LeBron James 2-3 NBA Finals record is no big deal

LeBron James has won less than half of his appearances in the NBA Finals. Michael Jordan was 6-0 in the NBA Finals, with six MVPs. This is the story that pundits like ESPN First Take host, Skip Bayless, paint with regards to LeBron’s most recent failure in the Finals. In their eyes, LeBron’s team has not come out on top and he has not performed perfectly on the NBA’s biggest stage, his legacy as an all-time great is diminished.

While these numbers are factually correct, the picture it paints is far from complete. You might as well say Dwyane Wade had an awful, injury-laden career, based off the fact that his last two seasons were a struggle in terms of health.

Twelve players are on a team. Five players are on the floor. A general manager, head coach, and owner are all vital to an NBA team’s success. But the media, market, and fans hype up the individual superstars like Kevin Durant and LeBron James because they are the most entertaining and what ultimately bring sponsorships and revenue to the league.

If anything, these 2014 NBA champion, San Antonio Spurs, should have taught us that it’s the twelve players combined not solely the individual superstar that wins titles. The evidence is right in front of our faces. While some people may be crazy enough to argue Kawhi Leonard is a better player than LeBron because he had a better Finals series this year, here’s something that we can all agree on: if you were to pick one player out of the two 2014 NBA Finals rosters to build an organization around, that player would be LeBron James.

One player can win regular season games. One player wins a regular season MVP. It takes a team to win an NBA championship—something I emphasized in an old column discussing why rings don’t equate to greatness. Where this nuances is how far a great player can take you in the playoffs.

A great player should be able to carry a greater percentage of the load that it takes to win an NBA game, season, and championship. This is something that puts great players in more frequent contention for titles.

Mario Chalmers was doing a whole lot of nothing to help Miami win the 2014 NBA Finals.

My problem is this establishment of an arbitrary difference between losses in the preliminary rounds of the playoffs and the NBA Finals. A great player will be able to defeat teams with superior depth for so long in the playoffs. That ability to carry a team may last through the first or second rounds, or it may last until the Finals. In some cases, a great player may even defeat a superior team in the Finals—you could certainly make that argument for the 2013 NBA champion, Miami Heat.

LeBron lifting a relatively poor Heat team as far as he did is a testament to his ability. His engine carried the Heat to the Finals but the strategic bumps placed by Gregg Popovich stopped the LeBron train in its tracks. Even the inconsistent Pacers had a deeper team than the Heat, but LeBron was able to push through. Sure, the Eastern conference was horrendous compared to the West, but the Heat won the East. The hypotheticals of how the Heat would have fared in the Western conference playoff bracket are entertaining but ultimately irrelevant to this particular discussion.

Michael Jordan was not undefeated in the playoffs. His first six seasons he did not even make it to the NBA Finals. In his first three seasons, Jordan won a grand total of one playoff game. For comparison, LeBron took the Cavaliers to the Finals in his fourth season and won seven games in his third season. These numbers suggest not that LeBron is better than Jordan (or even that Jordan is better than LeBron). They show that great players are only able to do so much.

When discussing the NBA greats across and within generations, you cannot isolate a statistic like an individual’s record in the Finals and claim it alone differentiates two players. As I have done in my own analysis of the greatest NBA players of all time, there is too much more to consider. LeBron’s window to become the GOAT is slowly closing. But, if he gets to five or six championships and six or seven MVPs along with all the other accolades he has earned, maybe the LeBron vs. Jordan comparison becomes relevant again. Regardless, the fact that two of his three Finals losses were to superior teams should not detract from his legacy in any way.


  1. This actually is a fantastic article. I wrote an article like this on another site, but it was a bit broader in its reach. But i agree with most of what is written here. but can you tell me what you think of my article???


  2. I'M BACK!!! And ready to disagree.

    I'm sorry, but rings do matter in terms of greatness. There is a reason that nobody (including you) ever mentions Karl Malone on the list of top-10 all-time players, despite the fact that he is the second-highest scorer in NBA history, and one of the top all-time rebounders as well. It is because he never came through in the NBA finals, and never won even one championship ring. LeBron has now won two, but he has also lost out on two while having two all-star teammates, the greatest 3-point shooter ever, and other decent role players. I don't think Miami was a juggernaut this year, but to lose three straight games, including getting wiped out on your home court, is pathetic.

