One of the most incredible numbers in modern sports is that LeBron James has been in the NBA Finals in 10 of his 17 seasons, including nine of the last 10. That is just absurd, the relative inferiority of the Eastern Conference during his Miami Heat and (two) Cleveland Cavaliers tenures notwithstanding, and last Sunday he notched his fourth championship.
I know, it’s not Michael Jordan’s six. Whatever. I would argue we’re looking at that debate all wrong, muddying the line between the more accomplished player and the better player, and besides that, I don’t think Jordan faced nearly the same level of competition as LeBron, whose seven-game Finals victory over the 73-win Warriors was, in my book, the most impressive NBA championship of my lifetime. So let’s start there. Here is a ranking of LeBron’s four NBA championships in terms of difficulty.
1. Cavs over Warriors (2016)
To me, this is one of the most impressive championships in sports history, and it is certainly, to this point, the crowning achievement of LeBron’s career. That Warriors team was unbelievable. For the Cavs to be down 3-1, a deficit from which no Finals team had ever recovered, and come back to win that series was as difficult a task as any NBA player or team has ever faced, the Draymond Green suspension and Andrew Bogut’s injury that kept him out Games 6 and 7 notwithstanding. The Red Sox coming back to shock the New York Yankees after falling behind 3-0 in the 2004 ALCS is the only higher mountain I’ve personally seen a team climb to a title.
This is to say nothing of the 52-year championship drought for the city of Cleveland. The weight that was on LeBron’s shoulders in that Finals was crushing, and his performance under that weight was legendary: 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals and 2.3 blocks. Over the final three elimination games, he averaged 36.3 points, 11.6 rebounds and 9.6 assists. he had 41 in both Games 5 and 6. He posted a triple-double in Game 7 and the most iconic defensive play in NBA history.
We’ve never seen LeBron react to a championship the way he reacted to that one, just crumbling to the floor and sobbing, absolutely exhausted both mentally and physically. That was the toughest championship he ever won, clearly, and it’s very unlikely he or any of his peers will ever top it.
2. Heat over Spurs (2013)
The 2013 Spurs weren’t as great as the 2014 Spurs that had Kawhi Leonard and Boris Diaw hitting another level, but they were still great. They were one Kawhi made free throw or one defensive rebound from taking Miami out, but we know how that went:
Leonard missed the front-end foul shot with a chance to put San Antonio up four, Gregg Popovich subbed out Tim Duncan, Chris Bosh took advantage of Duncan’s absence by grabbing the biggest offensive rebound, kicked it out to Ray Allen, who then backpedaled to the corner and proceeded to stick one of the most iconic shots in history to send Game 6 into overtime, where the Heat escaped with a 103-100 victory before coming back two nights later to finish the title in Game 7.
Had Allen not made that shot, LeBron’s Finals legacy would look a lot different today. I hate to use the work “choke,” but after laying a relative egg in the 2011 Finals against a Mavericks team that held him to an unfathomable eight points in Game 4 and generally left him looking more bewildered than someone of his talent should ever look on a basketball court, LeBron nearly gave away another title shot in the final minute of Game 6 vs. the Spurs.
Over a 48-second span, LeBron coughed the ball up twice, both on aimless, desperate passes that had no chance to be completed after he dribbled himself into no-man’s land. He also bricked two 3-pointers, the first of which barely hit the rim, the second of which led to the Bosh rebound and the clutch Allen 3. The 3-pointer LeBron finally hit to cut San Antonio’s lead to two notwithstanding, it was one of the worst minutes an all-time great has ever played with a championship on the line.
Give LeBron credit. He came back in Game 7 in a big way, posting 37 points and 12 rebounds. He shot 8 for 8 from the foul line He went 5 for 10 from 3. After refusing to take a jumper in the closing minute of Game 6, even as defenders retreated all the way into the lane daring him, LeBron drilled what was effectively the championship-clinching 20 footer in Game 7 with under 30 seconds to play and the Heat clinging to a two-point lead.
There were so many ways that series could’ve gone San Antonio’s way. But it didn’t. The stars aligned for the Heat as they grasped at the final straws of their Game 6 life. In other series — say, 2016 vs. the Warriors — things got pretty dark for LeBron as well, but in that series it was LeBron who pulled his team into the light. Here, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen did it for him, and then once the lights were turned back on in Game 7, LeBron did his thing. An extremely difficult championship with some luck sprinkled in.
3. Heat over Thunder (2012)
A few reasons I believe LeBron getting past the Thunder in 2011 was a tougher task than his most recent title over the Heat. First, the Thunder were more talented, which is, you know, sort of a big deal. We’re talking about a team with first-team All-NBA Kevin Durant, second-team All-NBA Russell Westbrook and Sixth Man of the Year winner James Harden.
