I’ve been a big Lebron James fan ever since December of his junior year in high school when I saw him play in Akron, where I had litigation. Without hitting any shots from the outside (my local counsel explained that Lebron had just finished the football season and was rusty) James racked up 27 points (if I recall correctly). He added at least 10 rebounds and led his team to victory against a highly ranked squad from St. Louis.
In 2008-2010, when James was trying unsuccessfully to lead an inferior Cleveland team to the NBA title, I compared his playoff numbers to those of Kobe Bryant, then considered by many to be the league’s best player. I picked a series in which Cleveland and Los Angeles had played a common opponent.
I found that James’ offensive numbers were, in each year, a bit better than Bryant’s. I did not look at defensive statistics, but throughout this period both James and Bryant were making the NBA’s first-team all defensive unit, so I guessed that defense was probably a push. (James currently is 28th on the all-time NBA defensive win shares list; Bryant is 42nd).
Bryant’s super-talented Lakers were winning most of the playoff series I analyzed; James’ less impressive Cavs were not. But James then moved to Miami and the Heat won back-to-back championships in 2012 and 2013.
The Heat came up short in 2014, losing the NBA Finals to San Antonio. 2015 saw James back in Cleveland. He led to Cavs, who had been dreadful in his absence, to the Finals, but his outmanned team lost to the Golden State Warriors. James played so well in that series — averaging 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 8.8 assists per game — that many thought he should have been the series MVP even though his team lost in six games.
By now many of the geniuses who write and talk about professional basketball had noticed that James’ teams (they would always say James himself) were two for six in NBA finals. These “ringologists,” whose analysis of individual greatness extends little further than counting the number of championships a player’s teams have won, saw this as a major stain on Lebron.
A large number of the “ringologists” cousins, the “chokeologists,” claimed that James couldn’t handle the pressure of big games. Largely ignoring the numbers, they focused on this or that play James didn’t make down the stretch in certain games, ignoring all the big plays he did make.
In reality, if all else where equal, one would expect that James’ teams would win half of their NBA Finals appearances. As of this time last year, when the choke narrative was approaching its peak, James’s teams had won two Finals — one short of the expected number. I’m no statistician, but surely there is no statistical significance in this disparity.
Furthermore, all things are never equal. James’ teams have been noticeably outmanned in some of the Finals in question. Certainly, that was true in 2015, when James’ running mate Kyrie Irving missed all but part of Game One due to injury. A statistician, Sharon Katz of FiveThirtyEight tried to account for the relevant variables. She concluded that, as of the end of the 2015 Finals, LeBron’s teams had won about as many titles as expected.
This year, James once again led his team to the NBA Finals. It was his sixth consecutive Finals appearance, a remarkable accomplishment. (A team must win its conference to reach the Finals. There are now 15 teams per conference. Back when Bill Russell’s Celtics were winning all those championships, there were not that many teams in the entire NBA. In some of those seasons there were only eight).
However, when the Cavs fell behind Golden State 3 games to 1, the James as choker theme reached a crescendo in the newspapers and, especially, on sports talk radio. Never mind that Golden State set a record this season for wins in a season.
Once again, we were told that James can’t handle the big moments. Some suggested that he “hid” during them. Never mind that James had taken 85 shots in four games (compared to 64 for Steph Curry, who wasn’t hiding) and had averaged 25 points per game.
What happened in the next three games smashed the ridiculous James as choker narrative. Cleveland became the first team in NBA history to win a Finals after being down 3-1 in games. It accomplished this against the winningest team in league history. In the aftermath of this great upset, Katz now says that, all things considered, James has won more Finals than would be expected as a matter of statistics.
Facing elimination in both Games 5 and 6, James turned in back-to-back 41 point performances. Then, in the deciding game, James became only the sixth NBA player ever to register a triple-double in a Game 7 and only the third to do it in Game 7 of the Finals (Jerry West and James Worthy are the other two).
James totaled 27 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists. He also contributed three big blocked shots.
For all you ringologists out there, James now has three. That’s more than Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, and Jerry West. It’s the same number as Larry Bird, no choker he.
It’s one shy of Shaquille O’Neil and two shy of Magic Johnson, Tim Duncan, and Kobe Bryant (Katz the statistician says that, all things considered, Lebron’s three titles in seven finals appearances were harder to achieve than Kobe’s five titles in the same number of trips). Nor should we assume that James is finished winning championships.
So for now, the ringologists and the chokeologists will have to direct their fire elsewhere. I expect they will aim at Stephen Currie, another brilliant player.
As for James, he is exempt — until the next time his team falls behind in a playoff series.