Is This LeBron’s Easiest Shot at a NBA Title Ever?

Michael Pina
·11 mins read

In his first playoff run through the Western Conference, LeBron James’ Lakers will be the favorite team in every series. He won’t have to face the regular season’s top two teams (measured by net rating, which is the difference between the number of points a team scores and allows per 100 possessions), which are the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers. He’s also avoiding direct matchups against Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard, the only other players in these playoffs who could be argued as the best alive.

This is somewhat ironic: Although one pillar of the argument for LeBron as the greatest player of all time is his nine trips to the NBA finals (including eight in a row), it’s also true that those trips were often less than arduous because he was playing in the inferior Eastern Conference.

His move to the Los Angeles Lakers was a chance to see how he’d survive the annual gauntlet of hellfire out west—and yet here he is, 2-0 up against the Denver Nuggets, who nobody expected to make the Conference Finals. And if the Lakers do make the finals, the Celtics or the Heat await—two very good teams who also aren’t close to the Warriors and Spurs juggernauts LeBron has faced in the past, even if the Celtics did post a higher net rating than the Lakers during the regular season.

So is this, in fact, LeBron’s easiest ever route to a title? To try to answer that question, I compared the net rating of James’ finals’ teams with those of their playoff opponents, the best teams and players he actually faced, and the most intimidating competition he avoided. What follows is a ranking in order from toughest to easiest.

10. 2017 Cleveland Cavaliers

Record: 51-31; lost 4-1 in finals 

Best Teammate: Kyrie Irving 

Regular Season Rankings: 3rd offense/21st defense/7th net rating (+3.1)

Best Team Faced: Golden State Warriors 

Regular Season Record: 67-15 

Regular Season Rankings: 1st offense/2nd defense/1st net rating (+11.4)

Best Team Avoided: San Antonio Spurs, 61-21/2nd net rating (+7.4)

Average Playoff Opponent Net Rating: +4.525

So how hard was this, really? LeBron rolled through the East with only one loss, but faced one of the best teams ever built in the finals. So, it was next to impossible. In Kevin Durant’s first season with the Warriors, their margin of victory was topped by only three other teams in NBA history: the ‘72 Lakers, the ‘71 Bucks, and Michael Jordan’s ‘96 Bulls.

9. 2007 Cleveland Cavaliers

Record: 50-32, lost 4-0 in finals 

Best teammate: Zydrunas Ilgauskas 

Regular Season Rankings: 16th offense/4th defense/7th net rating (+3.8)

Best Team Faced: San Antonio Spurs 

Regular Season Record: 58-24 

Regular Season Rankings: 5th offense/2nd defense/1st net rating (+9.2)

Best Team Avoided: Phoenix Suns, 61-21/3rd net rating (+7.4)

Average Playoff Opponent Net Rating: +3.175

So how hard was this, really? James vanquished a pair of .500 teams before he stole the conference finals with one of the most back-breaking performances in recent NBA history: a 48-point Game 5 against an aging but proud Pistons team to whom LeBron handed 25 straight points in a double-overtime W. It was a one-man show on a one-man team, young Clark Kent bending steel for the very first time.

Of course, as the heavy, experienced favorites, the Spurs were indifferent to the prodigy. The Cavs never stood a chance in that finals—the 5.4 net rating gap between the two teams was the largest margin in LeBron’s career—and also would have been run off the floor by Steve Nash’s Suns, who lost to the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals.

8. 2018 Cleveland Cavaliers

Record: 50-32, lost 4-1 in finals 

Best Teammate: Kevin Love 

Regular Season Rankings: 5th offense/29th defense/14th net rating (+1.0)

Best Team Faced: Golden State Warriors 

Regular Season Record: 58-24 

Regular Season Rankings: 3rd offense/11th defense/3rd net rating (+5.9)

Best Team Avoided: Houston Rockets, 65-17/1st net rating (+8.4)

Average Playoff Opponent Net Rating: +4.625

This was Impossible: Part II. Partly because Golden State was borderline unbeatable and partly because this was the worst team James ever carried to the Finals. Also, while the Warriors spent their conference finals doing battle against a roster deliberately constructed to take them down, Cleveland squared off against the happy-to-be-here Celtics and their 18th-ranked offense.

