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The Greatest Expectations

Anyone can count Michael Jordan’s rings, but how many championships should he have won? We introduce two new metrics to determine which NBA stars exceeded their title expectations.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A ring is a ring, and every NBA championship should be treasured—but not all title paths are created equal. The 1996-97 Bulls needed to beat the 44-win Bullets, 56-win Hawks, 61-win Heat, and 64-win Jazz in a row; 40 years earlier, the Celtics and rookie Bill Russell received a bye to the conference finals, then beat the 38-34 Syracuse Nationals and 34-38 St. Louis Hawks to win the franchise’s first championship.

Or: Everyone reading this piece knows that Michael Jordan won six titles to LeBron James’s three—but accounting for team quality and home-court advantage, LeBron’s team was favored in only two of his nine Finals appearances; a third was a toss-up, and the other six saw him as the clear underdog.

LeBron James Finals Odds

Year Team Opponent Odds of Winning Result
Year Team Opponent Odds of Winning Result
2007 Cavaliers Spurs 15% Lost in 4
2011 Heat Mavericks 76% Lost in 6
2012 Heat Thunder 48% Won in 5
2013 Heat Spurs 65% Won in 7
2014 Heat Spurs 27% Lost in 5
2015 Cavaliers Warriors 15% Lost in 6
2016 Cavaliers Warriors 20% Won in 7
2017 Cavaliers Warriors 6% Lost in 5
2018 Cavaliers Warriors 17% Lost in 4

Jordan, meanwhile, made three fewer Finals, but he always had roughly even odds or better when he made the championship round. (The odds dipped just below 50 percent against the 1992-93 Suns because Phoenix would have hosted a potential Game 7.)

Michael Jordan Finals Odds

Year Team Opponent Odds of Winning Result
Year Team Opponent Odds of Winning Result
1991 Bulls Lakers 68% Won in 5
1992 Bulls Trail Blazers 76% Won in 6
1993 Bulls Suns 48% Won in 6
1996 Bulls SuperSonics 83% Won in 6
1997 Bulls Jazz 69% Won in 6
1998 Bulls Jazz 54% Won in 6

As the Last Dance documentary series approaches its conclusion and the Jordan vs. LeBron debate continues—as if it ever took a break—it’s worth considering not just each player’s absolute success, but also his achievements relative to expectations. How many titles should Jordan have won? How many for LeBron? And what about all the other stars whose trophy cases fascinate fans?

Let’s answer those queries by determining the championship expectations for every team and player since the introduction of the shot clock in 1954. And then let’s see what we can learn about players who have most significantly overachieved in the playoffs. (If you don’t care about the math behind the method, feel free to skip the next couple paragraphs.)

To get our results, we’ll weigh a variety of factors: the aforementioned team quality, opponent quality, and home-court advantage, plus others like series length and byes. Using teams’ Pythagorean records—which are based on their point differentials, rather than straight wins and losses, and are thus a better predictor of future success—and the Log5 method pioneered by Bill James, we determined the chance that every team would win every playoff series against its opponents (or the potential opponents it would have played, for a team that lost before the Finals). From there, it was a simple next step to figure out every team’s odds of navigating its playoff path to raise the trophy. Here’s how that chain looks in practice, using two of Jordan’s teams as examples.

Example Calculations for Title Expectations

1989-90 Bulls 1990-91 Bulls
1989-90 Bulls 1990-91 Bulls
Pythagorean Record 49-33 63-19
Opponent #1 Bucks (39-43) Knicks (40-42)
Series Odds 76% 94%
Opponent #2 76ers (54-28) 76ers (41-41)
Series Odds 35% 96%
Opponent #3 Pistons (57-25) Pistons (50-32)
Series Odds 26% 86%
(Theoretical) Opponent #4 Trail Blazers (56-26) Lakers (58-24)
Series Odds 28% 68%
Total Title Odds 2% 53%

Those final odds become the team’s “expected titles” count for that season, and each player on the roster receives the same count. In the above example, all the players on the 1989-80 Bulls earn 0.02 expected titles, and all the players on the 1990-91 Bulls earn 0.53 expected titles. Add up all those counts for every season of every player’s career in the shot clock era, compare it to his actual title count to fit a “titles above expectation” framework, and we get a bird’s-eye view of his playoff over- or underperformance.

Some important caveats apply. For instance, the method doesn’t account for injuries that may have skewed a team’s regular-season record, or the possibility of momentum (if it even exists in the NBA playoffs). Still, this simple procedure proved remarkably accurate in estimating teams’ chances of winning past playoff series. For instance, the model calculates 85 past playoff series in which the favorite had 90 percent odds or better. We’d expect about five upsets out of those 85, given their series odds—and indeed, we’ve observed exactly that number. The method seems to work, so let’s look at what it says.

Jordan vs. LeBron

How do Jordan and James compare by the titles above expectation metric? Here’s Jordan’s annual chart, which shows that he won six titles versus just 2.8 expected.

