Sports punditry and analysis is always full of bad arguments and poorly thought-out opinions. But the worst sports argument of the past decade concerns LeBron James.
LeBron has played in the NBA Finals nine of the last ten years and ten total. He’s led a team to the Finals in each conference. And critics point out that he’s won *only* four.
His record in the Finals is 4–6. And that means he sucks.
Forget the fact that he’s in the conversation as the greatest all-around player most of us have ever witnessed. Forget that he’s been under a microscope since high school. Forget that he drags teams full of CYO players, D-League castoffs, and Old Timers legends to the final round every single year. Forget that he’s done it in three cities with three completely different sets of teammates. Forget that in those ten years, he’s had the lesser team at least seven times, including running into a superteam, possibly the greatest team ever, one that added an all-time great player to the squad with the greatest regular season record in history.
LeBron has four rings and four Finals MVPs. He’s won a championship in each conference. He’s won a Game 7 on the road and he’s won in the COVID-19 bubble.
But none of that matters. Because he sucks. Plain and simple.
He’s no Michael Jordan.
The logic that so many people use to get there makes zero sense.
People say that this would never happen to Jordan. That his competitive spirit and will to win just dominated over everything and he would simply not let his team lose. After all, he was 6–0 in the Finals. That’s perfect.
The flaw in that argument is that Michael Jordan played fifteen seasons in the NBA. Even if you exclude the two years with the Washington Wizards (which you shouldn’t) because they missed the playoffs, that still leaves 13 seasons, meaning seven times he failed to even reach the Finals.
Let’s look at them individually:
1985: Jordan’s rookie season. The seventh-seeded Chicago Bulls lose in the first round to the Milwaukee Bucks 3 games to 1, the lone victory coming on a Jordan game-winner.
1986: The year Jordan broke his foot and played in 18 regular season games. He returned for the playoffs where the eight-seeded Bulls (who were twenty-two games under .500 and still made the playoffs) were swept by the eventual champion Boston Celtics. This was the series where MJ set the single-game scoring record with 63 at the Boston Garden in an overtime loss.
1987: Jordan averages an ungodly 37.1 points per game, but the Bulls once again finish eighth and once again get swept by Boston. It’s clear Jordan needs help. Sound familiar?
1988: Jordan’s ascension year, when he won MVP, the scoring title, the All-Star Game MVP, and the Defensive Player of the Year. He was undoubtedly the greatest player in the game and, unlike Steph Curry, he did it on both ends of the floor. His Bulls finished as the three-seed, but were defeated in five games in the Eastern Conference Semifinals by the Detroit Pistons.
After four seasons, Jordan hadn’t even made the Eastern Conference Finals in an NBA landscape that had only a few strong teams.
Meanwhile, in LeBron’s fourth season he dragged a sorry Cleveland Cavaliers team to their first NBA Finals after an historic performance, also against the Pistons.
1989: Chicago takes a step back in the regular season, finishing sixth, but takes the next step in the playoffs, making it to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they lose to Detroit in six.
1990: Phil Jackson replaces Doug Collins, the Bulls finish third, and push the Pistons to seven before once again falling, the pressure contributing to Scottie Pippen’s migraine that left him virtually useless during the game.
1991–1993: They put it together and rip off three straight titles (with Jordan and Pippen adding a gold medal in the middle).
1994: Swing and a miss.
1995: The year everyone outside Orlando forgets. MJ returned for the final 17 games of the season wearing 45, was rusty, dropped a double nickle on the Knicks, looked good, and then looked a step slow in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. After stripping him in Game 1, Nick Anderson said, “Number 45 is not Number 23.” Jordan went back to 23, but it wasn’t enough as the upstart Magic, with Horace Grant, took out the Bulls in six. When asked what the Bulls needed to get back to the Finals, Jordan said, “We’re a Horace Grant away.”
1996–1998: There was nothing more frightening than a pissed off Jordan. After the ’95 Playoffs, he went crazy in his preparation and lobbied for the Bulls to acquire Dennis Rodman. The result? The most wins in NBA history (until 2016) and a revenge sweep of Orlando en route to three more rings.
So, yes, Jordan won six rings in six Finals, but he also lost a lot in the Eastern Conference playoffs. It wasn’t until he had a great coach and an all-time great teammate, also a lock down defender like himself, that he was able to win.
You can’t just parse a player’s career by their record in the Finals. Jerry West, whose nickname was “Mr. Clutch,” was 1–8 in the Finals. I guess he sucks too? Logo, my ass.
In 13 seasons with the Bulls, Jordan won six titles, but he also failed to make the Finals seven times.
In 17 seasons with the Cavaliers, Heat and Lakers, LeBron won four titles, but has also made the Finals six other times. And he’s played huge in huge games.
He led a team that overcame a 3–1 deficit against the team with the greatest regular season record in history, won a Game 7 on the road in which he played enormously, capping one of the greatest three game stretches in basketball history, including a season-saving block, the physics of which still defy all human logic.
One of the most prevalent criticisms of LeBron was that he was dominating a weak conference and if he played in the west with the big boys — the varsity to the east’s JV — he would struggle and be exposed as a fraud. Well, he moved to California and led the Lakers back to the title in the midst of the bubble, one of the most mentally and emotionally taxing situations in NBA history.
And he was still the best player on the championship team. “ It was the sixth time in James’ career that he averaged 25 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists in the NBA Finals. The other five players to accomplish that did it only once.”
He’s the first player to ever average a triple-double in the Finals. No one — from Wilt to West to Kareem to Magic to Bird to Jordan to Shaq to Kobe — ever did that. He’s the only player to record two 30 point triple-doubles in the same Finals. He has 11 Finals triple-doubles, the most ever.
So, at this point, LeBron has gotten farther more often, and with far worse coaches and teammates, than Jordan. Does that alone prove he’s better than Jordan? Of course not. But, by the same token, his Finals losses also don’t prove that he sucks and is a choker.
You can’t win the championship unless you get to the championship round, so isn’t it better to reach the Finals and give yourself a chance?
No, silly. It’s clear that LeBron should’ve lost before reaching the Finals those six times. When Kevin Durant signed with the Warriors, rather than dragging his team to two more Finals appearances, he should’ve gotten swept in the first round to ensure his precious Finals record doesn’t get any worse.
How does that make sense?
This was originally published in early June, 2016 and has been updated regularly in the years since.
Christopher Pierznik is a nine-time worst-selling author. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter. Please feel free to get in touch at CPierznik99@gmail.com.