7. 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers

Record: 57-25, won 4-3 in finals 

Best teammate: Kyrie Irving 

Regular Season Rankings: 3rd offense/10th defense/4th net rating (+6.3)

Best Team Faced: Golden State Warriors 

Regular Season Record: 73-9 

Regular Season Rankings: 1st offense/6th defense/2nd net rating (+10.6)

Best Teams Avoided: San Antonio Spurs, 67-15/1st net rating (+11.1); Oklahoma City Thunder, 55-27/3rd net rating (+7.4)

Average Playoff Opponent Net Rating: +4.8

So how hard was this, really? No franchise outside of the Celtics has tested LeBron quite like the Warriors. Coming back from a 3-1 deficit to beat them here was the crowning, sweetest feat of a career filled with too many to count. Nevertheless, DeMar DeRozan’s Raptors, whom the Cavs faced in the Eastern Conference finals, were not Durant’s Thunder or Kawhi’s Spurs.

6. 2015 Cleveland Cavaliers

Record: 53-29, lost 4-2 in finals 

Best Teammate: Kyrie Irving 

Regular Season Rankings: 4th offense/18th defense/5th net rating (+4.8)

Best Team Faced: Golden State Warriors 

Regular Season Record: 67-15 

Regular Season Rankings: 2nd offense/1st defense/1st net rating (+9.9)

Best Teams Avoided: Los Angeles Clippers, 56-26/2nd net rating (+6.9); San Antonio Spurs, 55-27/3rd net rating (+6.3)

Average Playoff Opponent Net Rating: +4.775

So how hard was this, really? Despite Golden State’s meteoric rise and a net rating advantage nearly as large as the Cavs faced back in 2007, this was pre-Durant and LeBron very well might have beaten them if not for injuries suffered by Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love during the playoffs.

5. 2014 Miami Heat

Record: 54-28, lost 4-1 in finals 

Best Teammate: Dwyane Wade 

Regular Season Rankings: 3rd offense/11th defense/4th net rating (+5.1)

Best Team Faced: San Antonio Spurs 

Regular Season Record: 62-20 

Regular Season Rankings: 5th offense/4th defense/1st net rating (+8.1)

Best Teams Avoided: Los Angeles Clippers, 57-25/2nd net rating (+7.3); Oklahoma City Thunder, 59-23/3rd net rating (+6.4)

Average Playoff Opponent Net Rating: +2.775

So how hard was this, really? LeBron’s final Miami team was his weakest, and San Antonio was on a mission to avenge a finals loss the previous season that fell through their fingertips at the end of Game 6 and Game 7. They were one of the most aesthetically pleasing groups ever assembled, with several wondrous passers and a selfless approach to offense that kept Miami in stressful rotations until they broke. The Spurs finished that postseason with over 1500 more passes than any other team, and, with Kawhi Leonard and Tim Duncan as two defensive anchors in different spots on the floor, had one of the best defenses in the league.

4. 2011 Miami Heat

Record: 58-24, lost 4-2 in finals 

Best Teammate: Dwyane Wade 

Regular Season Rankings: 2nd offense/5th defense/2nd net rating (+7.8)

Best Team Faced: Dallas Mavericks 

Regular Season Record: 57-25 

Regular Season Rankings: 9th offense/8th defense/8th net rating (+4.4)

Best Teams Avoided: Los Angeles Lakers 57-25/3rd net rating (+6.3), San Antonio Spurs 61-21/4th net rating (+6.1)

Average Opponent Net Rating: +4.85

So how hard was this, really? This is the first title on the list that LeBron should have been expected to win. For once, he faced a worthy Eastern Conference opponent: The Bulls finished the regular season with a higher winning percentage than three of Michael Jordan’s title teams and Derrick Rose was the MVP. They might’ve been the best team James faced in those playoffs, but Rose was held to 35 percent shooting and they were promptly dispatched in five games.

In the finals, the Heat squared off against a Mavericks team that didn’t find itself until the postseason began, upsetting the Lakers in Round 2 before handling the Thunder in the WCF. The Heat were heavy favorites in Vegas against the Mavericks, but Dallas’ regular season net rating couldn’t capture how awesome they were throughout the playoffs, where they generated better offense than every other team by a decent margin and also finished with the league’s highest point differential.

