With the Los Angeles Lakers defeating the Denver Nuggets in five games during the Western Conference Finals on Saturday, James will be in the Finals for the 10th time in his career, with nine of those trips coming in the past 10 seasons alone.
While only two players in NBA history have been to more Finals (Bill Russell, Sam Jones), James’ record in the championship has long been a black eye on his GOAT resume.
A 3-6 record in the Finals is something James’ haters love to point to, of course ignoring just how difficult it is to even win three playoff rounds in the first place.
While this kind of record shaming should usually be ignored, this year is different.
For the first time since 2013, James has found himself in an unusual position: the favorite.
While James has widely been considered the best player in the NBA for the past decade-plus, his teams haven’t always lived up to his standards.
In his first nine trips to the Finals before this year, a team led by James was the favorite just twice (2011 vs. the Dallas Mavericks, 2013 vs. the San Antonio Spurs). James’ teams haven’t been favored in his last five trips—not since he was a member of the Miami Heat back in the 2012-13 season.
By that measure, James’ 3-6 record is actually better than expected, as he beat the 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder and 2016 Golden State Warriors when oddsmakers said he shouldn’t. In nine Finals trips, James has only lost as a favorite once (2011 vs. the Mavs).
Of course, even making it to the Finals has been an accomplishment in and of itself for James over the years.
In 2007, a 22-year-old James beat a Detroit Pistons team consisting of Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Chris Webber and Rasheed Wallace four times in a row in the Eastern Conference Finals, with backup rookie guard Daniel Gibson serving as the Cleveland Cavaliers’ second-leading scorer.
The Cavs had no business playing a loaded Spurs team in the Finals, one that would win its fourth championship in nine years.
After the series, Spurs power forward Tim Duncan told James, “This is going to be your league in a little while, so I appreciate you giving us this year.”
Of course, Duncan was correct with his prophecy, as James would start a run of eight straight Finals appearances just three years later, picking up four regular-season MVPs along the way.
While his Heat teams were stacked with talent and favored in two of their four trips from 2010-2014, James’ second run in Cleveland was far more difficult.
With the Heat falling back to mediocrity without James and the Spurs dynasty on its last legs, the Cavs looked like the next great franchise with a 29-year-old James, 26-year-old Kevin Love and 22-year-old Kyrie Irving.
The Warriors had other ideas.
The Warriors jumped from 51 wins with Mark Jackson to a league-best 67 under Steve Kerr in 2014-15, the same season James returned to Cleveland.
Golden State was already the favorite to win the 2015 Finals against the Cavaliers behind MVP Stephen Curry, and that was before Irving fractured his kneecap with two minutes left in overtime in Game 1. James would somehow beat the Warriors the next two games with a starting lineup of Iman Shumpert, Matthew Dellavedova, Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson around him before losing the series in six.
The 2016 Finals have been well-documented, with James and the Cavs winning despite the 73-win Warriors once again being heavy favorites.
The 2017 and 2018 Finals represented the best teams James has ever faced in the championship, with a Warriors squad led by Kevin Durant and surrounded by Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green proving to be too much for perhaps any team in league history to overcome.
James’ last Finals appearance in 2018 featured his worst supporting cast since 2007 against the Spurs. Trying to take down another Durant-led Warriors team with a rotation of Jeff Green, Kyle Korver, George Hill, JR Smith, Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson, Thompson and Love wasn’t fair, as James shot 52.7 percent in the series with all other Cavaliers players combining to shoot 37.1 percent.
Now on the Lakers with a prime Anthony Davis riding shotgun, James has the help he needs.
Whether the Lakers end up playing the Heat or Boston Celtics, L.A. will be the title favorite.
The Heat and Celtics are both very good. Each team has multiple All-Stars—Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo for the Heat, Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker for the Celtics—playoff-tested veterans and an elite head coach putting game plans together.
Still, both should be considered a dream matchup for James and the Lakers compared to his past.
Neither comes close to matching the Warriors teams with Durant and Curry or even the Spurs squads featuring Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. The Lakers’ biggest threat this season was long thought to be the Los Angeles Clippers, a team they didn’t even have to face thanks to Denver.
Giannis Antetokounmpo was supposed to challenge James for both the 2020 NBA championship out of the East and the title of league’s best player, two milestones put on hold for another year thanks to the Heat.
While it was easy to point to James’ lack of supporting cast or quality of opponent as reasons for his 3-6 Finals record, those excuses won’t hold up this time around.
This will be the first time the best player in the Finals outside of James will be a member of his own team since at least 2014, with Davis enjoying a monster postseason (28.8 points, 9.3 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.2 blocks) en route to his first championship appearance.
The Celtics’ top-two options are still likely years away from their primes (Tatum, 22, and Jaylen Brown, 23), and Butler has yet to prove himself capable of being the No. 1 guy on a championship team now in his eighth postseason.
The timing for James and the Lakers is perfect.
Win, and his Finals record climbs to 4-6—solid when considering his history of opponents.
Lose, and he’s 3-7 in the championship round.
After being an underdog for his last five Finals trips, James should finally enjoy his new role as title favorite.