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Playoff LeBron Is Amazing, But That Hasn’t Been Enough

The Cleveland Cavaliers’ season could come to an end Monday night, and with it the latest chance for the city to end its half-century championship drought. A pair of NBA Finals losses is not the legacy LeBron James was hoping to leave when he returned home two summers ago.

As usual, it isn’t because of a lack of statistical performance on James’s part. In these finals, he’s averaging 24.8 points, 11 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game, which would mark only the second time since 19841 that a player has averaged at least 20, 10 and 8 in the finals. (The only other time? That would be when James did it last year.)

In terms of average Game Score in the series, nobody else on the Cavaliers — or the Golden State Warriors — is close to James’s 20.2 per-game mark. And in the playoffs as a whole, James leads the NBA in value over replacement player (VORP), Win Shares and John Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating-based value metric Estimated Wins Added.

Yet it’s not enough, as it seldom has been for LeBron. If he hangs on to his lead this year, James will have been the playoff leader by consensus of these three statistics eight times over his career, tying Michael Jordan for the most since ’74. But he’ll have won a championship in just two of those playoff campaigns; Jordan, by contrast, went six for eight.

IN YEARS LEADING THE POSTSEASON, NUMBER OF TIMES …
PLAYER WON TITLE LOST TITLE
Michael Jordan 6 2
LeBron James 2 6
Larry Bird 3 0
Magic Johnson 3 0
Shaquille O’Neal 2 1
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 1 2
Tim Duncan 2 0
Clyde Drexler 1 0
Dave Cowens 1 0
Elvin Hayes 1 0
LeBron’s losses are out of place among playoff stars

“Lost Title” includes losses at any stage of the postseason.

Source: Basketball-reference.com

How uncommon is it for a player to lead the NBA playoffs numerically and still not lead his team to a championship? Since 1974, the consensus best statistical player of the postseason also won the title about 70 percent of the time. James, on the other hand, has won a ring on only a quarter of the occasions he’s been the playoffs’ best individual performer. If he, like his peers, had 70 percent odds each time, there’d be only a 1 percent chance he’d go two for eight.

On the one hand, this is kerosene-soaked kindling for fans who decry James as a choker with a disappointing postseason record. (For what it’s worth, a loss to Golden State would put him about 0.6 titles below expectation, after accounting for the strength of his finals opponents.) On the other hand, it’s tough to criticize LeBron too harshly for some of his off-the-charts statistical performances in losing efforts over the years, particularly given the supporting casts he’s been saddled with at times.

But on the — um, third hand? — James’s teammates also have a history of undershooting expectations in ways that go beyond even their performances in the finals. As part of my research into Kobe Bryant’s career, I looked for the effect a player had on his teammates, in terms of whether they met their preseason projections while suiting up with the player in question. And among the top 100 players since 1974 by VORP, only seven2 were associated with bigger, more persistent shortfalls by teammates than James. Mystifying as it may be for a player known for his vision and playmaking skills, LeBron might simply be a difficult player to slot in next to and play your best alongside.

All of this makes James’s legacy one of the most complicated to assess of any player in NBA history. And unless he and the Cavs can capitalize on Draymond Green’s Game 5 suspension — then conjure up miracles in games 6 and 7 as well — the stark juxtaposition between James’s own numbers and his teams’ record in the finals will continue to dog LeBron into the summer and beyond.

Check out our NBA Finals predictions.

Footnotes

  1. The first year for which Basketball-Reference.com has complete game-level data.

  2. Elton Brand, Alvin Robertson, Charles Barkley, Josh Smith, Hersey Hawkins, Tracy McGrady and Andrei Kirilenko.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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