Michael Jordan Playoff Reality vs. Expectations

Team Pythagorean Record Finals Odds Championship Odds Result
Team Pythagorean Record Finals Odds Championship Odds Result
1984-85 Bulls 39-43 0% 0% Lost first round
1985-86 Bulls 31-51 0% 0% Lost first round
1986-87 Bulls 43-39 1% 0% Lost first round
1987-88 Bulls 50-32 8% 3% Lost second round
1988-89 Bulls 45-37 1% 0% Lost conference finals
1989-90 Bulls 49-33 7% 2% Lost conference finals
1990-91 Bulls 63-19 78% 53% Won title
1991-92 Bulls 66-16 74% 56% Won title
1992-93 Bulls 58-24 22% 10% Won title
1994-95 Bulls 54-28 11% 7% Lost second round
1995-96 Bulls 70-12 87% 72% Won title
1996-97 Bulls 68-14 69% 48% Won title
1997-98 Bulls 61-21 46% 26% Won title
2001-02 Wizards 37-45 0% 0% Missed playoffs
2002-03 Wizards 38-44 0% 0% Missed playoffs
Total 4.0 2.8 2 Finals above expectation, 3.2 titles above

The wonder of Jordan’s playoff success is that he never squandered a realistic opportunity. Six times his team had a 10 percent title chance or better, and all six times he took advantage. James’s record, meanwhile, features at least one high-profile miss, as the 2008-09 Cavaliers had a coin-flip chance of winning the championship but lost to Orlando in the conference finals. Several other teams of his had feasible attempts that fell short. Here’s LeBron’s version of the yearly expectations chart.

LeBron James Playoff Reality vs. Expectations 

Team Pythagorean Record Finals Odds Championship Odds Result
Team Pythagorean Record Finals Odds Championship Odds Result
2003-04 Cavaliers 33-49 0% 0% Missed playoffs
2004-05 Cavaliers 43-39 0% 0% Missed playoffs
2005-06 Cavaliers 48-34 3% 1% Lost second round
2006-07 Cavaliers 52-30 31% 5% Lost Finals
2007-08 Cavaliers 40-42 0% 0% Lost second round
2008-09 Cavaliers 64-18 65% 43% Lost conference finals
2009-10 Cavaliers 59-23 32% 21% Lost second round
2010-11 Heat 61-21 27% 21% Lost Finals
2011-12 Heat 47-19 42% 20% Won title
2012-13 Heat 62-20 71% 46% Won title
2013-14 Heat 54-28 36% 10% Lost Finals
2014-15 Cavaliers 53-29 20% 3% Lost Finals
2015-16 Cavaliers 57-25 39% 8% Won title
2016-17 Cavaliers 49-33 17% 1% Lost Finals
2017-18 Cavaliers 43-39 1% 0% Lost Finals
2018-19 Lakers 37-45 0% 0% Missed playoffs
Total 3.8 1.8 5.2 Finals above expectation, 1.2 titles above

Compared to Jordan, James’s legacy carries a whiff of playoff failure, thanks to his 3-6 record in the Finals. But it’s important to recognize that James has still won more titles than expected—in particular, his 2016 triumph was a tremendous surprise, as the Warriors’ dominance from 2015-18 meant that James had little chance of a title in any of those seasons. This chart also speaks to the dichotomy of James’s playoff record: On the one hand, he’s made three more Finals than Jordan did despite a similar expectation (4.0 for Jordan, 3.8 for LeBron); on the other hand, he’s overachieved by “only” 1.2 titles, compared to Jordan’s 3.2 more than expected. James might have won more titles than his team and opponent quality suggests he should have—and the cities of Miami and Cleveland are surely pleased with that level of performance—but when it comes to the GOAT argument, even adjusting for all sorts of context, Jordan still bests his closest rival in terms of playoff success.

Individual Leaders

We can expand beyond Jordan and James, too. Let’s look at every player who’s participated in at least one postseason in the shot clock era and sort them all by titles above expectation. You might expect Jordan to rise to the top of the leaderboard—but he doesn’t quite make it. Instead, the no. 1 player is Robert Horry.

Big Shot Bob isn’t even a Hall of Famer, but he won seven titles—two with the Rockets, three with the Lakers, and two with the Spurs—versus an expectation of just 2.1. His Rockets were statistical underdogs in both Finals in which they appeared, and none of his other title teams were overwhelming favorites.

Yet for as phenomenally as Horry played on the big stage—he went 7-0 in the Finals!—it’s probably more instructive to home in on the stars who played a greater role in leading their teams to victory. Limiting the pool to players who made at least one All-NBA team in their career, here’s the list of 13 players who have exceeded their expected championship tally by at least 1.5 rings. (The full list of players is available here; the full list restricted to All-NBA players is here.)

