This week, former Pistons center Bill Laimbeer said on ESPN’s First Take of Lebron James: “I firmly believe he’s the best basketball player in the history of the game,” helping reignite the 1,540th media debate of whether James or Michael Jordan is the greatest NBA player of all time (while always excluding Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar from the debate).
Laimbeer is a former Jordan nemesis, so it’s highly convenient to trash his opinion. And while people can shoot-the-messenger all they want, Laimbeer is still right. But that’s a longer discussion. Laimbeer also said this: “Now, if you go by championships, obviously Michael Jordan has more championships. But I think LeBron, in any generation, would be doing what he’s doing right now all these years.”
MJ-over-LeBron supporters couldn’t disagree more.
This sentiment is most embodied in Lebron-Hater-In-Chief Skip Bayless, who said this earlier this week: “When it’s time to win basketball games, LeBron’s lost 6 Finals and Jordan went 6-0. That pretty much sums it up for me.”
Case closed. No further questions, your honor.
On this point, nearly every MJ-over-LeBron supporter is like Bayless: They measure greatness in championships, even if their broken measuring tape conveniently omits Celtics legend Bill Russell and his 11 NBA titles.
But holding James’ 3-6 finals record against him is silly, and worse, lazy. In seven of those nine finals he faced the Spurs and the Warriors, two all-time great teams that were far more talented, with much deeper rosters. These seven teams were likely superior to any finals team Jordan faced.
Let’s analyze the absurdity of this 3-6 finals stat.
James’ first NBA Finals “failure” came in 2007 against the heavily-favored Spurs led by a prime trio: Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobli. To get there, James’ Cavs upset the No. 1 Eastern Conference seed Detroit Pistons, led by battle-tested former champions Chauncey Billups, Rasheed Wallace and Rip Hamilton.
Instead, after being down 0-2 to the Pistons, young James carried the Cavs on his back to sweep the next four games while averaging a near triple-double (31/10/9), capped by a 48-point performance in a Game 5 overtime win in Detroit. Larry Hughes, the Cavs’ second-leading scorer that regular season, averaged only 6.5 points in those games, and in the NBA Finals, his foot injury would limit him to two total points on 1-10 shooting.
And what is James’ reward for not pulling off a far greater miracle against the Spurs? His first NBA Finals demerit at age 22. According to his critics’ warped logice, had James lost to the Pistons in the playoffs as young Jordan did three times in the 1980s, he’d be better. That epic 48-point game for the ages? In 2020, it’s a bad thing.
Do you know what else is overachieving? Making the NBA Finals for eight straight years.
These below stats are Finals MVP stats minus an MVP’s teammates. With Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love injured in 2015, and with the Warriors having Kevin Durant in 2017 & 2018, James never stood a chance.
In 2015, with Love and Irving injured, James somehow won two games with a squad of backups. He also had two other games of 40/14/11 and 44/8/8, but the Cavs lost those contests. In the 2017 Warriors clincher, James had a 41/13/8 line, shooting an insane 63 percent from the field. Didn’t matter. In 2018, he dropped 51 points in Game 1. Sorry, not enough. You must suck Lebron.
Only this matters:
- Durant’s Help: Steph Curry. Klay Thompson. Draymond Green. Andre Iguodola. A great bench
- James’ Help: Kevin Love. JR Smith. George Hill. Tristan Thompson. A terrible bench.
Any other analysis is horseshit.
And to believe that Jordan’s fate would be any different in the situations James has been in is equally horseshit.
With healthy teammates and before Durant, 2016 was the only year James had a sliver of hope to beat the still-more-talented Warriors. And he did just that.
He also had no chance vs the 2007 and 2014 Spurs, the latter possibly the best Spurs team, because of the emergence of Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard to make the Spurs’ “Big 3” a quartet.
Contrary to popular belief, James’ Heat teams were not a “super team”. Super teams don’t have Joel Anthony or Mario Chalmers as starters and a non-existent bench, save for one exception (2013 with Ray Allen).
In Game 3 of the 2017 Finals vs. the Warriors, James played 46 minutes, and while on the floor, beat the Warriors by seven points. James also sat for two minutes.
During that stretch, the Cavs were outscored by 12 points. Ballgame.
The astonishing bench stench is the hidden story of James’ NBA Finals career. Despite the talent disparity, James’ starting lineup actually held their own against the Warriors.
Now consider these stats, bench vs. bench:
- 2-19-1: Cavs Bench outscored the Warriors bench just twice in 22 games
- 1-8: In nine series, James’ bench outscored his opponents’ bench just once
- 10-38-1: In 49 NBA Finals games James’ bench outscored his opponents’ bench just 10 times. When we exclude the only year Lebron had a bench advantage (2012) it gets much worse (5-36-1)..
Here’s the good news: Ray Allen. Allen’s clutch 3-pointer at the end of Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals saved that series. Some people have the ahistorical audacity to cite James’ “luck” due to Allen’s heroics. Okay, but what about the other eight Finals where his bench got destroyed? And didn’t John Paxson and Steve Kerr win a game or two for Jordan with clutch threes late?
James’ opponents had sixth-men stars like Ginobli, Jason Terry, James Harden and Andre Iguodala, the 2015 NBA Finals MVP. In 2007 and 2011, Ginobli and Terry sealed those series clinchers, respectively, with 27 points each. While 2011 Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzski struggled in two of the last three games of that series (shooting 33 percent from the field), Terry came off the bench and went off in all three, averaging 21.6 points on 58 percent shooting.
But don’t expect Skip Bayless to give you such context.
The 2011 Dallas series is really the only finals series where James didn’t play well. It was his first year on a structurally flawed team with no depth, and he was admittedly too deferential to Dwyane Wade. He fixed that by year two in Miami. Believe it or not, Jordan had a bad Finals, too, against the Sonics, shooting just 41.5 percent from the field. But Dennis Rodman dominated that series and should have been the Finals MVP. It happens.
But James’ true Finals record, in terms of overachievement, is more like 7-2 or really 8-1. He was amazing in every Warriors series, and should have been the Finals MVP in the 2015 loss. His team’s victories over the Warriors in 2016 and the Spurs in 2013 came against superior teams.
If anyone else wants to talk about “3-6”, it should only be to add them together to honor his nine trips.
Tell Bayless, James went to nine NBA Finals. That pretty much sums it up for me.