After arguably his worst performance in a big game in seven years, LeBron James once again finds himself with his back against the wall. Fittingly, it’s happening against Boston, his opponent for several of his most important playoff moments to date. However, this time it feels like there’s less at stake in terms of LeBron’s legacy than there has been in the past. There’s good reason for this. In the eight years since he was last eliminated from the postseason by the Celtics, James has made seven straight NBA Finals, and won three championship rings, three NBA Finals MVPs, and two regular-season MVPs. Statistically, he’s become the NBA’s all-time postseason leader in scoring, steals, win shares, and value over replacement player, and he’s surpassed Michael Jordan in buzzer-beating playoff game-winners.
Haters will say LeBron is merely a compiler, a rich man’s Karl Malone whose legacy is built upon awesome accumulation rather than dominance. You would be right to point out that LeBron will end up with a massive advantage in career counting stats over Jordan because of the early start to his career and Jordan’s multiple retirements. Jordan and LeBron have both played 15 NBA seasons, but LeBron has already played 71 more regular-season games and 54 more playoff games. (There’s also the fact two of Jordan’s 15 seasons came with below-.500 Wizards teams as he played past the age of 40.)
But James is so much more than that. Small sample sizes be damned, the greatest players show up in the biggest games. And in these big games—which I’m defining here as playoff games that would result in the player’s season being over with a loss—James has been the greatest player in NBA history.
Heading into Friday’s Game 6 in Cleveland against the Celtics, LeBron has won 12 of the 21 playoff elimination games his teams have faced, while averaging 33.5 points, 10.8 rebounds, 7.3 assists, and a 57.6 true shooting percentage. Those 33.5 points are the most any player in NBA history has averaged when facing playoff elimination (minimum three games, since Anthony Davis now has 70 total points in two elimination games). Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain, the two greatest scorers in NBA history, are second and third on that list, at 31.3 and 31.1, respectively.
Excellence in the most crucial circumstances has not always been part of the LeBron narrative. James left Cleveland for Miami in the summer of 2010, in the wake of a disappointing playoff flameout against the Celtics in which the favored Cavaliers blew a 2-1 series lead. Many felt that James checked out in the final three games (even though he posted 27 points, 19 rebounds, and 10 assists in the series-ending Game 6). The Decision made him the NBA’s no. 1 villain. Schadenfreude ran rampant when his first Heat team was defeated by the Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals. The loss represented the nadir of his professional career. But it was also a turning point.
Since posting just 21 points, four rebounds, and six assists (on a measly 15 field goal attempts and four free throw attempts) in the final game of the 2011 Finals, LeBron has faced elimination 13 times (not including Friday). He’s gone 10-3 in these games, with averages of 35.8 points, 11.7 rebounds, 7.3 assists, and a 60.7 true shooting percentage.
It all started with a 2012 visit to Boston (the team that had eliminated James in 2008 and 2010) for Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals. The Heat had dropped three straight, wasting a 2-0 series lead in the process. LeBron scored 45 points on 19-for-26 shooting in a win against the Celtics and never looked back. He’s attempted more than 20 field goals in 12 of his 13 elimination games since 2012, and took 16 free throws the one time he failed to reach 20 attempts from the floor. He’s scored 40-plus in four of the games, and was over 30 for seven of the others. His lowest output in this stretch was a 27-point triple-double in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals as his team completed the greatest comeback in Finals history against the 73-win Warriors. LeBron has been simply unstoppable.
For perspective on LeBron’s greatness in elimination games, check out how he compares against the 12 greatest players in NBA history, per Bill Simmons’s Hall of Fame Pyramid in 2010’s The Book of Basketball:
LeBron vs. the Pyramid
|*MISSING ONE GAME OF ASSIST DATA|
|**MISSING TWO GAMES OF ASSIST DATA|
|NOTE: West played one minute before breaking his hand in one of his games. If you ignore that game, he averaged 30.6 PPG in these games.|
As previously stated, LeBron is tops in scoring. But the incredible thing is that he’s also the most efficient shooter of the bunch, with a 57.6 true shooting percentage. His rebounding average ranks only behind a roll call of the greatest centers in NBA history, while his assist average trails only Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson. Wilt Chamberlain is the only player who you could argue has a better set of statistics in these games, but the only stat in which he bests LeBron here is rebounds.
Game score, a statistic created by John Hollinger, assigns a single value to each individual performance in a given game based on player box-score statistics. It’s scaled to be somewhat similar to points, so the best players routinely have game scores in the 20s. Full box-score data isn’t available until the 1983-84 season, but since then, LeBron has the best average game score in elimination games (again aside from Anthony Davis, who has played two such games).
Best Average Game Score When Facing Elimination
|Players Who Debuted Since 1983-84 (Min. 10 Games)||GS|
|Players Who Debuted Since 1983-84 (Min. 10 Games)||GS|
|*30.8 in last 13 games|
(While game score does a great job of measuring box-score impact, one argument against it is it doesn’t adequately punish low-efficiency “chuckers” and favors accumulation. This is evident in the way that it values Russell Westbrook so highly.)
Two factions are always vocal anytime LeBron’s legacy comes up: Jordan fans and Kobe fans. The Jordan fans will rightfully point out that of Michael’s 13 elimination games, 10 of them came before he ever won a title and only two of them came during his championship runs. On the other hand, Jordan was a dominant force from the moment he entered the league. It’d be nice to have a larger sample of games from him, but it’s not like we’re cherry-picking from bad seasons.
As for Kobe, he averaged more than 10 fewer points per game, with a true shooting percentage more than 7 percentage points worse than LeBron in these games. His average game score of 13.5 pales in comparison to the likes of Derrick Coleman (18.1) and Luol Deng (14.6). Even if you ignore Kobe’s two elimination games when he was still a rookie backup, his average game score bumps up to just 14.7, making him the equal of Alonzo Mourning.
“My motivation is this ghost I’m chasing,” James told Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins in the summer of 2016. That ghost still wears twice as many rings, but James has chased down many of MJ’s records and is on track to run down many others. “[If] I can ever put myself in position to be the greatest player, that would be something extraordinary,” James also told Jenkins. It’s difficult to project if Cleveland’s season will survive past Friday’s Game 6, but history shows we can expect “something extraordinary” from James.
Mike Lynch is managing stathead at Sports-Reference.com.