It’s beginning to look like LeBron James will be playing in the NBA Finals for the fifth consecutive year.
Michael Jordan never did that. (Remember the baseball itch?)
As part of the Big 3 in Miami, LeBron was expected to get to the Finals each year and win. His 2-2 Finals record can be construed as nothing more than underachieving.
But, if he gets to the NBA Finals this season and wins with the mediocre Cavs around him, it’ll be one of the greatest achievements in modern NBA history. With Kyrie Irving hobbled, a team with Tristan Thompson, Timothy Mozgov, Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and Matthew Dellavedova playing heavy minutes just might win the title. Think about that. Not one of those players would crack the Bulls starting lineup.
Yet, LeBron has them in the thick of things. Just as he did in 2007 at age 22 with Žydrūnas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden, Sasha Pavlović and Larry Hughes. (By the way, Hughes made almost $8 million more than James did that year. Teach your kids to shoot.)
No star player in the last 30 years—except for Hakeem Olajuwon in 1994 and maybe Kobe Bryant—has won a title with so little help. MJ had Scottie Pippen. Magic had Kareem. Bird had McHale and Parish. D-Wade had Shaq. Shaq had Kobe. Garnett had Pierce and Allen. Nowitzki had Kidd. Duncan had Robinson, Tony Parker, Ginobili. (Olajuwon won his first Rockets championship with Otis Thorpe, Robert Horry, Vernon Maxwell and, apologies, Kenny Smith. In 2009 and 2010, Kobe had Pau Gasol, who continues to build a strong case for the Hall of Fame.) The Bad Boy Pistons and 2004 Pistons were great teams devoid of an alpha dog.
Jordan never got out of the first round before Pippen arrived, going 1-9 in the postseason his first three years.
It’s convenient and simple to elevate MJ over LBJ based on rings alone, but the race tightens if you examine James’ entire body of work in the playoffs.
At the most elemental level of analysis, a James-led team hasn’t lost before the NBA Finals since 2010. James has won five conference finals in six tries. And, most notably, he is arguably the best conference finals performer the league has seen since 1985 (the first year for which Basketball-Reference.com has complete playoff game logs and — coincidentally — Michael Jordan’s rookie season). James has been mostly stellar in every round of the playoffs, but in this particular stage, the only peer James has is Jordan himself.
Interestingly, when fivethirtyeight.com looked more closely at performances in conference finals, the only player who exceeds Jordan and James in a plus/minus metric is … Olajuwon, who, coincidentally, is the player Jordan and the Bulls never had to face during their six NBA title runs.
But beyond those two, few have any legitimate claim to the modern conference final crown. Only Hakeem Olajuwon, whose +10.4 leverage-weighted BPM was higher than either His Airness or The King, might have a serious case. Yet Olajuwon also played fewer than half as many minutes as Jordan in his conference finals career, a gap that widens still when leverage is accounted for.
James still has some work to do to get to the NBA Finals where his depleted Cavs are sure to be the underdogs. But if LeBron’s no-name team can overcome the odds and somehow win it all, he will add more fuel to the MJ vs. LBJ debate.