LeBron James made his 10th NBA Finals appearance this season, an extraordinary achievement for an NBA player in his 17th season. LeBron James is clearly still the best player in the world, and the only thing he has yet to prove is to exceed the Michael Jordan comparison. While LeBron James is a completely different player to MJ and plays a different position, the debate will always be there as Jordan is considered the greatest player of all time and the standard for all great players.
One topic of comparison is always the competition both legends faced and the road they took to winning NBA championships. Jordan has 6 rings compared to LeBron’s 4, but LeBron might have had the tougher competition when narrowing down each Finals’ appearance. However, Jordan might have faced the best all-around players in his 6 Finals appearances whereas LeBron played better teams. Nonetheless, it is time to capture each player’s NBA Finals appearances by assessing the competition.
1991 NBA Finals
Competition: Magic Johnson (Hall of Famer, All-NBA 1st Team), Vlade Divac (Hall of Famer), James Worthy (Hall of Famer, All-NBA 3rd Team)
MJ’s first NBA Finals appearance was a positive one, as was the case for all of MJ’s NBA rings. Jordan and the Bulls led the charge against legendary point guard Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers. In a showdown between the 2 best players in the era, this was an amazing series whereby Jordan stamped his mark on the league. MJ and the Bulls fell in Game 1, before closing out the series in 5. MJ was the key player all series long, with Scottie Pippen adding in a sensational 32-point game in Game 5 to help MJ close it out. The Lakers finished 3rd in the league that season compared to the Bulls finishing first, and the Jordan era officially began in the 1991 Finals.
1992 NBA Finals
Competition: Clyde Drexler (Hall of Famer, All-NBA 1st Team), Buck Williams (All-NBA Defensive 2nd Team)
This is known as the series where Michael Jordan took things personally. Clyde Drexler led the Portland Trail Blazers to the 1st seed in the Western Conference against the 1st seeded Chicago Bulls. Drexler was thought to be at least equal competition to Michael Jordan, which MJ wanted to prove wrong. Drexler held his own with sensational performances in the series, but MJ had too many key moments such as hitting 6 threes in the 1st quarter of Game 1 and then dropping 33 points in a closeout Game 6. Jordan would simply not allow the series to go to 7, as he was ruthless in making it clear Drexler doesn’t come close to his greatness.
1993 NBA Finals
Competition: Charles Barkley (Hall of Famer, All-NBA 1st Team), Dan Majerle (All-NBA Defensive 2nd Team)
This was probably the toughest opponent for Michael Jordan. Led by league MVP Charles Barkley, the Suns had the best record in the West while Chicago fell to the #2 seed. As great as Barkley and defensive specialist Dan Majerle were, Jordan and the Bulls were just better. The Bulls took the first 2 games of the series before Phoenix won in 3-OT in Game 3. Jordan responded with 55 points in Game 4 before he made the iconic pass to John Paxson for the game-winning three. Barkley was a dominant player in the series but Jordan was near perfection all series long and he once again did not allow for a Game 7.
1996 NBA Finals
Competition: Gary Payton (Hall of Famer, All-NBA 2nd Team, All-NBA Defensive 1st Team), Shawn Kemp (All-NBA 2nd Team)
After a brief retirement, Michael Jordan returned to the NBA to continue the MJ-era. Jordan wasn’t going away anytime soon, and he led the charge against defensive phenom Gary Payton and athletic glass cleaner Shawn Kemp. MJ and the Bulls went 72-10 in the regular season, as they went to battle with the number one seed in the West. The Bulls were up 3-0 in the series before Payton and Kemp fought back to win 2 straight. Jordan struggled from the floor in Game 6 shooting 5-19, but he had enough help from Pippen and Rodman to close out the series and win Finals MVP in yet another Game 6 closeout.
1997 NBA Finals
Competition: Karl Malone (Hall of Famer, All-NBA 1st Team, All-Defensive 1st Team), John Stockton (Hall of Famer, All-NBA 3rd Team, All-NBA 2nd Defensive Team)
MJ and the Bulls made their 5th straight NBA Finals appearance against Karl Malone and John Stockton, who led the Jazz to the best record in the Western Conference. The Bulls won the first 2 games before Utah evened it up in 4. In the legendary “Flu Game”, Jordan dropped 38 points and willed Chicago to victory in one of the most iconic moments. Jordan then had another iconic moment when he found Steve Kerr for the game-winning shot to capture his 5th title and 5th Finals MVP. Stockton and Malone were a great duo and this presented a massive challenge to MJ and the Bulls, so Jordan’s unselfishness in Game 6 was one of his greatest moments.
