The 2019-20 NBA season is over, and LeBron James is going home with his fourth championship ring. It’s a huge accomplishment for any player, but given how many title shots the King has had, it’s almost shocking that number four came this late. That’s not a knock on LeBron; if anything it’s a testament to his continued playoff greatness, and the level of competition he’s faced over the course of his career.
This year’s victory mark’s LeBron’s tenth trip to the NBA Finals, and his fourth Finals MVP with his third team. And while the crew he co-led with Anthony Davis has been one for the ages, it isn’t James’s greatest Finals team. In those ten prestigious seasons, LeBron has played with some truly great, and a few disappointing teams. So which is the best, and how do they stack up against each other?
10. 2006-07 Cleveland Cavaliers (50-32)
LeBron’s first journey to the NBA Finals was marred by the same problem that marked many of his years in Cleveland – a lack of help. After a shocking upset over Detroit in the Eastern Conference Finals, the world was ready for the King’s debut on basketball’s biggest stage.
But James alone was not enough. The Cavs got swept by the Spurs in a series where Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli, and Tony Parker all averaged over 17 points per game. By contrast, the only other Cavaliers with double digits for the series were Drew Gooden and Daniel Gibson, at 12.8 and 10.8, respectively.
Still, there are things to be proud of in the ’07 team, though they’re almost exclusively related to LeBron. It was the second year in a row that the young star took Cleveland to 50 wins and a deep playoff run, and his performance against the Pistons, in particular, showed signs of great things to come. But this young, unbalanced team doesn’t stack up against the rest of this list.
9. 2017-18 Cleveland Cavaliers (50-32)
LeBron’s last Cleveland team was a fascinating hodgepodge of old veterans and promising younger stars – not unlike the Lakers team he just led to a championship title. Everyone from Dwayne Wade to Derrick Rose had playing time for the Cavaliers during this season, with a lot of roster movement around the trade deadline. And while those changes helped, they couldn’t bring another trophy home to Ohio.
While seven different players averaged double-digit points during the Cavaliers’ season, the weight still landed squarely on LeBron’s shoulders. Kyrie Irving’s absence only increased the offensive load on James, who averaged nearly nine more minutes played than the second most-played Cavalier in the regular season (36.9), and over 11 more minutes in the Finals (44.7). It also didn’t help that the Cavaliers had one of the worst defenses in the league.
During a few key moments, like in 2007, it looked like LeBron’s sheer force of will might be enough to pull out a stunner. And just like in 2007, it wasn’t. For the second year in a row, Cleveland lost to the Steph/Durant Warriors, this time in a clean sweep. Still, the ’18 team wasn’t without serious potential, and at times, impressive showings.
8. 2016-17 Cleveland Cavaliers (51-31)
While the Warriors’ victory seemed written on the wall since the start of the 2016-17 season, people still had hope for a Cleveland repeat. The same core of James, Irving and Kevin Love was back and still playing great, with LeBron and Kyrie both averaging over 25 points in the regular season. Love had 19 points per game, and Kyle Korver was averaging double digits as well. Once again though, the defense was the problem – 21st in the league.
That defense hurt in a Finals series where Kevin Durant averaged over 35 points, leading Golden State to a 4-1 victory. Similarly impressive scoring performances from LeBron and Kyrie just weren’t enough to contend with both KD and the Splash Brothers backcourt, as many suspected would be the case. But that doesn’t mean this team was without serious merit. In a different timeline, with different cap space, and Durant on some other team, this 51-win crew would likely have won another title.
7. 2013-14 Miami Heat (54-28)
Finally, at number seven, a Miami team. The last one of the James era. Despite the superteam craze still undeniably present, Miami was far from the best team during this season, with a rash of injuries, an extended absence from Wade, and a long series of starting lineup changes. The Spurs crew that beat Miami in the Finals was objectively the better team, only two spots lower in offensive ranking, while also sporting the third-best defense in the league.
But that doesn’t mean the Heat weren’t still great in 2014. LeBron, Wade and Bosh averaged 27.1, 19.0, and 16.2 for the season, respectively. Mario Chalmers and Ray Allen were both still performing at a consistent level, and Miami ranked 11th in overall defense.
And even when locked down by a Finals-MVP-winning Kawhi Leonard, LeBron still led both teams in points scored in four of the five Finals games. But with five different Spurs players in double digits for the series, and Kawhi leading an all-star defensive, it just wasn’t enough for Miami to take the three-peat.
6. 2014-15 Cleveland Cavaliers (53-29)
LeBron’s first year back in Ohio, he led the Cavaliers to 53 wins – a 20-win improvement over the team’s previous season. James, Kyrie and Kevin Love formed a new “big three” at the center of Cleveland, with J.R. Smith and a strong supporting cast contributing to the NBA’s third-best offense. The team’s defense, ranked 18th, was less stellar, but far from the worst in the league. For the season, LeBron and Kyrie both averaged over 20 points per game, with Love adding an extra 16.4 and 9.7 rebounds.
If that core had just stayed healthy, James would have almost assuredly claimed his third ring in 2015. But instead, the Cavs were cursed in the playoffs, with both Irving and Love being sidelined with injuries. And yet, even with two-thirds of the team’s core out for the Finals, LeBron almost won the championship by himself, leading both teams in scoring in five of six games, and rebounds in half of them.
He averaged 35.8 points for the series and took the Warriors to six hard-fought games almost single-handedly. That achievement is enough on its own to make this one of the most significant seasons in the King’s career. If his second and third men had been there with him, Golden State would have been in serious trouble.
