball less than he played this past series against the Warriors. This first Finals certainly wasn’t his most efficient series, but his raw totals would jump off the page if it was competitive enough of a series to warrant him playing 40+ minutes a night to keep his team in it.
In that series, Drew Gooden was the Cavaliers’ second-leading scorer with 12.8 points per game. For the season, that honor went to Larry Hughes, which wasn’t much better. Hughes however wound up getting injured in Game 2, scoring just two points across 44 minutes of limited action. Boobie Gibson, Damon Jones and Sasha Pavlovic all played major roles for the Cavaliers that season, right as the Big Three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were at the peak of their powers together.
This is the one that sticks in people’s minds the most when they think of LeBron the Loser. Between the hype of the new Big Three in Miami, the hilarity of this video, the stars making fun of Dirk’s sickness and general hate for the way LeBron left Cleveland, many will remember this loss more than any.
After the Heat came out strong and Dwyane Wade thought they had the series in the bag, the Mavericks fired back with an onslaught of clever defenses and Dirk heat checks to win the series 4-2. Wade, the golden boy in Miami at the time, delivered as expected, averaging 26.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 5.2 assists. He even added 1.5 blocks and 1.5 steals a game for good measure, while shooting a hyper-efficient 55 percent from the field.
James came up small in general, but compared to Wade, he had Heat fans wondering what they had signed up for. Even the much-maligned Chris Bosh managed to outscore and outrebound his superstar teammate.
The biggest sticking point was that the Mavericks were not considered a powerhouse team. The Heat were the preordained champions, and the Mavericks were this out-of-nowhere underdog story, a team of role players built on the back of a once-in-a-generation star. The perception is that Dirk carried the inferior team to victory just as LeBron was playing his worst basketball.
Two championships later and the Heat were flying high. As great as LeBron was the past two weeks, posting the numbers he did in 2014 with that ridiculous efficiency along with a high volume stands out among his Finals losses.
Unfortunately, his three Hall of Fame teammates–Wade, Bosh and Ray Allen–mustered up a combined 40 points per game en route to what’s remembered as an easy win for the Spurs. Wade breaking down was the biggest factor here. While the combination of him, Bosh and Allen only accounted for those 40 points per game, most remember Wade putting up nearly 35 a game during a Finals victory in the pre-Lebron era.
You could say LeBron and the Heat could’ve gone up 2-0 in the series if not for AC-Gate, but I’m not going to argue a five-game series with a 14-point average margin of victory was tightly contested. The Spurs had five players average double figures and got major contributions deep off their bench. Games 3 through 5 were all no contests, despite LeBron’s best efforts.
That brings us to this year. That brings us to Matthew Dellavedova, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and a completely overmatched Cavaliers team. Shumpert shot 11 percent from within five feet of the basket, and despite his reputation as a defensive stopper, was caught ball-watching when the Warriors hit their stride after Game 2. Smith, who if not for his late Game 6 barrage, would be most remembered for almost wiping out on his hands-free segway during an NBA Finals when the Cavs had only seven able-bodied players available. Dellavedova, the runt of the litter, the little engine that could until he couldn’t, got torn to shreds by Curry on the perimeter after his initial feistiness in the series wore out its welcome.
Those three players were a combined 0-18 shooting the ball with LeBron on the bench, and adding James Jones in the mix, the non-big Cavaliers were 0-21 shooting without James, according to Tom Haberstroh of ESPN. ESPN Stats & Info points to LeBron as having the most points per game scored and assisted on in NBA Finals history, passing Jordan in the process. The on/off numbers were just staggering. His historic performance was wasted on this Cavs roster.
Yet, when people think of how brilliant he was in the 2013 Finals, everyone will qualify it with “what if Ray doesn’t make that shot?” I barely remember the 2012 Finals they were over so quickly–ironically, my most vivid memory from that year is actually Russell Westbrook barreling down the middle of the lane, desperate to keep the Thunder in Game 2.
The Bills will always be known as the biggest loser in Super Bowl history, despite winning more AFC Championship games than all but two teams from that conference. The Braves won 14 division titles between 1991 and 2004, but with only one World Series win, their era of dominance is often overlooked.
Who knows how many of these historic runs the King has left? Fair or not–read, DEFINITELY NOT, but you know, to each his own– LeBron is making a case to put himself in the running to be called the best player in NBA history, and the first thing his detractors will point to is his 2-4 record in the Finals.