En route to three titles, LBJ has defeated some of the toughest teams in recent memory. But how does his competition stack up against the greats?
Throughout the latter half of a 14-year career, LeBron James has held a near-impenetrable stronghold over the NBA. Like a tyrant king protecting his crown, he casts a dark shadow across the Eastern Conference and all teams hoping for their own chance in the Finals — a slot James has monopolized for seven consecutive seasons.
Many franchises have assembled their best men to dethrone him: from Chicago came Derrick Rose; from Indiana, Paul George and Roy Hibbert; and from Boston, Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, and LeBron’s new sidekick, Isaiah Thomas. Still, James has emerged victorious, leaving behind a path of broken dreams, unfulfilled careers, and exasperated front offices throughout the East.
But while James has defeated some of the greatest teams in recent memory, he still trails behind contemporaries Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, and Tim Duncan with “only” three championships on his résumé. In the classic LeBron vs. Kobe vs. Jordan debate, this fact often earns James the short end of the stick. However, comparing legacies by ring count alone ignores one vital factor: the level of competition.
For example, James’ 2016 Cavaliers and Larry Bird’s 1981 Celtics are statistically undifferentiated as champions, despite the former defeating the record 73-9 Warriors and the latter dispatching the lowly 40-42 Rockets. Furthermore, a player might defeat multiple championship-caliber teams throughout a career, such as Dwight Howard (‘09 Cavaliers, Celtics) or Zach Randolph (‘11 Spurs, ‘13 Thunder), yet fail to ever win the gold. Consequently, their accomplishments are woefully forgotten and ignored by the usual winner-takes-all standards.
Therefore, to provide a deeper and more accurate understanding, the chart below compares LeBron and other historic players not by ring count, but by the number of playoff series victories over true championship-caliber teams. The threshold for this designation is considered 60+ wins — the average record for a championship team since 1968 when the league adopted its 82-game format. Ultimately, we will determine which squads have faced tougher postseason challenges, who have earned series victories over the most formidable foes, and where James truly ranks among the all-time greats.
As evidenced by these parameters, the practice of ranking players by ring count most drastically undervalues the accomplishments of Kevin Durant and Julius Erving, who each eliminated three 60+ win teams in the playoffs despite winning just one formal championship each. All three of Durant’s wins came against the Spurs between 2012 and 2017: a timespan in which San Antonio also made two consecutive Finals, won an NBA championship, and never won less than 55 games per season. However, failing to earn his first ring until last year with the Warriors, Durant finds himself in a similar predicament to James, excluded from the GOAT conversation at this point in his career. Others negatively affected by the winner-takes-all philosophy include Hakeem Olajuwon and even Michael Jordan himself, who beat seven championship-caliber teams within six seasons—more than double almost anyone else in history.
Conversely, the player most overrated by ring count is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, followed by Bryant, Bird, and Duncan. These players combined for 16 rings, yet only six series victories over “true” championship-caliber teams. Contributing factors may include a lucky bracket or an acute lack of parity in the NBA during their respective careers—in other words, they simply did not have as many opportunities to prove themselves over 60+ win teams in the playoffs. While James has faced eight such teams, the players above averaged only five. Nevertheless, James fared nearly 10% better in these matchups with a record of 3-5, while Abdul-Jabbar and Bryant performed the worst at 1-5 each. Therefore, we may conclude that their rankings would remain largely unchanged.
Ultimately, James ranks third overall behind Jordan and O’Neal, thanks to his incredible victories over the 2016 Golden State Warriors (73-9), the 2011 Chicago Bulls (62-20), and a series sweep over the 2015 Atlanta Hawks (60-22). Only one of these triumphs netted James a championship—however, his slightly less impressive Finals wins over the 2013 San Antonio Spurs (58-24) and 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder (47-19) balance the tally. A victory over the projected 67.5-win Warriors in 2018 would tie James for second all-time, though he’d still have a ways to go to catch Jordan.
Although James has defeated as many 60+ win teams as Abdul-Jabbar, Bryant, and Bird combined, this statistic does not automatically deem him a better or more influential player overall. That question can never be definitively answered, even after considering personal accolades, the strength of their supporting casts, or their overall playoff records. However, it proves that ring count alone is largely a false indicator of greatness, and that James has overcome tougher opposition throughout his career despite a comparative lack of titles.
Still, like all myths, the ring count rating system will live on. Unfortunately for many, there are no trophies for victories over 60+ win teams, and without a tangible reminder, such great accomplishments are often forgotten. However, at only 32 years old, LeBron still has time to end the debate once and for all. Six seasons ago, many wondered whether he’d ever win a championship; Now, after proving doubters wrong three times over, it’d be unwise to bet against him. Yet regardless of whether James ultimately adds to his collection, his hard-fought accomplishments speak for themselves, affirming his place as an all-time great and the reigning King of the NBA.
Edited by Jeremy Losak.
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