5. 2010-11 Miami Heat (58-24)
At the start of the 2010-11 NBA season, LeBron James was the most hated athlete in America. People were burning his jersey and cursing his name, all because of the move to South Beach, where he formed a team with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh that many thought would be unbeatable.
Did the Heat’s first superteam season turn out as amazing as everyone projected? No. But it was still an incredible force on the court, ranking third in offense and fifth in defense. LeBron averaged 26.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, 7.0 assists, and 1.6 steals for the season. Wade finished just behind him in all four categories, and Bosh held up his end of the bargain with 18.7 points and 8.3 rebounds.
In the playoffs, Miami took three straight series in five games apiece. But they were stopped in the Finals by Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks’ zone defense. Wade and Bosh still got theirs, averaging about the same in the Finals as they had in the regular season, but LeBron had serious trouble scoring on Dallas. He ended his second Finals appearance averaging just 17.8 points per game.
4. 2011-12 Miami Heat (46-20)
After 2011’s disappointing Finals performance, LeBron seemed driven more than ever to prove his greatness and capacity to win at the highest level. In a lockout-shortened season, he led Miami with improvements from the previous year in points, rebounds, steals, and blocks. Mario Chalmers was stepping up as a secondary piece, and Wade and Bosh continued to deliver.
The playoffs were not as easy as the year before, but the Heat defeated Carmelo Anthony’s Knicks in five games, the Indiana Pacers in six, and the Boston Celtics in a contentious seven-game Eastern Conference Finals. Through every stage, LeBron was spectacular, averaging a double-double through the postseason with 38.7 points, 12.4 rebounds, 7.2 assists, and 2.4 steals. Wade backed him up in scoring with a whopping 31.6 points per game.
While those numbers dipped notably in the Finals, the Heat still had plenty to vanquish OKC. Miami lost the first bout, but went on to steamroll through four straight victories, including a fifteen-point win in the series finale. As the King himself said, it was about damn time.
3. 2019-20 Los Angeles Lakers (52-19)
There will inevitably be asterisks on LeBron’s fourth championship: the covid-shortened season, the “Bubble” playoffs, and the fact that he missed the Kawhi-led Clippers in the Western Conference Finals, instead of facing off against the young Nuggets team that stunned them in the second round. But none of those caveats should detract from how great this Lakers team was, or how astoundingly well LeBron played all season.
At age 35, James averaged a double-double in the regular season with 25.3 points and 10.2 assists per game. Then in the playoffs, he averaged a double-double again, adjusting to LA’s smaller-ball Bubble play with 27.6 points and 10.8 rebounds, with an additional 8.8 assists. He finished second in MVP voting and won the Finals MVP decidedly. In the Finals, he led both teams in scoring and rebounds, with 29.8 and 11.8.
And of course, that’s all while playing beside Anthony Davis, who also averaged a double-double in the Finals. Was AD as good of a partner for LeBron as Dwayne Wade was in his prime? That’s a tough question to answer. What’s certain though, is that Davis and James ruled the league in a season where other All-Star duos like Harden/Russ and PG/Kawhi fell short.
It’s been said and is still being said in the wake of the season’s end, but it is truly absurd for a player LeBron’s age, in his 17th season, to have put up those numbers. The Lakers also boasted one of the better supporting casts on a LeBron Finals team, with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Dwight Howard, and Rajon Rondo all coming in clutch during the postseason, all under the guiding leadership of James.
2. 2015-16 Cleveland Cavaliers (57-25)
The 2015-16 Cavaliers are not LeBron James’s best Finals team. By the numbers, that spot belongs to another. But this team, the 57-win titan that finally, finally brought a championship home to Cleveland, is perhaps the most legendary team on this list. It’s the one that will rise above the rest in years to come to define the greatness of its captain.
Before we get to the Finals, let’s give this team its regular-season dues. In 2015-16, Cleveland had the league’s third-best offense and tenth-best defense – up eight spots from the year before. LeBron averaged 25.3 points, Kyrie averaged just under 20, and Love was 0.1 rebounds shy of a double-double for the season.
Then in the playoffs, the Cavaliers swept the first two rounds and defeated Atlanta 4-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals to earn a rematch with Golden State. Everyone knows the story from there. Down 3-1, Cleveland did what had never been done, dominating in three straight games.
That comeback has enough astounding moments to fill its own article – The Block; The Shot; Kyrie and LeBron both scoring 41 points in game 5. James alone averaged 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals, and 2.3 blocks for the series. It’s a legendary victory for a legendary player. But it wasn’t his all-time greatest team.
1. 2012-13 Miami Heat (66-16)
You knew this was coming. In 2012-13, Miami was every bit as good as the world thought they’d be when LeBron and Chris Bosh first went there. The Heat won 66 games in the regular season, including an absurd 27-game winning streak, which stands as the second-longest in a single season in league history. LeBron won the MVP for the fourth time in five years, averaging 26.8, 8.0, and 7.3 for the year.
James, Bosh and Wade were all playing at their highest levels, and they had a great backup cast of Ray Allen, Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier, and Udonis Haslem, among others. Overall, the team had the league’s ninth-best defense and second-best offense, and they carried that dominant standing into an impressive playoffs run. They swept Milwaukee, defeated Chicago handily in five games, and won a seven-game series against Indiana in the Conference Finals. All that remained was San Antonio.
That Finals, while perhaps not as iconic now as the 2016 series, was truly one for the ages. All five of the Spurs’ core starters averaged double-digit points, with Kawhi and Tim Duncan also both getting more than 11 rebounds per game. It was a hard-fought seven games, but a clutch shot from Ray Allen in game 6 and a 37-point, 12-rebound game 7 from LeBron made Miami back-to-back champions.