Don't Hold LeBron James' Finals Record Against Him

The King's 3-5 record in the NBA Finals will get a lot of attention, but don't blame him. Blame his opponents.

Regardless of the sport, teams that are better than their opponent usually win.

Mind-blowing analysis, I know.

Those criticizing LeBron James for his record in the NBA Finals are missing this point.

James’ Cleveland Cavaliers lost to a vastly superior Golden State Warriors team Monday night, dropping his record in the NBA Finals to 3-5. In the coming days, this will surely be brought up as a knock against James, especially since Michael Jordan won all six championship series in which he appeared.

This is a specious and oversimplified argument, and not just because it attributes team success to an individual, which is generally not advisable. In the eight times James has made it to the Finals, his squad was the inferior one in six instances, as measured by’s Simple Rating System, which adjusts point differential by strength of schedule.

A closer look shows that James’ teams, specifically his Cleveland units, were often been badly overmatched.

Year Cleveland/Miami SRS Opponent Opp. SRS Difference Result
2007 3.33 San Antonio 8.35 -5.02 San Antonio in 4
2011 6.76 Dallas 4.41 2.35 Dallas in 6
2012 5.72 Oklahoma City 6.44 -0.72 Miami in 5
2013 7.03 San Antonio 6.67 0.36 Miami in 7
2014 4.15 San Antonio 8 -3.85 San Antonio in 5
2015 4.08 Golden State 10.01 -5.93 Golden State in 6
2016 5.45 Golden State 10.38 -4.93 Cleveland in 7
2017 2.87 Golden State 11.35 -8.48 Golden State in 5
AVERAGE 4.92 -- 8.20 -3.28 --

LeBron’s average Finals opponent has been 8.20 points better than the NBA average, and 3.28 points better than his teams. Three of his opponents -- the last three Golden State teams -- rank in the Top 10 all time in terms of SRS, while the 2006-07 Spurs are 23rd.

As for his 2012 matchup against Oklahoma City, the Thunder were marginally better in the regular season, posting a greater margin of victory than James’ Heat and doing so against a tougher schedule. We may not recall (or believe) that the Thunder was superior, because the overriding memory of that series is that of a Miami domination, as the Heat outscored Oklahoma City by nearly five points per 100 possessions in the Finals.

The only real blemish on James’ personal Finals resume is the series against Dallas in 2011, a series in which even LeBron's staunchest defenders will admit he was largely to blame for the defeat, posting just a 102 Offensive Rating thanks to a 19.5% turnover rate. (These numbers inspired all those “fourth quarter” jokes you’ve probably forgotten about). The series marked the third and final time a team with James on it lost a series to a team with an inferior SRS, the first being in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals, when Cleveland fell to Orlando, despite LeBron averaging 38.5 points per game with a 118 Offensive Rating.

Jordan, by contrast, faced a comparatively weaker slate of Finals opponents, who had an average SRS of 6.84. The toughest team he took on with a championship on the line was the 1996-1997 Jazz, which had an SRS slightly under 8 -- lower than half the teams LeBron has met in the Finals.

Year Chicago Opponent Opp. SRS Difference Result
1991 8.57 Lakers 6.73 1.84 Chicago in 5
1992 10.07 Portland 6.94 3.13 Chicago in 6
1993 6.19 Phoenix 6.27 -0.08 Chicago in 6
1996 11.8 Seattle 7.4 4.4 Chicago in 6
1997 10.7 Utah 7.97 2.73 Chicago in 6
1998 7.24 Utah 5.73 1.51 Chicago in 6
AVERAGE 9.10 -- 6.84 2.26 --

This was not an easy collection of opponents by any stretch, but Jordan’s Bulls, by SRS, were the better squad in five of his six Finals matchups.

That all said, James’ paths to the Finals have been easier, as his opponents in the first three rounds have an average SRS of 2.13, while Jordan’s were 3.75. In the Eastern Conference Finals alone, Jordan’s opponents had an average SRS of 4.61, compared to 4.11 for James.

On the flip side, LeBron has five series wins against teams with a superior SRS in 11 tries, a slightly higher success rate than Jordan’s, whose teams went 5-7 in series against better squads.

The LeBron-Jordan debate is multilayered and eternally interesting, with seemingly endless points and counterpoints. Just do everyone a favor and leave their Finals records out of it.