Despite being the only player since the 1960s to make eight straight NBA Finals, LeBron James has garnered much criticism from fans and media for his numerous losses on the game’s biggest stage. Most of it stems from James’ pursuit to pass Michael Jordan as basketball’s consensus greatest player ever, and many use Jordan’s six-for-six championship series record as evidence that the Bulls guard got it done when it counted most, while James has come up short time and time again.
In that argument, though, many sometimes forget the teams James and Jordan went against in those Finals matchups. Jordan’s Bulls were the betting favorite going into all six of his championship series, while James’ teams were the underdog all but twice in his nine Finals appearances — first in 2011 when Miami infamously lost to Dallas, and again in 2013 when the Heat came back to beat the Spurs, according to sportsoddshistory.com.
It’s a little unfair to blame James for losing to teams that oddsmakers felt were superior, so let’s rank the six teams James has lost to in the Finals.
1. 2017 Golden State Warriors
(67-15, 16-1 in the Playoffs)
This iteration of the Warriors might be the best team of all time and simultaneously the most hated team in NBA history because of Kevin Durant’s controversial decision to join a team that won 73 games the season before. Basketball fans and media felt a core of Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green would dominate the league and upset its competitive balance, and they were mostly correct in the team’s first season together.
Even with the addition of another star player to the roster, Golden State had little problems with chemistry. They went 67-15 in the regular season even with Durant missing 20 games and earned the league’s best offensive rating (115.6) and second-best defensive rating (104.0), according to basketball-reference. Opposing teams were at a loss about how to guard a team with the three most prolific shooters in the NBA who were also unselfish and moved without the ball. Durant, Curry and Thompson all averaged over 22 points per game, and the team’s 11.63 point differential is the fourth-highest margin in NBA history, according to statmuse.com.
What makes this the best bunch James ever faced in the Finals is how they improved on their stellar regular season in the playoffs. Golden State nearly went undefeated en route to its championship, with its only loss coming against James in game four of the Finals when his Cavaliers made a Finals-record 24 3-pointers. Without that flukey game, this Golden State team would have been the first team in history to go undefeated in the playoffs. Even the defending champions had no chance.
2. 2014 San Antonio Spurs
(62-20, 16-7 in the Playoffs)
This Spurs squad doesn’t have the best record or superstar roster like some of the other teams James has faced in the Finals, but they’re by far the deepest. Coming off a heartbreaking Finals loss in 2013, Greg Popovich kept everyone on his aging roster under 30 minutes per game and no one averaged above 17 points per game in the regular season, all while Popovich periodically rested a 37-year-old Tim Duncan and a 36-year-old Manu Ginobili.
They boasted the league’s third-best defensive rating (102.4) and had the ultimate balanced attack offensively, with six players averaging in double-figures in points per game during the regular season. Tony Parker led the way with 16.7 points per game, but a 22-year-old Kawhi Leanard, Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli, Boris Diaw, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter, Corey Joseph and others made this team dangerous with any lineup in the game.
Although the Mavericks took the Spurs to seven games in the first round, this team truly came together against James in the Finals. The Spurs beat the Heat by an average of 14 points per game, the largest margin in Finals history up to that point, with Leonard asserting himself as an up-and-coming star for his defense on James and his 17.8 points per game on 61.2% shooting in the series that earned him Finals MVP.
This far from the most talented team on this list, but between the perfect mix of veterans and talented younger players and their combined hunger to get revenge on the Heat from the year before, this San Antonio team couldn’t be stopped.
3. 2015 Golden State Warriors
(67-15, 16-5 in the Playoffs)
This season was the ascension of Curry’s Warriors to the top of the basketball world. The sharp-shooting point guard won the first of his back-to-back MVPs this year that would spark a dynasty, but some underlying factors that lower them on this list.
A quick look at this team’s statistics and record would indicate that they’re better than the 2013-2014 Spurs. This iteration of Golden State revolutionized basketball as we know it under newly-hired head coach Steve Kerr’s motion and 3-point shooting offense while also sporting the league’s best defensive rating (101.4). They played at the highest pace that year and just shot just under 40% from behind the arc, partly stemming from a league-high 27.4 assists per game.
