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The “GOAT” Case for Lebron James Part II: Playoff Performances

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Photo by David Zalubowski / AP

Lebron James is the NBA’s all-time leading scorer after breaking Kareem’s 39-year-old scoring record. In light of this accomplishment, this author will take a look at Lebron’s career, his body of work, his accomplishments, and failures, and make the case for why he is the greatest player of all time through a series of weekly articles.


When the story of Lebron James is finished, and his accolades, records, and vast accomplishments are finalized, we will look at the night of June 7th, 2012 as the inflection point that catapulted his career to the “GOAT” stratosphere. Up until then, Lebron James had been a fantastic playoff performer. Just a couple of years earlier he had averaged 38.5pts/8.3rebs/8.0asts in a 6-game loss to the Magic. In the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals James had an iconic game 5 performance, scoring 29 out of the last 30 Cavs points in 16 minutes of play, including the last 25 Cavs points going 11-13 from the field.

But June 7th was a different animal. The Boston Celtics had created the first super team of the modern era, adding Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in hopes of beating Lebron and holding him down. That move eventually led to James’ departure from Cleveland, joining forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in South Beach. But that night James was heading into the Boston Garden down 3-2 and in an all too familiar place: elimination. Lebron’s demeanor on the court was that of a lion as he looked at Boston players like they were antelope. By the time the first quarter was over, James had completely quieted the crowd and taken control of the game. By the end of game 6, James had posted a 45-15-5 on 73% shooting, played 45 minutes, and earned the 98-79 win. Miami would go on to win the series and eventually the NBA Championship. All great players have iconic moments, and it is why as we continue to make the case for Lebron, we must look and see how he has performed in the playoffs and the NBA finals.

Playoff Ranks
Lebron James ranks as one of the best, if not the best, playoff performer of all time. As of now, he ranks first in games, minutes, wins, +/-, steals, points, free throws made, and field goals made. He ranks second in assists and three-pointers, sixth in rebounds, and tenth in blocks. Part of it, of course, is the fact that his longevity has been legendary. Nevertheless, Lebron James has been a consistent playoff force. For a player who does not shoot first and prefers setting up his teammates, Lebron has an NBA record for 21 game-tying or go-ahead field goals in the final minute of a playoff game. That means that since 1996 Lebron James’ 48% conversion rate for game-tying or go-ahead field goals in the final minute of a playoff game is higher than Kobe, Steph, KD, Jordan, and Dirk. He has also proven to be clutch in final shot situations as he has 5 playoff buzzer beaters which is as much as Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant combined. Then there is Lebron James making the case as the greatest elimination game performer ever. In elimination games, Lebron averages 34.1 ppg/11.0 RPG/7.5 Asts / shoots 48.8 Fg % and has a 14-9 record including 6-0 in-game 7s since 2010. By contrast, Jordan has a 6-7 record in elimination games scoring 31.3/7.9/7.0 on 44.5 % Fg. James also has 7,631 career playoff points, no one else has 6,000 points.

Less With More
On top of those accolades, Lebron has always done less with more. In 2016, the Cavs were facing the defending champions Golden State Warriors, winners of a record 73 games in the regular season. The Warriors had broken the 1996 Bull’s hallowed record of 72 wins in a season and were up 3-1 on the Cavs. The next three games were some of the best games in James’ career leading to the Cavs winning in game 7, where Lebron had his most iconic defensive play, which led to the Kyrie Irving go-ahead field goal. By the series end, the Cavs had become the first team in NBA history to come back from a 3-1 deficit and Lebron James became the first player in NBA history to lead all players in the finals in points, steals, assists, rebounds, and blocks. That victory forced the 73-win Warriors to add Kevin Durant as an insurance policy. According to 538, which ranked supporting cast players from 1985-2015, James had a lack of help from his supporting cast, even in years when the names on the back of the jersey were all stars. In 2007 his cast ranked 59th, in 2011 10th, in 2012 21st, in 2013 38th, in 2014 53rd, and in 2015 58th. By contrast, Jordan’s 1996 team had the best-supporting cast with the ’97 and ’98 team ranking 5th and 6th respectively.

