The Water Cooler

Does Lebron James do More with Less than other NBA Legends?

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 17: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers stands on the court during a game against the Denver Nuggets at The Quicken Loans Arena on November 17, 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images)

Lebron James has been subject to some criticism because of his recently acquired 2-4 Finals record. A certain Lebron James apologist has made the argument that Lebron has a 2-4 Finals record only because Lebron’s brilliance has gotten him to the Finals despite being on inferior teams that no other star would have gotten there. The argument goes that Lebron has done more with less than any other NBA legend. Let’s see what the numbers say.

I have looked at a few legends to compare exactly how much help they had. I first looked at the number of seasons that legend was the lone all-star on his team, the number of seasons he played with 1, 2, and 3 additional all-stars on his team. I also looked at the legends’ teams’ records in the Finals in each of those seasons. After considering how many other all-stars the legend had to lean on, I looked at how often a teammate was the Finals MVP over him, or in other words, was he always his team’s best player. And finally, I checked the Win Shares during MVP seasons to see exactly how much of the load each legend carried. Here are the numbers.

Lone All-Star 2 All-Stars 3 All-Stars 4 All-Stars Total Finals MVP Finals MVP % MVP Win Shares
Michael Jordan 9 (2-0) 5 (4-0) 0 0 14 (6-0) 6 100% 21.2, 20.4, 20.3, 17.7, 15.8
Lebron James 4 (0-1) 3 (0-0) 4 (2-2) 0 11 (2-4) 2 100% 20.3, 19.3, 18.5, 14.5
Magic Johnson 0 4 (2-2) 7 (3-2) 0 11 (5-4) 3 60% 16.5, 16.1, 15.9
Larry Bird 0 2 (0-0) 10 (3-2) 0 12 (3-2) 2 66% 15.8, 15.7, 13.6
Kobe Bryant 6 (0-1) 10 (5-1) 0 1 (0-0) 17 (5-2) 2 40% 13.8
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 4 (0-1) 8 (3-1) 7 (3-1) 0 19 (6-3) 2 33% 25.4, 22.3, 18.4, 17.8, 17.0, 14.8
Tim Duncan 6 (1-0) 9 (2-1) 0 0 15 (3-1) 3 60% 16.9, 15.5, 13.5, 13.0, 11.3
Bill Russell 0 1 (1-0) 10 (8-0) 1 (1-0) 12 (10-0) NA NA 17.8, 16.5

Here are a few observations:
Once again nobody compares to Jordan. Even compared to the greatest ever, Jordan has no peer. Bill Russell, who many consider the ultimate chaJordan Dribblempion, won only one championship with less than 3 all-stars. Jordan never even played on a team with 3 all-stars and was the only player to win multiple championships as the lone all-star on his team.  He also played the most seasons of anyone on this list as a lone All-Star with 9.  He and Lebron were the only ones who were Finals MVP 100% of the time and Lebron’s two Finals MVPs pale in comparison to MJ’s 6 for 6. So, I’ve stated the obvious, MJ is the greatest.

Next we consider the claim that LBJ has done “more with less” than anyone else. LBJ has done something that Bird, Magic, or Russell never did, lead a 1 All-Star team to the Finals. Granted, none of those players EVER played on a 1 All-Star team (which is crazy to consider), but you have to give LBJ that. Duncan was the only other player on the list (and I’m sure I could have added many others to this list) that actually won in the Finals as a lone All-Star.  Now, the 2 All-Star teams is what is really telling to me with Lebron.  LBJ is the only player on this list with a losing record on 2 All-Star teams. Jordan 4-0, Kobe 5-1, Kareem 3-1, Duncan 2-1, Magic 2-2, Russell 1-0, Lebron 0-1. Again, Bird played 2 seasons on 2 All-Star teams and didn’t advance to the Finals either year. One could argue that to hold this loss against LBJ is to say it would’ve been better for Lebron’s teams to fall in the Playoffs and NOT make the Finals than for Lebron to carry his team to the Finals only to lose there. After all, Bird played 2 seasons on 2 All-Star teams and never carried his team to the Finals. Unfortunately, the 3 all-Star team analysis doesn’t help LBJ’s case for that either.  On 3 All-Star teams, Lebron is the only player that did not have a winning record.  Lebron 2-2, Bird 3-2, Magic, 3-2, Jabbar 3-1. MJ, Kobe, and Duncan never played on a 3 All-Star team (though Kobe played one season on a 4 All-Star team).

Another important way to see exactly how much help a player has is to consider that player’s Win Shares. Win Shares are a statistical estimate as to how many wins that player was worth to his team. In other words, how many additional games would the team have lost if that player was not playing. This paints a favorable picture for Lebron and supports the claim that Lebron has not had as much help as some others. For example, in his MVP seasons, Lebron’s high Win Share was 20.3 (for the 2008-09 Cavs). Only MJ and Jabbar topped the 20 mark for Win Shares in MVP seasons (Jabbar twice with Milwaukee, and Jordan 3 times).  Magic and Bird topped out at 16.5 and 15.8 respectively. To put it in perspective the 2014-15 MVP, Steph Curry had a Win Share of 15.68. LBJ has enjoyed 5 seasons with a higher Win Share than Curry’s MVP season last year. Still Lebron’s best season still ranks only #17 all-time, with MJ eclipsing his high mark 3 times, all in MVP seasons in which he won titles.

Kobe’s 5-2 Finals record gets discounted by many because Kobe had Shaq, making Kobe Finals MVP only 40% of the time. He also has only one regular season MVP, which for a player of his stature has always surprised me. I mean, how can Steve Nash have more MVP trophies than Kobe Bryant?

So here is the conclusion, Lebron James has carried a heavy load much of his career, but when he does have help, he’s done less with that help than others. He has accomplished more than some in carrying teams to the Finals, but has not been able to get them over the top. Nobody can question Lebron’s Herculean effort in this year’s Finals after losing Love and Kyrie before falling to the champion Warriors, and while I would love to agree that Lebron has done more with less than any other legend, the numbers simply do not support that conclusion.

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