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|
|4||2001||Los Angeles Lakers||16||+10.0||+4.9||+14.9|
|7||2009||Los Angeles Lakers||23||+8.3||+6.2||+14.5|
|8||2015||Golden State Warriors||21||+8.4||+6.1||+14.5|
|11||1985||Los Angeles Lakers||19||+7.1||+5.4||+12.5|
|17||1987||Los Angeles Lakers||18||+8.4||+3.0||+11.4|
|18||2003||San Antonio Spurs||24||+6.2||+5.2||+11.4|
|20||1999||San Antonio Spurs||17||+6.8||+3.9||+10.7|
|22||2002||Los Angeles Lakers||19||+4.6||+6.1||+10.7|
|24||2010||Los Angeles Lakers||23||+4.5||+5.4||+9.9|
|26||2007||San Antonio Spurs||20||+5.3||+4.3||+9.6|
|29||2005||San Antonio Spurs||23||+2.1||+5.3||+7.4|
|30||2000||Los Angeles Lakers||23||+2.6||+4.3||+6.9|
|33||1988||Los Angeles Lakers||24||+2.0||+4.2||+6.2|
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)|
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
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.