LeBron James is in the NBA Finals for a sixth-consecutive season, and fairly or unfairly, his 2-4 record in the finals will be held up next to Michael Jordan’s 6-0 record and the marks set by other MVPs as evidence of some failing on his part. Jordan got his six, Bill Russell went 11-1, and Kobe Bryant managed a 5-2 record in the finals, but the count-the-rings argument breaks down for a simple reason: LeBron’s teams simply weren’t expected to win many of those series.
In fact, LeBron never played for a team that entered the finals with more than a 2-in-3 chance of winning, according to ESPN’s BPI, and he had less than a 33 percent chance to win in three of his finals losses – with the Cleveland Cavaliers against the Spurs in 2007 and the Warriors in 2015, and with the Miami Heat against the Spurs in 2014. And in a few of those six seasons, it was a minor miracle that LeBron’s teams made the finals at all given the relative weakness of his supporting cast and team’s odds of advancing throughout the playoffs.
|YEAR||OPPONENT||CHANCE TO WIN|
|2007||San Antonio Spurs||13%|
|2012||Oklahoma City Thunder||51|
|2013||San Antonio Spurs||66|
|2014||San Antonio Spurs||31|
|2015||Golden State Warriors||28|
|2016||Golden State Warriors||25|
By that measure, LeBron’s teams have already made about 2.5 more finals appearances than would be expected given their pre-playoff BPI chances in 11 playoff appearances. But understandably, few are eager to praise one of the greatest players of all time for simply making the finals.
This tension between crusty old ring count and more sober statistical outlooks is nothing new, but to reconcile the two we need a tool that goes back further than ESPN’s BPI. Elo ratings, a staple of FiveThirtyEight, are the perfect vehicle by which to investigate further.
We pulled the Elo ratings for each team to make the NBA Finals before the series began, accounted for home-court advantage and projected each team’s pre-finals chance of winning. We then compared LeBron to other NBA MVPs who appeared in five or more finals – 10 other all-time greats meet this standard.
So how does LeBron stack up?
Even after accounting for the pre-finals expectations, it’s not surprising that LeBron’s finals record pales in comparison to Russell’s — 11 titles in 12 finals appearances from 1957 to 1969 — and Jordan’s. Even after accounting for dominance by Russell’s Celtics and Jordan’s Bulls, both players still won about two more titles than expected, given their team’s pre-finals chance to win.
|PLAYER||FINALS APPEARANCES||EXP. WINS||EXP. WIN PERCENTAGE||ACTUAL WINS||WINS ABOVE EXP.|
What may be surprising, however, is that LeBron’s teams have won about as many titles as expected (0.3 fewer than expected, to be exact) because his teams simply were not supposed to win many of those series. LeBron had by far the lowest expected series win percentage of any of the stars (39 percent), which is a result of the strength of his teams relative to that of the opponents he’s faced. This brings us to an important point: Because this is based on pre-finals projections, the impressiveness of those aforementioned miracle runs to the finals (such as the 2007 Cavaliers) doesn’t show up in the ledger.
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Unlike Jordan, who entered the finals with at least a 65 percent chance to win four times, LeBron rarely played for a team that was a prohibitive finals favorite. Meanwhile, he is now about to enter his fifth Finals as an underdog, at least using Elo, something Jordan faced once in his career — when the Bulls had a 46 percent chance to beat the Jazz in 1998. When the Cavs lost last year’s finals with an injury-depleted roster, LeBron had one of the greatest statistical series by a player in NBA history. Not only was he the first player to lead both teams in points, rebounds and assists per game in an NBA Finals, but he nearly single-handedly won Games 2 and 3 for the Cavs.
Nonetheless, LeBron and the Cavs again find themselves as big underdogs in this year’s finals. A loss will only continue the narrative of his flopping on the biggest stage, but accounting for his team’s pre-finals expectations, a fifth finals loss would only be about 0.6 more than he should have, given preseries expectations for all seven series.
On the other hand, if the Cavs upset the Warriors – which would be the second-biggest upset by any MVP on this list — LeBron will actually have 0.4 more titles than expected, and his three titles in seven finals appearances would have been harder to achieve than Kobe’s five titles in the same number of trips. Or to translate that to sports cliché: LeBron would still have a losing record in the finals, but he’d have earned his rings the hard way.