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LeBron Led The Cavs On One Of The Greatest Playoff Runs In NBA History

There were many bits of history on the line in Sunday’s NBA Finals Game 7 — among them, the city of Cleveland’s nearly 52-year-old championship curse (now broken), the all-time rank of the 73-win Golden State Warriors (probably not No. 1), and LeBron James’s case as G.O.A.T. (maybe?). So after a night in which the specter of the past hovered just about everywhere, let’s put in perspective how the Cavaliers made history in winning the 2016 NBA title.

First, they became only the fourth team in NBA history to win a title after replacing its coach mid-season, having ousted David Blatt in favor of Tyronn Lue in January. As my colleague Nate Silver noted at the time, Cleveland’s case was especially unusual because the Cavs under Blatt were not playing badly — they had by far the top Elo rating of any team to fire its coach during a season — and weren’t undershooting their preseason Vegas expectations — usually a key indicator for coaching job security. But in the end, the Cavs rounded into better playoff form under Lue than they had under Blatt the year before.

After accounting for strength of schedule, we find that Lue navigated Cleveland through one of history’s great playoff journeys. If we use pre-series Elo ratings to judge the difficulty of a team’s postseason path and weight its opponent-adjusted scoring margin by the importance of each game, the 2016 Cavaliers’ run ranks as the fifth-best by an NBA champion since 1984:1

RANK YEAR CHAMPION GAMES MARGIN OF VICTORY STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE RATING
1 2014 San Antonio Spurs 23 +12.9 +4.5 +17.4
2 1996 Chicago Bulls 18 +11.0 +5.2 +16.2
3 1991 Chicago Bulls 17 +10.5 +5.2 +15.7
4 2001 Los Angeles Lakers 16 +10.0 +4.9 +14.9
5 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers 21 +6.1 +8.6 +14.7
6 1986 Boston Celtics 18 +10.8 +3.8 +14.5
7 2009 Los Angeles Lakers 23 +8.3 +6.2 +14.5
8 2015 Golden State Warriors 21 +8.4 +6.1 +14.5
9 1998 Chicago Bulls 21 +6.9 +7.3 +14.2
10 1992 Chicago Bulls 22 +7.1 +6.0 +13.0
11 1985 Los Angeles Lakers 19 +7.1 +5.4 +12.5
12 2008 Boston Celtics 26 +7.4 +4.7 +12.1
13 1990 Detroit Pistons 20 +7.0 +5.0 +12.0
14 2004 Detroit Pistons 23 +7.2 +4.6 +11.8
15 2012 Miami Heat 23 +6.6 +5.1 +11.7
16 1997 Chicago Bulls 19 +4.0 +7.4 +11.5
17 1987 Los Angeles Lakers 18 +8.4 +3.0 +11.4
18 2003 San Antonio Spurs 24 +6.2 +5.2 +11.4
19 2011 Dallas Mavericks 21 +4.3 +6.9 +11.2
20 1999 San Antonio Spurs 17 +6.8 +3.9 +10.7
21 1989 Detroit Pistons 17 +6.5 +4.2 +10.7
22 2002 Los Angeles Lakers 19 +4.6 +6.1 +10.7
23 2006 Miami Heat 23 +4.0 +6.1 +10.1
24 2010 Los Angeles Lakers 23 +4.5 +5.4 +9.9
25 1995 Houston Rockets 22 +3.4 +6.5 +9.9
26 2007 San Antonio Spurs 20 +5.3 +4.3 +9.6
27 1993 Chicago Bulls 19 +2.9 +5.7 +8.6
28 2013 Miami Heat 23 +3.9 +4.5 +8.4
29 2005 San Antonio Spurs 23 +2.1 +5.3 +7.4
30 2000 Los Angeles Lakers 23 +2.6 +4.3 +6.9
31 1984 Boston Celtics 23 +3.8 +3.0 +6.8
32 1994 Houston Rockets 23 +2.2 +4.6 +6.8
33 1988 Los Angeles Lakers 24 +2.0 +4.2 +6.2
The best NBA championship runs since 1984

Strength of schedule was determined using the pre-series Elo ratings of a team’s opponents. Games were weighted according to how much they swung each team’s title odds.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

Notably, the Cavs faced the most difficult schedule of any champ since 1984, granting that most of it came from facing the historically great Warriors in the Finals (which, by definition, contains the most important games of the season). And by the numbers, Cleveland pulled off a colossal upset against Golden State: the second-biggest in a Finals since 1984, according to the pre-series Elo ratings.

