But does that record provide a fair verdict on James’ performance in the NBA Finals? Below, ESPN’s Stats & Information Group analyzes his body of work in the NBA Finals from various angles.
Looking at expectations, opponents and supporting casts
Based on the pre-playoff projections of ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, James’ teams were expected to make four Finals appearances and win two titles in 10 playoff appearances (including this season). So, even though James’ teams are 2-4 in the Finals, he has met expectations for titles won and exceeded them for Finals appearances.
Elo Ratings, recently released by FiveThirtyEight, allow us to measure the relative strength of every team in NBA history after every game, based on scoring margin and game site. By this measure, James’ teams have been favored in two of his six Finals appearances.
This season’s Warriors were the third-best team in Finals history, based on Elo Ratings.
In James’ four Finals losses, he has been flanked by three of the eight worst supporting casts in the last 31 NBA Finals, as measured by the Statistical Plus/Minus of the talent of the teammates of a club’s best player, effective through a given season’s conference finals.
This statistic, created by FiveThirtyEight, also takes into account the minutes played by particular teammates and how important each game is for a team’s title chances.
During his two Finals losses with the Cavaliers, James had the second- and third-worst supporting casts in these 31 Finals. The only team with a worse supporting cast for its best player in these 31 Finals was the 1999 New York Knicks, who are the only eighth seed to reach the NBA Finals. By contrast, Jordan played with three of the six best supporting casts during his three-peat from 1996 to 1998.
James played with the eighth-worst supporting cast in an NBA Finals of the last 31 seasons in 2014, yet he carried a worse supporting cast to the Finals this season.
Comparing to other all-time greats
James’ 2-4 record in the Finals pales in comparison to Jordan’s 6-0 or Bill Russell’s 11-1.
But, given James’ supporting cast and opposition in the Finals, the fact he took his team this far and won two games against the Warriors is a feat in itself. So how can we compare James’ Finals record to that of other NBA greats, given the relative strength and expectations of each of the teams that they played for?
For the analysis below, we pulled the Elo Ratings for each team to make the NBA Finals before the series began, accounted for home-court advantage and projected each team’s pre-Finals chance of winning.
This breakdown compares James to other NBA MVPs who appeared in five or more Finals, to get a decent sample size. It is important to note that this is based on pre-Finals projections, but at times the fact a team even made it to the Finals (think the 2007 Cavaliers) is an accomplishment in itself.
It should be no surprise that Russell, who won 11 titles in 12 Finals appearances from 1957 to 1969, is the greatest Finals overachiever. Russell’s Celtics were heavy favorites in almost all of those series (they had an average of a 74 percent chance to win across his Finals), so his teams should have won about nine titles.
Like Russell, Jordan played on some all-time great teams, but even the best teams are not expected to be undefeated in the Finals. Jordan’s Bulls had on average a 69 percent chance to win entering the Finals, resulting in the expectation of about four titles in his six appearances.
Including this season, James’ teams won about as many titles as expected (0.2 fewer than expected, to be exact). What is most interesting about the list below, however, is that James’ teams had the lowest expected series win percentage (37 percent) of any of the stars. His teams had more than a 60 percent pre-series chance to win only once, according to this model, which is a result of the strength of his teams relative to the opponents he’s faced.
Because a player’s team over- or underachieved doesn’t necessarily mean that the player did. Against the Warriors, James scored or assisted on 62 percent of the Cavaliers’ points and became the first player in Finals history to lead both teams in points, rebounds and assists. Although this NBA Finals will go down as another notch in the loss column for James, most would agree that he did not underachieve against the Warriors.