3. 2012 Miami Heat

Record: 46-20 (66-game lockout-shortened season), won 4-1 in finals 

Best Teammate: Dwyane Wade 

Regular Season Rankings: 6th offense/4th defense/3rd net rating (+6.4)

Best Team Faced: Oklahoma City Thunder 

Regular Season Record: 47-19 

Regular Season Rankings: 2nd offense/9th defense/4th net rating (+6.3)

Best Teams Avoided: San Antonio Spurs, 50-16/2nd net rating (+7.7); Chicago Bulls, 50-16/1st net rating (+8.8)

Average Opponent Net Rating: +3.85

So how hard was this, really? Demons were exorcised against the Celtics in what still stands as the most anxiously pivotal series and game of LeBron’s career. If Miami had failed for the second season in a row after The Decision, who knows how differently stars in LeBron’s wake would’ve treated their own free agency? Lose that Game 6 at TD Garden and I’m probably not writing this article today. The only thing more dense than the pressure that weighed on LeBron’s shoulders that night was his iconic response: 45 points, 15 rebounds, five assists.

But at the same time, Derrick Rose’s torn ACL in the first round erased any potential for a rematch with a Bulls team whose net rating that season (+8.8) was higher than every team LeBron ever played for except the 2009 Cavaliers, who were defeated by the Orlando Magic in the conference finals.

The Thunder were electrifying, sure—and, after winning Game 1, lost the next three by 16 total points—but they finished the regular season with the lowest assist rate in the league, and then saw that number slide all the way down to 43.2 percent in the finals. As young as they were, there was another gear Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden could’ve reached in this series, but never did. LeBron is all the more fortunate that they never figured it out. He’s probably also a bit lucky that the Spurs (who had the regular season’s second-best point differential) couldn’t get past OKC.

2. 2013 Miami Heat

Record: 66-16, won 4-3 in finals 

Best Teammate: Dwyane Wade 

Regular Season Rankings: 1st offense/9th defense/2nd net rating (+8.2)

Best Team Faced: San Antonio Spurs 

Regular Season Record: 58-24 

Regular Season Rankings: 7th offense/3rd defense/4th net rating (+6.7)

Best Team Avoided: Oklahoma City Thunder 60-22/1st net rating (+9.9)

Average Opponent Net Rating: +2.475

So how hard was this, really? The Spurs were resilient veterans and Ray Allen had to save the Heat with his legendary 3-pointer that sent Game 6 into overtime. But even though the Indiana Pacers were a relatively stout Eastern Conference finals opponent— they pushed the Heat to 7 games in 2013, after taking a 2-1 lead in the second round the previous year — their ceiling wasn’t the same as Chicago’s.. And Russell Westbrook suffered a knee injury during the second game of the playoffs, ruining any chance of a rematch against what might have been the best Thunder team ever.

1. 2020 Los Angeles Lakers

Record: 52-19 (coronavirus-shortened regular season), ??? 

Best Teammate: Anthony Davis 

Regular Season Rankings: 11th offense/3rd defense/5th net rating (+5.6)

Best Team Faced (So Far): Denver Nuggets 

Regular Season Record: 46-27 

Regular Season Rankings: 5th offense/16th defense/11th net rating (+2.2)

Best Teams Avoided: Milwaukee Bucks, 56-17/1st net rating (+9.4); Los Angeles Clippers, 49-23/2nd net rating (+6.3)

Average Opponent Net Rating: +2.525 (vs. Boston Celtics) or +1.625 (vs. Miami Heat)

So how hard is this, really? The Warriors are gone for this year at least, and in a postseason that will partially be remembered for its attrition, LeBron has had the easiest route possible. In Round 1, the Lakers humiliated a broken Blazers team that was ravaged by injuries. In Round 2, Russell Westbrook was a shell of the All-NBA star he was six months prior and Danuel House got kicked out of the bubble.

The season isn’t over yet, but from here going forward the Lakers will have the two best players in whatever series they’re in. With the Clippers and Bucks out of the way, the average net rating of their playoff opponents could be a little higher than where the Phoenix Suns actually finished for the regular season, short of the playoffs. No championship is “easy”, but if LeBron leaves the bubble with his fourth ring it’ll come without any titanic hurdle in his path for the first time in his Hall of Fame career.

Originally Appeared on GQ