    Now, I'm not saying that this makes LeBron a choker, but to say it doesn't "at all" affect his legacy is bs. He let Kawhi Leonard go off on him three straight games. Kobe & Shaq lost to a better Pistons TEAM in 2004, and that is a stain on both of their legacies. Now that Tim Duncan won a 5th ring, many people are crowning him "the best player since MJ" when they weren't before, but if he had lost this series, what would people have said... "it doesn't affect his legacy, he's already written it"?! That's not fair. The way I see it, everything you do, every single year in the league, affects your legacy to some extent.

  3. Back from hiding out in the woodwork eh? Haha.

    So...you missed the point of my argument with your first comment. I have never, and will never, say that rings don't matter in terms of legacy. They absolutely do. Not only that but to think that Miami was even close to a juggernaut?? I don't want to spend too much time on this so I'll leave it at two points: 1) by virtually any statistical measurement, this Heat team was worse than the Cavs team LeBron was on when they lost in the Finals. That says it all. 2) You're quick to point out in every other mention of DWade how old/bad he is now, and all of a sudden he's an all-star teammate???

    You're point about him letting Kawhi go off is not right, either. LeBron spent a good portion of the Finals on Tony Parker, In those final three games, TP had a total of 8 assists combined and shot 19 of 43 from the field. Do you remember that one play he had where he straight up stripped Parker off a drive and made the ball bounce off TP for the Heat to gain possession? He played fairly solid defense.

    As someone who spends a good amount of time in NBA-land, I really do not see much talk of 04 as detracting from Kobe's legacy. If any. And if every single year matters then we should spend a lot more time on MJ and his 18 games played in 1986. The truth is that it's the whole picture that matters and not every minor detail.

    If you get the chance, Bill Simmons in The Book of Basketball has a discussion that is particularly relevant to this. Without getting into his reasoning too much, he says that the most valuable championship in terms of a player's legacy is not 1) earning your first title, or 2) defending your title, but rather 3) winning it after a disappointing playoff exit. He calls it "a great team with the eff-you edge." In order to win in that most impressive manner you have to lose. It's part of the game...what adds to great players is rebounding after disappointment. It would be incomplete and inaccurate to focus on the disappointment itself as an isolated season.

  4. The whole picture is that LeBron has now lost 3 NBA Finals. One was largely his fault (2011), one was against a laughably better team (2007), and this year was a mixture of both. It's easy now to say that San Antonio was just a better team than Miami all along, but there is a reason that ESPN analysts were torn between the two teams before the series began, and that SA was only a very slight favorite in the series. Miami was still a very good team. While many role players on the cHeat did not perform, I don't think that you can put ZERO blame on LeBron. He's the best player on his team, and too often in the series he became passive offensively, which allowed SA to make a run.

    Good call out on D-Wade, I take back calling him an "all star teammate". Ironically you were the one who says that he's still a baller. At this point he's a sixth man who will miss 20 games/year.

    We will analyze and analyze LeBron's legacy for years to come, and maybe over time this will just be a minor footnote. Time will tell though.

    You think he stays with the heat 100%?

  5. There's absolutely no way you're convincing me that this Finals was partially "largely his fault." Aside from the defense I mentioned that was definitely above average - and on good players, too - the dude put up 28-8-4 on 57-52-79 shooting!! I'm sorry but I am not blaming this one on him. 2011, sure, but not this one. It's a miracle he even had 4 assists with the bricks his teammates were throwing up.

    As for ESPN analysts, those guys love LeBron as much as I do. I should have heeded my own word in my pre-season article where I said we always say the Spurs are done and they prove they aren't. A friend of mine called Spurs in 5 but I don't know anyone else who saw this coming. As it is, even Magic was 5-4 in the Finals and Bird was 3-2 but have you ever heard about Magic's four losses in discussion of his greatness? I sure haven't.

    As for where LeBron ends up, I'm not sure. I can dream about a Curry/LeBron/Love tandem in Golden State but I think he ends up back in Miami - although I'm definitely not 100% sure on that.

  6. "Michael Jordan was not undefeated in the playoffs. His first six seasons he did not even make it to the NBA Finals. In his first three seasons"

    You do realize that Jordan had to go through the Celtics and the Pistons... Who does Lebron have to contend with? There were no Eastern Conference Dynasty teams. Only did the west possess a dynasty and Lebron lost to them.


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