Last night the Cleveland Cavaliers won their first NBA Championship in franchise history, and with it, series MVP LeBron James, is once again King of the Basketball world. With their nail-biting win to close out the series against the historic Golden State Warriors, the Cavs made history coming from down 3-1 in the series to earn the trophy.
The league’s most dynamic player now has three NBA championships, having won two previously as a Miami Heat, but while many may remember that trio of titles, it is also equally as noteworthy that he has lost 4 series in the Finals. Yes, that is correct, "King James" has lost more championship appearances than he has won.
While it is certainly a feat to get to there that many times, especially having done it six years in a row now, having more losses than wins leaves questions about his place in the history of this sport.
There is no doubt James will go down as one of the best basketball players to ever touch the ball, but as a competitor, he may also carry the legacy as one of the greatest losers of all-time as well. It sounds like an oxymoron, but he may be the best player to get that far but not win consistently. This article is not meant to bash LeBron James, he does things on a basketball court every night that make me question if he is human, but what this is intended to do is compare his place in history with some of the greatest winners this sport has ever seen.
We all know the comparisons between LeBron James and Michael Jordan will be made over and over again, even after “King James” retires, and while it may still be a hot topic on who was an all-around better player, Jordan is clearly a better winner. Not only did MJ win the championship in all of his 6 trips to the finals, but he was the MVP each year as well. His record in the final round is an amazing 24-11. LeBron James’ record is 17-23, and in those 4 years that his team lost, he only won a total of 5 games. Jordan never lost more than 2 games in any of his match-ups.
Let’s look at some of the other players who have been to six or more NBA finals, and see how they compare to LeBron James, the league’s greatest loser.
Bill Russell and his Boston Celtics won an astounding 11 NBA titles in 13 seasons. They missed the championship round only once in that time and had a finals record of 46-26. Eight other players from that era have 7 or more rings, but for the sake of this comparison, we will use the focal point of the team, which was Russell. Kobe Bryant played in 7 NBA Finals, winning 5 of them and holding an overall record of 23-15. Tim Duncan has won five titles in six trips, with a record of 23-12, and in those wins, only once did an opposing team win 3 games. Big man Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won 6 NBA Championships in 10 seasons, with a winning record of 30-24, and Shaquille O’Neil has four titles in six appearances, winning 21 of 34 games.
Out of all of the great winners who have played in 6 or more NBA Finals, only Magic Johnson and his Lakers have won more series than they lost, but still have a losing record. Johnson won 5 of his 9 finals appearances with a record of 24-27. Perhaps the closest comparison for James would be that of Wilt Chamberlin. The big man won just 2 of his 6 finals appearances, but still won 7 more games than James, with a record of 20-23.
When comparing these players in terms of winning, Jordan and Russell are the hands down greatest. MJ went a flawless 6-for-6, never even allowing the other team to get past Game-6, and Russell won more rings than he has fingers. Just below them are Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant. Both have 5 rings and each only went to one Game-7 in those victories. Abdul-Jabbar is at that next level, having lost 4 times, but still has 6 championship rings to wear. Then there is Magic Johnson, Shaq O’Neil and perhaps even Larry Bird, who did not play in 6 finals, but still won 3 of 5 with a record of 16-15.
Then we have LeBron James with 3 wins in 7 trips. It’s tough to put him anywhere near these others given just the stats alone. Sure, Jordan had Scottie Pippen, Russell had Bob Cousey and Shaq and Kobe had each other for three of their titles, but James also lost twice with All-Stars Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh.
This season, LeBron James led his team in points, rebounds, blocks, steals and assists. He scored 41 points in back-to-back games and racked a triple-double in game 7. He had a stat-filled finals for sure, and I am not taking anything away from the gritty performance he displayed over the past two weeks. The 2016 Finals was LeBron's time. Four other times in history, however, it wasn't.
If James is to work his way into the ‘Mount Rushmore’ of winners, he will need to win his next two trips to the finals just to have more series wins as he does losses. That is a massive undertaking for a player who is 31 years old, with 13 years in the league and 1,185 career games played. He is a special talent and anyone who watches him play knows they are seeing greatness, but with a 3-4 record in the NBA finals, LeBron James isn't close to being at the top of the sports winningest athletes.
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