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.Follow @ElijahAbramson