Finals Losses

One of the knocks on Lebron James has been his losses in the NBA finals. When compared to Michael Jordan for example, they love to cite Michael’s 6-0 record perfect finals record. One of the things Lebron detractors and Jordan enthusiasts ignore is the fact that Lebron James faced two dynasties, the Spurs and the Warriors in a much deeper era than Jordan’s era. When we look at Jordan’s finals opponents outside of the Utah Jazz, there wasn’t a single opponent that was good enough to make it multiple times to the finals. Even the Jazz, who had a great second star in Stockton were not as deep as Jordan’s Bulls who had a legit big 3 in Jordan/Pippen/Rodman and a much deeper team than the Jazz. The Spurs, meanwhile, were in an era where they had to face a stacked Western Conference that included the Kobe and Shaq Lakers and later on the Kobe/Gasol Lakers, who were able to advance to the finals 6 times with their only loss to the Lebron James -led Heat. The Warriors dynasty made the finals 4 years in a row and as stated above, added Kevin Durant to a 73-win team because of the threat Lebron James posed. Jordan didn’t face anything close to these teams in his 90’s run. In fact, if we take Jordan’s averages in his last three Finals wins and compare that to Lebron’s last three Finals losses this is what you get:

Lebron James : 34.6ppg/11.6rpg/9.5apg/51.4%fg

Michael Jordan:31.1ppg/5.6rpg/4.2apg/45.4 %fg


The above numbers show that Lebron James clearly produced at a higher level than Jordan, but because one had a complete team and the other one was under-matched playing historic dynasties, the myth that Jordan is significantly better in the playoffs and even in the Finals has persisted. By that logic then, Bill Russell would be the best player of all time, because if an individual’s impact does not really matter, nor taking into context the opponents played, then Russel’s 11 rings should be the standard that every NBA player should be judged on.

The 2011 Finals

As Lebron continues to play at a high level, and as his individual accomplishments and achievements continue to rack up, the Jordan detractors have zeroed in on the 2011 Finals as the one blemish that is on his resume that Jordan never had. It’s as if time has stopped in 2011 and Lebron never improved and didn’t go on an unmatched 10-year tear posting historic numbers that had never been done or seen before at the playoff and Finals level. In embarrassing fashion, this is the last bastion of argument outside the shallow “six for six” argument that is left for Jordan fans. But if we are to judge Lebron on a bad series, where he clearly underperformed at the hands of a stellar Dwane Casey defensive game plan, then we must also look at Jordan’s past playoff performances. One interesting stat is that Michael Jordan has never won a first-round series without Scottie Pippen. He never did this in Chicago in the ’80s when he was averaging over 35 points per game or on the Wizards in the “weak east” of the early 2000s. Jordan’s record without Scottie Pippen is 1-9 in the playoffs. That one is not a series but a game. Let’s now take a look at Jordan’s playoff and finals performances in key series:

In 1986, after the 63-point masterpiece, Jordan’s team was swept after he only scored 19 points in 39 minutes of play. In 1988, versus the Detroit Pistons, Jordan only scored 3 points in the crucial 4th quarter as the Bulls went on to lose by 22 points at home. In game 4 he only scored 8 4th-quarter points in a 19-point home loss. In game 5 of that series, Jordan only scored 5 points in a 7-point loss. In 1989, the Chicago Bulls were up 2-1 on the Detroit Pistons and Jordan scored only 11 points in the final three quarters as the Bulls lost. In game 5 Jordan scored just one point in the 4th quarter and lost by 9 taking only 8 shots during a 46-minute span. Finally, the Pistons eliminated the Bulls in game 6, when Jordan scored only 6 in the 4th quarter. In the time before social media and 24/7 news coverage, Jordan was shut down in the most important times of the game and because of his lack of activity on the scoring end, his team ended up losing.

Even in the series when the Bulls won, there were key moments when Jordan was saved by his teammates. In 1992 at Portland in Game 6 of the Finals, Phil Jackson had to sit Jordan down in an elimination game because of how poor he was playing. It was the Bulls bench that was able to rally and mount a comeback with Jordan cheering from the bench. In 1993, the New York Knicks took a 2-0 series lead on Chicago winning the first 2 games at home. The night before game 3, Jordan was out gambling in an Atlantic City Casino and Jordan shot 3-18 in a pivotal game 3. Luckily for Jordan, Scottie Pippen had a monster game and Chicago was able to win the game and eventually the series. Or how about the 1996 Finals? At first glance, it appears Jordan had a great series averaging 27 points per game. But when we look beneath the hood at the details of that series Jordan did so, inefficiently on 41.5% FG percentage. What’s worse is that Gary Payton had a torn calf muscle and only after game 3 did George Karl decide to put Gary Payton on Jordan (The Bulls were up 3-0 at that point). With a hurt Payton on him, Jordan averaged 23.7ppg/36.7%fg over his last 3 games. In game 6 that the Bulls won, Jordan was held to 22 points on 6/19 field goals, which is 31%fg in an elimination game. What was the reason why Jordan was able to win this series besides playing so poorly? Jordan had the deepest team in the NBA.

LeBron James’ playoff resume is unmatched. From his championships and Finals appearances to his statistical dominance and clutch performances, LeBron has proven time and time again that he is one of the greatest playoff performers of all time. His impact on the game and his teams, combined with his consistency and versatility, make a strong case for him being the greatest playoff performer of all time. As time passes and he continues to play at a high level the distance between Lebron and the competition will continue to increase. He has surpassed everyone in terms of production and performance, even Michael Jordan.

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