"I'd rather not even make the playoffs than lose in the Finals," – LeBron James, after losing in the 2015 NBA Finals.
Was LeBron rightly justified in saying this? With how most people judge a player’s greatness, is it really better to not make the playoffs at all than lose in the end?
You know how they say “better late than never”? Is it better to not show up at all instead? We all know where this crazy expectation came from – from none other than Mr. 6-0 himself.
Michael Jordan’s legendary 6-0 NBA Finals. To put LeBron’s pain in perspective, it only makes sense to put both resumes side by side and look closer at this “perfection” and if ball fans around the world are justified in judging a player’s greatness by perfect Finals record alone.
Here we go - Jordan’s Finals teams vs LeBron’s Finals teams, who will you bet on to win it all? Which team is the underdog?
Read More About Michael Jordan
I have compiled some simple comparison to Jordan’s and LeBron’s playoffs accomplishment. I know there are a lot of talk about Jordan's 6-0 Finals records vs LeBron's 3-4 Finals record, and how ultimately this will be the judge of their court legacy.
Simple math says yes for Jordan, that is a 100% win rate! A Rocky Marciano, Floyd Mayweather like perfection, but yet the greatest of them all is the guy who hit the canvas many times stood back up and willed himself into greatness – the great Muhammad Ali.
With Jordan’s legendary 6-0 Finals record, is LeBron’s 3-4 Finals record really that bad to warrant him from ever achieving the G.O.A.T-like status like people say? In a world where individual greatness sells shoes and jerseys, we tend to forget that…
Championships are ultimately, and will always be a team accomplishment.
And basketball is such a beautiful and complex sport that it is unfair for us fans not to be told or reminded of actual events of yesteryears, especially for us who know the legendary Jordan only through his Jordan XIs and majestic YouTube highlights.
They say to win a championship takes teamwork, talent, good health and ball “bouncing your way” one a few times. Without one of these, well, the history of the sport is filled with what you call the “what ifs”.
What if Kobe/Shaq never feuded, will Duncan have 5 rings? What if Kevin Garnett's knee didn't blow up in 2009 title defense campaign? What if Kendrick Perkins didn't get injured in Game 6 of the Finals and played Game 7 vs the Lakers? What if Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving didn't get injured in 2015 Finals? What if Ray Allen clanked the game tying 3 pointer in 2013, which ultimately lead to a Heat repeat?
The What Ifs! Basketball is a team game, a game of complexities, opportunities and of circumstance. Like most team sports, it’s an orchestra. And to simplify it to a mere “6 for 6” is like making a Top-10 Vince Carter dunk highlight – you just can’t. Maybe try Top 200 dunks highlight?
So in the spirit of this team sport, let's look at Jordan's 6-0 and LeBron's 3-4 from a different perspective. A quantifiable perspective.
We will divide it into 2 parts. Individual Rating and Team Rating.
Individual Rating: We will look at head to head Playoffs statistical comparison and achievements.
Michael Jordan, total 15 NBA seasons.
⦁ 13 Playoffs.
⦁ 6 Finals.
⦁ 6/13 = 46% chance of making Finals.
LeBron James, total 13 NBA seasons.
⦁ 11 Playoffs.
⦁ 7 Finals.
⦁ 7/11 = 63% chance of making Finals.
Jordan leads James in PPG/TP and Steals. LeBron leads in everything else.
Team Rating: There are many factors to rate a team, but for the sake of this article, we will use Vegas odds, as ultimately they factor in all measurable data to come up as “who is the favorite/underdog” to make as much money as possible. Some people may question this method of team rating, but I’d rather go with professional sports bookers than an opinionated rant how Stockton and Malone’s Jazz was actually better than the Bulls (not).
Here we go:
6x Jordan's team reached Finals, all 6x teams had Vegas odds place them as favorites.
7x LeBron's team reached Finals, only 2x teams had Vegas odds place them as favorites.
From the above, we can easily determine that MJ always had the better team heading into the Finals. LeBron meanwhile, 7 teams, only 2 of his team was favorite. This shows that LeBron constantly led an inferior team to the Finals. The above also doesn’t show the massively favorite Golden State Warriors, who bested the 1996 Bulls Championship team 72-win season by posting an out-of-this-world 73-win season.
Did LeBron play against better teams in the Finals? A lot would say yes.
What if Jordan didn’t take 2 years off? A lot would say he’d have 8 rings now.
But really, who cares? This is the circumstance part of the game we spoke about. The “What Ifs” part of the game.
An individual can only do so much, this isn’t college basketball or the Super Bowl where one miraculous performance can win you 1 game and be crowned champions. NBA Basketball is sustained excellence.
There is no fluke here. Basketball’s 7-game series is made to do one thing: It makes sure the better team wins 99% of the time.
Even with injured teams, you can make an excuse they lost because of injury, but still, the better team on the court won. As in the case of the 2015 NBA Finals. The better team on the court won.
This reminded me of what LeBron said when he lost in the 2015 NBA Finals against the Warriors in 6 games, with no Love/Irving. (Now imagine Warriors winning 2015 Finals without Klay and Green)
LeBron said "Maybe I'd rather not make the playoffs than lose another Finals."
Think about it, is it really better to not make the Finals at all, or lose the Finals? That way you have no record of that “L”?
How do we judge success? Is it better not to show up at all? Or is this all a myth? A fallacy born from the love of legends and how indestructible they were?
Jordan isn’t “6 for 6”. He went to playoffs 13 times, went to finals 6 times.
LeBron went to playoffs 11 times, went to Finals 7 times.
Michael’s 6-0 record is legendary, and I doubt it can be replicated again. His championships are a product of all those factors we talked about coming together in perfect unison. Bill Russell did it 11 times. But is it really fair to judge a player’s greatness by this alone?
This article does not aim to downplay Mike's legendary accomplishment, but rather show you that 6-0 is cool, but is not where the case for greatness ends. Otherwise, Bill Russell easily trumps Mike. Greatness is a factor and combination of a multitude of things, and I know Jordan worshippers know this best.
Mike isn’t Top 1 in the scoring list, he isn’t Top 1 in Rebounds or Assists or Steals or Blocks or even number of championships. Mike is currently the best because of how he did it, how he dominated, hence a combination of all those things!
So why is LeBron’s legacy being affected by his 3-4 Finals record alone? Or is this the great compliment – he has done so much now that the only thing holding him back is his Finals record?
Who will you take in a seven game series - Mike’s team, or James team? I won’t be surprised if you choose Mike, after all, LeBron’s used to being the underdog.
But I won’t be surprised either if that underdog though, in the end, takes it home again. And again.