There is no debate to be had, LeBron James is hands down the best player of his generation. He has four league MVP’s, two NBA titles with a Finals MVP for each of them and he has been the most dominant force in this league for over a decade. Yet, he’s so heavily scrutinized about every little thing that he says or does. Too much is made of his comments in the media, too much is made of his body language on the court, too much is made of the calls he gets or doesn’t get throughout the course of a game. However, with all that being said, some of the scrutiny that he receives is warranted. Don’t get it twisted, LeBron is an all time great player, but there is something to be said about his record in the NBA Finals.
LeBron has gone to six straight NBA Finals. That is extremely impressive and you can’t take that away from him. His record in those Finals looks like it’s going to be 2-4 though. Here is where the scrutiny lies. If you look back at the past six years, every team LeBron has been on has been the hands down favorite to represent the Eastern Conference in the Finals. Is it because LeBron is the best player in the world? Or does it come from a lack of legitimate competition in the East? It’s hard to not take the latter. Other than a blip of excellence from the Chicago Bulls that was gone as quickly as it came due to the devastating injuries to their best player, Derrick Rose, LeBron’s teams have faced little to no serious competition in the East. If LeBron was on a Western Conference team, there is absolutely no way he makes it to six straight Finals. Every year before the season starts, you can make the argument for a few teams from the West for them to come out of the conference and play for a championship. The same can not be said for the Eastern Conference. All four years that LeBron was in Miami, they were unchallenged. His first two years in Cleveland have mirrored that success. A lot of it has to do with LeBron being the great player that he is, but the lack of a legitimate opponent also has a lot to do with it.
Looking back, when LeBron was in Miami, the Bulls had two great years but failed to make the Finals. The Pacers went to consecutive Eastern Conference Finals against Miami and lost both. Those were the only two teams that had an extended period of success during LeBron’s tenure in Miami. In LeBron’s first year in Miami, Chicago was the number one seed and won 62 games while Derrick Rose went on to win MVP. When the two teams matched up in the Eastern Conference Finals, Miami won the series 4-1. Not much of a series there. The following year was shortened by the lockout and again the Bulls had the number one seed in the East. However, this time, the Heat met the Celtics in the ECF and the series went 7 games with Miami dominating Boston in game 7.The next two years saw the Heat facing a different foe, the Indiana Pacers. Miami was able to withstand the Pacers in back to back years and go on to the Finals. It’s been well documented how LeBron and the Heat were 2-2 in their 4 consecutive Finals appearances.
By the time LeBron went back to Cleveland, the East was falling apart. Indiana lost Paul George to a gruesome leg injury, the Bulls were dealing with injury issues of their own, the Celtics were (and still are) in the midst of a rebuild, and no other team has emerged as a serious threat to LeBron’s reign as king of the East. Atlanta had an impressive year and won 62 games only to be swept by LeBron and company in the Eastern Conference Finals. Not to take away anything from LeBron. He has been resilient in each and every year in his quest to win an NBA championship. He’s won a couple of game 7’s over this incredible streak of six straight Finals appearances. However, at the end of the day, nobody ever picks a different Eastern Conference team as a legitimate championship contender. The fact of the matter is that LeBron has had a relatively easy road to the Finals in comparison to his Western Conference counterparts each and every year. It’s nearly impossible to make the argument that the East is just as competitive as the West because it simply is not. The NBA fans deserve to see some more competition in the East and it could really help LeBron prove to all of his doubters that it is his brilliance and not a lack of competition that led him to six straight finals appearances. I personally hope the East becomes more competitive so we can see rivalries be born like we witnessed the Spurs and Warriors in the West. LeBron is an all time great player and that can not be taken away from him, but his lack of success in the Finals is definitely a question mark in an otherwise brilliant career so far.
Image from: http://nba.nbcsports.com/2015/06/02/warriors-have-options-to-guard-lebron-james-but-hell-make-them-work/