The Thunder were the second-best offensive team in the league that year, and No. 1 in the playoffs. They were one-tenth of a point per 100 possessions from being the dead equal of the Heat that season in terms of net rating. They had a better record than the Heat over a shortened 66-game schedule.
Yes, the Heat beat them in five games, winning four straight after OKC won Game 1, but it was a far closer series than a gentleman’s sweep would indicate. Durant had a clean baseline look from just outside the paint to tie Game 2 with seven seconds remaining, and this was after Miami had taken a seven-point lead with under a minute to play and it looked like it was over. The Heat were that close to blowing Game 2 and trailing 2-0. At that point, only three teams in history had recovered from a 2-0 deficit to win the Finals.
The Thunder were right there again in Game 3. Westbrook had a 3-pointer to tie the game with 29 seconds to play. He missed, and Miami survived. In Game 4, the Thunder lost a jump ball down three with 17 seconds to play. These games were down to the wire until the Thunder finally ran out of breath in Game 5.
Also, this was LeBron’s first title. There was no championship experience to draw from. His most recent Finals memory was blowing a 17-point lead in Game 2 and eventually losing the series the previous year to the Mavericks. This was also the year the Heat had to come back from a 3-2 deficit to beat Boston in the conference finals. Had either the Boston or OKC series gone against Miami, and this team that was put together to run roughshod over the league had turned up 0 for 2 in the Finals, who knows what would have happened.
The pressure was immense, that Thunder team was really good, seemingly at the start of something special. This Heat team LeBron beat in 2020 just wasn’t that good, plain and simple.
4. Lakers over Heat (2020)
This is no disrespect to the current Heat team. No championship is easy. Try to remember this is relative to LeBron’s other championships before you start crying about how much I’m underrating Miami. This year’s Heat were good. Not great. They were a No. 5 seed. It was, incidentally, the first time in history a No. 5 seed has made the Finals, which means a No. 5 seed has never won an NBA title.
There’s a reason for that. No. 5 seeds aren’t great. The Heat were better than their seed would indicate because they acquired Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder, both of whom were huge in the playoffs, in a trade with Memphis shortly before the coronavirus suspension, and Goran Dragic started playing out of his mind in the postseason.
But LeBron basically didn’t have to go against Dragic, who tore his plantar fascia in the first half of Game 1 and didn’t return until the last game of the series, in which he was completely inconsequential. Bam Adebayo also missed Games 2 and 3 of the series. That is rather significant. Dragic, not Jimmy Butler, was the team’s leading playoff scorer through three rounds. Adebayo is the second-best player on the team.
There’s also the bubble factor, which swings both ways. Some things made it very difficult, namely being stuck in a hotel for three months and playing without a crowd, and the Lakers also would’ve had home-court advantage in a normal world. On the flip side, they would’ve had to play in MIami, too, where the Heat were one of the best home teams in the league during the season. Also, I know it looks like LeBron is never going to age, but he is 35 years old, and not having to travel for the entirety of the playoffs, to me, was a far greater benefit than the home-court advantage would’ve been in a normal postseason. A neutral court means no advantage for either team, so give me the team with the best player.
I will say, Jimmy Butler was incredible. He averaged 26.3 points, 9.8 assists, 8.3 rebounds and 2.2 steals for the series. He went toe to toe with LeBron until the closeout Game 6. That said, both Durant AND Westbrook averaged more than Butler’s 26 points in the 2012 Finals, Dirk Nowitzki averaged 26 in 2011, and Steph Curry was the unanimous MVP in 2016. This wasn’t exactly the first time LeBron ran into a big-time individual opponent in a Finals. Butler is great, but he’s not Curry, Durant or Nowitzki. I think we should all be able to agree on that.
Again, this is no knock on the Heat, and it’s not meant in any way to diminish the Lakers’ title. Miami was tough as heck. It didn’t give an inch, and LeBron and Anthony Davis had to be at their best to win. But LeBron had to be at his best in those other series as well. He had to win a Game 7 in two of them, one on the road against a 73-win team. Oklahoma City was fully healthy with three no-doubt future Hall of Famers, and they were up 1-0 in that series and inches from being up either 2-0 or 2-1.
Miami, on the other hand, never led the series at a single point. First they were down 2-0, and later trailed 3-1. They played above their heads to make it as far as they did, but there is no way to say beating a No. 5 seed with two of its best three players missing significant time in the Finals was a more difficult task than LeBron’s other three titles.