LeBron James toppled Goliath.
Of the 17 teams to win 80% of their regular-season games, none had ever lost in the Finals. Five lost before the Finals, evidence that regular-season success doesn’t always translate to the playoffs. But if they were still rolling in the playoffs to the point they reached the Finals, they were unbeatable, a perfect 11-0 in the championship round.
The degree of difficulty here was sky high, though that’s nothing new for LeBron.
LeBron’s average Finals opponent in seven trips has won 75.5% of its games, the highest mark among anyone who has made at least six Finals.
LeBron has beaten the 2012 Thunder (47-19), 2013 Spurs (58-24) and 2016 Warriors (73-9). He has also lost to the 2007 Spurs (58-24), 2011 Mavericks (57-25), 2014 Spurs (62-20) and 2015 Warriors (67-15).
Of course, regular-season record isn’t a perfect representation of team quality. Injuries, trades and development can change a team’s ability to win in the Finals from the regular season. But, if anything, these factors probably undersell LeBron’s level of competition. LeBron thrice faced San Antonio, a team notorious for resting during the regular season to save its energy for the playoffs. Plus, these teams had to win the Western Conference – the far better conference during LeBron’s career – just to reach the Finals.
The only player with even five Finals appearances who has faced tougher competition is James Jones, who road LeBron’s coattails to all five of his Finals. Jones just missed average-lowering matchups with the 2007 Spurs and 2011 Mavericks. His Finals opponent averaged winning 77.7% of its games.
Lower the threshold to four Finals, and just two players top LeBron: Bob McAdoo and Mike McGee, whose average Finals opponent won 75.6% of its games. McAdoo and McGee reached four straight Finals with the Lakers beginning in 1982 – beating the 76ers (58-24), losing to the 76ers (65-17) and Celtics (62-20), then beating the Celtics (63-19). But McAdoo was on the edge of playing starter’s minutes, and McGee didn’t crack the rotation.
Compare LeBron to a loose definition of his peers: players with at least five Finals appearances and one career All-Star selection in their careers. Here’s every qualifier sorted by average winning percentage of Finals opponent with the the player’s Finals record in parentheses:
Suddenly, LeBron’s 3-4 Finals record looks more excusable. None of the players with shinier Finals records whom LeBron is often compared to had to face such strong competition.
But Michael Jordan came close.
He went 6-0 in the Finals, beating:
- 1991 Lakers (58-24)
- 1992 Trail Blazers (57-25)
- 1993 Suns (62-20)
- 1996 SuperSonics (64-18)
- 1997 Jazz (64-18)
- 1998 Jazz (62-20)
Those teams won 74.6% of their games – not far behind LeBron’s average Finals opponent (75.5%). Considering his far-superior Finals record, Jordan clearly outdoes LeBron in the last round.
Still, it’s worth noting Jordan never beat anyone as good as Golden State. Not only did the Warriors have an incredible record, they were were defending champions.
Maybe it’s only because they had to face Jordan, but five Jordan’s six Finals opponents never won a title with the core that lost to the Bulls. The other, the Lakers, had steeply declined by the time it faced Chicago. Jordan never had to face the Rockets, the team that ascended to the top while he retired between three-peats.
All of LeBron’s opponents but the Thunder – Spurs, Mavericks and Warriors – won championships. They proved they had the mettle to compete deep into June.
But that’s just a comparison to Jordan, the greatest player of all time. LeBron holds up even better against other legends.
While LeBron’s Finals opponents were on a 62-win pace in an 82-game season, Kobe Bryant (5-2 Finals record) faced Finals opponents averaging 56 wins. Tim Duncan (5-1 Finals record) saw Finals opponents averaging a 53-win pace. The Finals opponents of Bill Russell (11-1 Finals record) were on a 49-win pace.
No, LeBron still doesn’t have a winning Finals record. But put other stars in the matchups he has faced. How many go even 3-4? How many beat these Warriors?
If we’re grading everyone on a curve for competition, LeBron rates incredibly well.