Carlos Osorio -USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James
- LeBron James is 3-6 in the NBA Finals.
- LeBron’s teams have been series underdogs in seven of nine Finals appearances.
- Adjusting for expectations, we analyze whether LeBron’s NBA Finals record is truly disappointing.
LeBron James averaged 34 points, 8.5 rebounds and 10 assists in the 2018 NBA Finals. As has been the case in the past, it wasn’t enough. The Cleveland Cavaliers were swept by the Golden State Warriors, dropping James’ Finals record to 3-6.
Compared to other basketball greats, his three wins and six losses don’t look good. Michael Jordan went 6-0 in the NBA Finals, Tim Duncan was 5-1, Kobe Bryant (5-2) and Shaquille O’Neal (4-2) each won a majority of championship series they participated in.
The “rings argument” is the biggest knock on LeBron’s claim to GOAT (greatest of all-time) status. A losing record in the Finals isn’t great for James’ legacy, but the truth is, his teams weren’t expected to win many of these series.
In fact, LeBron has been an underdog in seven of nine NBA Finals, appearances according to SportsOddsHistory.com. Jordan’s Bulls were favored in all six trips, Kobe was the chalk each time the title was on the line and Duncan-O’Neal were underdogs just once.
Once you account for the juice associated with NBA Finals odds, LeBron, on average, had a 37.3% chance to win the championship. Jordan, Duncan, Kobe and Shaq had an average win probability of 66.7% or greater. So, it is no surprise James’ record pales in comparison.
If we use pre-NBA Finals expectations, LeBron has won nearly as many titles as expected. According to the oddsmakers, the Cavaliers and Heat, with LeBron leading the way, should have won 3.4 (adding up the expected win probability from the chart above) of a possible nine championships. James won three, 0.4 fewer than expected. How does this compare to the other greats?
MJ is still the best. Jordan’s Bulls were expected to win 4.2 championships but lifted the Larry O’Brien trophy each time for a +1.8 difference between actual and expected titles. Duncan’s Spurs also exceeded expectations, winning one more championship than odds implied. On the other hand, Kobe and Shaq have more rings than LeBron but won fewer than anticipated.
Championships matter when debating the all-time greats, but context is also important. LeBron has fewer rings than his peers, but considering the long odds of winning, his Finals record isn’t a disappointment.