Top All-NBA Players by Titles Above Expectation

Player Title Teams Expected Titles Titles Above Expectation
Player Title Teams Expected Titles Titles Above Expectation
John Havlicek Celtics 3.7 8 4.3
Bill Russell Celtics 6.8 11 4.2
Sam Jones Celtics 6.1 10 3.9
Kobe Bryant Lakers 1.3 5 3.7
Michael Jordan Bulls 2.8 6 3.2
Scottie Pippen Bulls 2.9 6 3.1
Dennis Rodman Pistons, Bulls 2.4 5 2.6
Magic Johnson Lakers 2.5 5 2.5
Shaquille O'Neal Lakers, Heat 1.6 4 2.4
Sam Cassell Rockets, Celtics 0.9 3 2.1
Tom Heinsohn Celtics 6.0 8 2.0
Hakeem Olajuwon Rockets 0.1 2 1.9
Dwyane Wade Heat 1.2 3 1.8

Unsurprisingly, a number of 1960s-era Celtics make the list. The playoff path was much easier for the best teams then versus now—for most of the decade, the top seed in each conference received a bye to the conference finals, removing opportunities for early upsets—and Boston usually had the best team, but 11 titles in 13 years, as Russell managed, is still quite the accomplishment. Even the Celtics weren’t championship guarantees every season; for Russell’s last two rings, they had an 8 percent chance and a 14 percent chance, respectively.

Beyond the Celtics, the top player isn’t Jordan either; Kobe Bryant edges out his mentor because his title teams were never as strongly favored as Jordan’s. For instance, the 2000-01 run, in which the Lakers set a record (at the time) with a 15-1 playoff mark, is even more astonishing in retrospect. Despite nearly full regular seasons from Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, those Lakers had the point differential of a 51-31 team, and their playoff opponents were all superior: Portland (53-29 Pythagorean record), Sacramento (57-25), San Antonio (63-19), and Philadelphia (54-28).

Maybe the 2000-01 Lakers simply underachieved in the regular season. But that one title was part of a trend: Bryant’s teams regularly advanced farther in the playoffs than expected. None of his titles were faits accompli—judging only by the quality of playoff opponents, his Lakers teams faced some of the toughest slates any champion has ever navigated.

Most Difficult Playoff Paths for Champions in the 16-Team Era

Team Average Opponent Pythagorean Wins
Team Average Opponent Pythagorean Wins
1995 Rockets 56.9
2001 Lakers 56.7
1997 Bulls 55.8
2002 Lakers 55.6
2000 Lakers 54.4
2011 Mavericks 53.8
1994 Rockets 53.7
2016 Cavaliers 53.1
1993 Bulls 52.9
2010 Lakers 52.8
2014 Spurs 52.7
2009 Lakers 52.6

Two Broad Takeaways

Two general conclusions arise from this exercise, aside from the specifics of individual performances. The first is that it’s really difficult to win a title as a non-elite team. The model calculates a larger difference between 70-win and 60-win teams than between 60-win and 50-win teams, even though they’re both separated by 10 wins. Basically, it’s extraordinarily rare for less-than-elite teams to advance far in the playoffs. For instance, the Roy Hibbert–era Pacers were a solid NBA team for years; they lost to LeBron’s Heat three postseasons in a row, twice in the Eastern finals. But because the Pacers were never actually the best team in the East, let alone the whole NBA, their total number of expected titles in that stretch was a meager 0.1.

Historically, this pattern appears in the list of NBA champions and finalists. The 1968-69 Celtics (a no. 4 seed) and 1994-95 Rockets (no. 6) are the only teams seeded lower than third ever to win the title, and only three teams seeded fifth or lower—the sixth-seeded 1994-95 Rockets, sixth-seeded 1980-81 Rockets, and eighth-seeded 1998-99 Knicks—have ever even reached the Finals.

NBA Playoff Performance by Seed in the Shot Clock Era

Seed Number of Finalists Number of Champions
Seed Number of Finalists Number of Champions
1 79 46
2 30 11
3 13 6
4 5 1
5 0 0
6 2 1
7 0 0
8 1 0

The second key takeaway, related to the first, is that it’s already sufficiently difficult to win one title; it’s even more of a challenge to win multiple. Relative to expectations, every player who’s collected multiple rings should be lauded for his achievements. It’s almost impossible to build out a trophy case while underachieving.

In the shot clock era, 69 players have won at least three championships, and all 69 overperformed their expected title count. And out of the 80 players with exactly two titles, 75 overperformed by at least a bit. (The greatest underachiever in that group was Wilt Chamberlain, who won two titles versus 2.8 expected. Danny Ainge is the only two-title underachiever who’s played since the postseason bracket expanded to 16 teams.) Some players overachieved by more than others, of course, but they all achieved something (or multiple somethings) special, from Jordan to LeBron to Horry at the very top of the titles above expectation historical leaderboard.