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.
NBA bubble observations: LeBron James narrative is a bit overstated
A shortened season was advantageous to a number of older Lakers. Rajon Rondo is 34, Dwight Howard 34, Danny Green 33 and Markieff Morris 31. And it gave a stronger likelihood of injury-prone Anthony Davis staying healthy..
1. I am not here to place a Phil Jackson asterisk on the Lakers’ 17th championship like the Zen Master did on the lockout-shortened, 1999 campaign. But let’s not get carried away with the rhetoric that LeBron James’ fourth title is more worthy because it was done amid 100 days in the NBA bubble, away from family.
James underscored that theme after the Lakers topped the Heat in Game 6 of the NBA Finals last Sunday, stating: “You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t have ups and downs in the bubble. At times I was questioning myself: Should I be here? Is this worth sacrificing my family?”
In fact, the elderly Lakers saw their chances of winning the title enhanced by the restart format. The season was shut down for four months, allowing James to rest his 35-year-old bones. James didn’t play a regular-season game from March 10-July 30. A total of 71 regular-season games were played in the season, 11 fewer than usual.
A shortened season was advantageous to a number of older Lakers. Rajon Rondo is 34, Dwight Howard 34, Danny Green 33 and Markieff Morris 31. And it gave a stronger likelihood of injury-prone Anthony Davis staying healthy.
The grueling travel for a West Coast team was eliminated. In The Finals alone, a six-game series would have required James’ Lakers to enter the Eastern time zone twice. Wipe out the five-hour flights to and from Miami and replace it with a five-minute bus ride to their Gran Destino resort, and that’s one factor why James looked fresh as a daisy.
This wasn’t the usual physical grind of an NBA season. Even on charter flights, air travel takes a massive physical toll. The Lakers’ average age of 29.07 ranked as second-oldest in the league entering the season.
2. It’s not his most important decision, but I hope commissioner Adam Silver changes the dress code for NBA head coaches next season and forbids the sweatsuit look. It felt too much like summer league. Bring back the more dignified jacket-and-tie look. Or at least the jacket.
3. BetMGM sportbook lists the Nuggets at 20/1 (tied for ninth choice) to win the 2021 title. From the Western Conference, the Lakers, Clippers and Warriors are ahead of Denver, which made this year’s conference finals. It’s a young team getting better. Guard Jamal Murray looked like the NBA’s newest superstar. Nikola Jokic is already there. And Michael Porter Jr., selected 14th by the Nuggets in 2018, is going to get there, which will make Knicks fans even more miserable after their team passed on him to take Kevin Knox with the No. 9-overall pick that year. Michael Malone is an elite coach. At 20/1, the Nuggets are a terrific bet.
4. The 76ers had a miserable bubble result, but Doc Rivers is the right new voice to revive “Trust the Process’’ and get Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris thriving. If the Knicks only knew Rivers would’ve been available …
5. Silver got a lot of credit for shutting out COVID-19 positives, but Chris Paul, president of the Players Association, deserves as much credit for keeping the players unified. “Chris saved the season,’’ one NBA source said in referring to the pause of play after the Kenosha, Wis., shooting of Jacob Blake in August. Don’t think Knicks president Leon Rose didn’t notice the leadership of his former client.
6. With Davis expected to opt out and re-sign with the Lakers, the smart play would be pass on a long-term package and execute a 1-and-1 deal. That would make him a free agent in 2021. He still gets to defend the crown with James, but provides insurance in case LeBron finally succumbs to age in a normal 82-game marathon.
Lastly, Davis may want his “own” team. James garnered most of the buzz after the Lakers won the title — pundits analyzing whether his fourth ring or “one for the thumb” 2021 journey will stack up against Michael Jordan. It will never be an AD championship as long as James is alongside. The Knicks were once on “The Brow’s” radar. They should have cap space in 2021.
7. The Nets may wind up regretting that they passed on Tyronn Lue, who will now helm the Clippers. As one person close to Lue said recently, “There are many great things you can say about Tyronn, but if you really boil it down to one thing, it’s that he has no ego. And that personality is key with Kyrie [Irving] and KD [Kevin Durant]. Kyrie overthinks. And Tyronn doesn’t think too hard — and that’s not in a negative way.’’
8. Some teams are deciding not to partake in the loosening up of draft-preparation guidelines that will allow scouts to fly to a designated city with other clubs and watch a Pro Day-like live workout. Usually those Pro Days feature meaningless 1-on-0 drills. Some 1-on-1 interviews will be granted but with no guarantees. Some teams believe the COVID-19 risk outweighs the reward. New York has protocols that require two-week quarantines after returning from many states. One executive from a club that won’t attend told The Post the best intel is watching a prospect at his college practice. “Doing your own homework and own background checks are more important,’’ the executive said.
9. Hats off to Nets owner Joe Tsai. Without any events at which to sell them, Barclays Center donated 14,000 pounds of food Thursday from its arena to City Harvest, Food Bank for New York City and The Campaign Against Hunger. During the pandemic, the Nets helped feed 30,000 New Yorkers in need.
10. Reality Check Insights conducted a survey of 1,400 Americans on “Racing and Policing” and included an NBA question to measure if the league has become political. The findings, their research team found, is very much so. The survey showed 75.9 percent of Republicans rated the NBA as either “unfavorable/very unfavorable.’’ Democrats voted the NBA as 13 percent “unfavorable/very unfavorable’’ Independents came in at 37.7 percent.
“The just 13 percent of Republicans who rate the NBA as favorable is very similar to the percent of Republicans who had a favorable opinion of Black Lives Matter,’’ the poll’s researcher Benjamin Leff said. “People’s view of the NBA might be closely tied to the league’s posture on social-justice issues. Just like many parts of our lives, the NBA is now a political issue.’’
According to industry sources, it has become an agonizing issue for Silver after the NBA Finals ratings’ collapse. Silver has talked about less messaging on jerseys and the court next season. One source said: “It’s a balancing act for Adam. When you’re balancing, sometimes you fall.’’
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