YEAR TEAM OPP. PRE-SERIES WIN PROBABILITY (ELO)
2006 MIA DAL 23.8%
2016 CLE GS 27.4
2012 MIA OKC 30.8
2008 BOS LAL 39.2
2004 DET LAL 40.5
2011 DAL MIA 44.1
1988 LAL DET 44.4
1998 CHI UTA 45.1
1995 HOU ORL 47.6
Biggest Finals upsets since 1984

The Warriors have not been themselves since Stephen Curry’s injury in late April, so maybe the magnitude of Cleveland’s upset is overstated by Elo. (Lending some credence to this idea is … Elo itself, which now considers the Cavs to be the best team in the NBA.) But still, beating the team that broke the all-time league wins record in a do-or-die Game 7 on its own home court — where favorites tend to be nearly invulnerable — gives the Cavs’ run special place in NBA history.

We also have to discuss James, who shook off whatever doubt remained about his primacy in his era. James capped off the third-best individual playoff run since 1974 according to Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) and averaged the seventh-highest Game Score in an NBA Finals since 1983:2

SERIES AVERAGES
PLAYER YEAR GAMES PTS/G TS% REB/G AST/G GAME SCORE/G
Michael Jordan 1991 5 31.2 61.2 6.6 11.4 32.8
Shaquille O’Neal 2002 4 36.3 63.6 12.3 3.8 32.2
Shaquille O’Neal 2000 6 38.0 57.6 16.7 2.3 32.0
Michael Jordan 1993 6 41.0 55.8 8.5 6.3 30.7
Shaquille O’Neal 2001 5 33.0 57.5 15.8 4.8 29.1
Magic Johnson 1987 6 26.2 59.0 8.0 13.0 28.3
LeBron James 2016 7 29.7 56.2 11.3 8.9 27.7
Michael Jordan 1997 6 32.3 53.2 7.0 6.0 27.0
Dwyane Wade 2006 6 34.7 57.2 7.8 3.8 26.9
Michael Jordan 1992 6 35.8 61.7 4.8 6.5 26.7
Best statistical NBA Finals performances since 1983

Game Scores were adjusted to a pace of 100 possessions per game.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

For his NBA Finals career, James also ranks third since 1983 in average Game Score, behind Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal. And beyond the Finals, LeBron now ranks shockingly high in a variety of advanced statistical categories: He’s No. 1 in lifetime Box Plus/Minus (both for the regular-season and playoffs, although both stats extend back only to 1974) and its value-based offshoot VORP (again, both regular-season and playoffs); No. 1 in playoff career Win Shares; No. 2 — trailing only Jordan — in lifetime regular-season Player Efficiency Rating; and No. 3 (behind MJ and George Mikan) in the playoffs.

In short, it’s a statistical legacy unmatched by basically everyone in NBA history except Jordan. And although James’s championship tally will probably never reach MJ’s level, he achieved a measure of immortality among the “Count the Rings” crowd on Sunday night.

Finally, the 2016 Cavaliers officially proved that God Doesn’t Hate Cleveland. I wrote that story more than two years ago; for most of the time since, the city continued to be plagued with its typical amalgamation of terrible management and disappointing play. Even I was beginning to doubt that the curse would ever be lifted, statistics be damned. But with a once-in-a-generation player leading a playoff run for the ages, the Cavs have validated the faith of their city’s long-suffering fans.

Andrew Flowers contributed research.


VIDEO: The greatness of LeBron James

 

Footnotes

  1. The season the NBA adopted its current playoff structure.

  2. The earliest season for which Basketball-Reference.com’s game-by-game NBA Finals data contains offensive and defensive rebounds, steals and blocks.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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