The basketball gods did shine fondly upon this Warriors team, however, as every team they played in the playoffs had one or more injured starters. Jrue Holiday struggled with injuries and couldn’t play much during Golden State’s first-round sweep of the Pelicans, Mike Conley and Tony Allen both missed a game while fighting through injuries in a six-game second-round series, Patrick Beverly missed the entire Western Conference Finals when the Rockets lost in five games, and Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love both missed the majority of the NBA Finals.
Although the Warriors would have probably gotten to the Finals even their Western Conference opponents were healthy, Cleveland winning the championship the following season added validity to the notion that they might have defeated Golden State in 2015 if the Cavaliers were healthy. Still, this Warriors team’s body of work speaks for itself and marked a true turning point in NBA history.
4. 2018 Golden State Warriors
(58-24, 16-5 in the Playoffs)
The roster might have been largely the same as the No. 1 team on this list, but teams on paper don’t always perform as planned. Such is the case with this Golden State roster, a team less hungry for a championship than the year before, struggled with more injuries and seemed almost disinterested in the regular season.
Durant, Curry and Andre Iguodala missed a combined 63 games and the team won nine fewer contests as a result. Golden State’s defensive rating also fell to 11th in the league (107.6) and it finished the season 7-10 in its last 17 games.
What truly puts this team lower on this list is what happened in the Western Conference Finals. Up to that point, this team was just as good as it was the previous season when they were locked-in, but against the Rockets it looked like the unbeatable team would fall. Houston went up 3-2 in the series but Chris Paul went down late in game five with a hamstring injury, opening up the door for a Warriors comeback in the next two games.
But the Rockets would lead game seven by 11 at halftime on their home floor before missing 27-straight triples and blowing the series. Somehow, a team with four All-Stars nearly let another title slip through fingers. But they’d go on to sweep James and a bunch of role players in the Finals by a record margin of 15 points per game.
This Warriors team was pushed to the brink and perhaps did too much of turning it on and off against lesser opponents, but they were still as talented as any team the NBA has ever seen.
5. 2007 San Antonio Spurs
(58-24, 16-4 in the Playoffs)
This was the last Spurs team that sported the big-three of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili all in their primes, but was arguably the worst of the four Finals teams those three were on together. Popovich had this team of three stars and aging role players like Michael Finely, Brent Barry, Bruce Bowen and Robert Horry lock-down on defense and play the fourth-slowest pace in the league, often scoring in the halfcourt knowing that his team didn’t have the firepower to outshoot most teams.
San Antonio held its opponents to a league-low 90.2 points per game and had few injuries as a result, allowing its already potent chemistry to peak come playoff time. No team pushed the Spurs to more than six games and they swept James’ overmatched Cavaliers in the Finals. Duncan led the way in the postseason with 22.2 points and 11.5 rebounds per game after once again making the All-NBA First Team.
The team that gave this Spurs bunch trouble was Steve Nash’s Suns, whom they faced in the second round. A controversial suspension of Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for game five of the series after a game four scuffle stripped Pheonix of a real chance to upset San Antonio with the series tied at 2-2, so like the 2014-2015 Warriors, this Spurs team benefitted from some factors off the court.
6. 2011 Dallas Mavericks
(57-25, 16-5 in the Playoffs)
This is the only team to beat James’ team while being the betting underdog, and the odds made sense at the time. This Dallas squad faced the first version of the big-three Miami Heat while only having one true star of its own in Dirk Nowitzki, so it seemed like an unfair fight. But James infamously crumbled under the pressure and the Mavericks played a true team-brand of basketball and took home the trophy in six games.
Dallas was only eighth in both offensive (109.7) and defensive (105.0) ratings, had just one player in Nowitzki to score over 20 points per game and lost Caron Butler’s 15.8 points per game after an injury limited him to 29 games. What got this team by was their depth and veteran savvy.
Their top four scorers in the playoffs — Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Shawn Marion and Jason Kidd — were all at least 32 years old, and it showed in tight games when Dallas’ leaders didn’t succumb to the pressure. In the Finals, all four players stepped up at various points and exposed a less experienced Miami team in clutch moments.
Nowitzki dispelled his reputation as a choker by carrying his teammates to the 2011 title with some truly remarkable performances. This was a great team with superior chemistry to the Heat, but 2011 was a Finals that James let slip away from no one’s fault but his own.