Last night the Golden State Warriors won their first NBA Championship in 40 years, and with it, sent LeBron James home from the finals without a ring for the fourth time in his. The league’s most dynamic player has just two series wins in 6 appearances in the final round. While it is certainly a feat to get to there that many times, especially having done it five years in a row now, not winning that last game leaves questions about his place in the history of this sport.
There are still people claiming that James should be awarded the NBA Finals MVP for the numbers he put up in this series, after all he did have to play without All-Stars Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. While a player from a loosing team has been awarded the MVP once before, there is no way that James was going to take home that trophy after winning only two games. It’s almost ironic that his record against Golden State this round, 2-4, is the same as his career series record in the finals.
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 the greatest loser of all-time as well. It sounds like an oxy-moron, but considering he has lost two-thirds of his NBA Finals match-ups, he may be the best player to get that far and 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 13-20, 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 seasons with a record of 23-12, and in those wins, only once did an opposing team win 3 games. Big men 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 2 wins in 6 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 Wade and Bosh.
This season, LeBron James was the first player in NBA Finals history to lead his team in points, rebounds and assists. He averaged 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game in the series, scored 40 or more points three times and recorded two triple-doubles. He also scored over 38% of his team’s points. He had a stat-filled finals for sure, but why wasn’t he able to win more than two games? The answer is simple, LeBron James is a great player but he cannot win an entire series by himself. When he won the titles in 2012 and 2013 he had Wade and Bosh contributing big time. In the second year he had Ray Allen to make big shots. He was surrounded by All-Stars and clutch scorers, so he did not need to carry the team on his back every possession like he did the last two weeks against Golden State. In all six games this series, James missed over 15 shots. In four of the games, he missed over 20. He was a combined 78-118 for a percentage just under 34%. His career average in the post-season is 47%.
James and the Heat lost in last year’s finals in five games to the San Antonio Spurs, in a series where they were outscored by an average of 14 points per game, the most in finals history. LeBron James led his team in scoring every game that series. The year before when the same two teams met in the finals, 3 different Heat players led the team in scoring in separate games throughout that series and they won in 7. When James isn’t forced to be the entire offense, his team has a much better chance of succeeding. When it is James and a team of role-players like he had this year, and back in 2006, his team struggles just to win a few games. James is great basketball player, but he is not a great winner.
If James is to turn his post season career around and work his way into the ‘Mount Rushmore’ of winners, he will need to win his next four trips to the finals just to have as many series wins as he does losses. That is a massive undertaking for a player who is 30 years old, with 12 years in the league and 1,089 career games played. He is a special talent and anyone who watches him play knows they are seeing greatness, but with a 2-4 record in the NBA finals, LeBron James is headed towards another title, that of the league’s greatest loser.
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