1998 NBA Finals
Competition: Karl Malone (Hall of Famer, All-NBA 1st Team, All-Defensive 1st Team), John Stockton (Hall of Famer)
Was there ever any doubt that Jordan would reach the Finals again? He already had one 3-peat with the Bulls and wanted to do it again. The #1 seeded Bulls led the charge against the #1 seeded Utah Jazz led by Hall of Fame duo Karl Malone and John Stockton. Malone and Stockton had taken Game 1 before Chicago answered with 3 straight victories. After Utah stole Game 5, Jordan had one of the most iconic moments in history by stripping Karl Malone on one end and hit the game-winning shot over Bryon Russell to capture his 6th NBA title and 6th Finals MVP.
2007 NBA Finals
Competition: Tim Duncan (Hall of Famer, All-NBA 1st Team, All-Defensive 1st Team), Tony Parker (Hall of Famer), Manu Ginobili (Hall of Famer), Bruce Bowen (All-Defensive 1st Team)
LeBron’s first Finals appearance did not go as he planned, mainly because he was outmatched on both ends of the floor. The Spurs were simply a better team than the Cavaliers as they had 3 Hall of Famers playing under a Hall of Fame coach. Bruce Bowen also made an All-NBA Defensive Team which made life particularly difficult for LeBron in this series. This was a tough series for LeBron as the Cavs were swept, and LeBron does get a pass for most people on this one.
2011 NBA Finals
Competition: Dirk Nowitzki (Hall of Famer, All-NBA 2nd Team), Jason Kidd (Hall of Famer), Tyson Chandler (All-NBA Defensive 2nd Team)
LeBron’s 2nd Finals’ appearance also did not go as planned. He had a Superteam with the Miami Heat with the likes of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh by his side, and they were the heavy favorites coming into the series. In possibly the most shocking way, LeBron played much below his usual level and the Heat were beaten in 6 games by the Mavericks. Dirk Nowitzki was the best player during the playoffs and LeBron James was nowhere near as great. This is a big black mark on LeBron’s legendary career for sure.
2012 NBA Finals
Competition: Kevin Durant (Hall of Famer, All-NBA 1st Team), Russell Westbrook (Hall of Famer, All-NBA 2nd Team), James Harden (Hall of Famer), Serge Ibaka (All-Defensive 1st Team)
LeBron James made amends for his prior Finals appearance disaster by leading the Heat Superteam against the Oklahoma City Thunder who had their own younger Superteam. Led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder had athleticism and youth on their side along with an exceptional 6th man in James Harden and an All-NBA Defensive Team player in Serge Ibaka. The Heat were simply too good with their Big Three, and LeBron James finally played like the best player in the series to win his first NBA title.
2013 NBA Finals
Competition: Tim Duncan (Hall of Famer, All-NBA 1st Team, All-Defensive 2nd Team), Tony Parker (Hall of Famer, All-NBA 2nd Team), Manu Ginobili (Hall of Famer), Kawhi Leonard (Hall of Famer)
LeBron’s 2nd NBA title came against the San Antonio Spurs, who should have beaten LeBron James and the Miami Heat. Known as the series where Ray Allen made the most clutch shot in NBA history, the Heat fought back and won the series despite being down 3-2. LeBron James was once again the best player in the series, and he willed his team to victory in this series against 4 Hall of Fame Spurs players. Head coach Gregg Popovich forced LeBron to beat them with jumpers, and he did that on his way to winning his 2nd straight Finals MVP.
2014 NBA Finals
Competition: Tim Duncan (Hall of Famer), Tony Parker (Hall of Famer, All-NBA 2nd Team), Manu Ginobili (Hall of Famer), Kawhi Leonard (Hall of Famer, All-Defensive 2nd Team)
LeBron James once again was in the Finals with the Miami Heat for the 4th time in a row, this time falling short to the Spurs who exacted their revenge. The Spurs were on a mission this season and the growth of Kawhi Leonard into a star helped San Antonio blow out the Heat in the series. Leonard won Finals MVP, and LeBron could not do enough to counter the Spurs’ new Big Four. Dwyane Wade looked older in this series and LeBron James had to settle for another Finals loss in his record.
2015 NBA Finals
Competition: Stephen Curry (Hall of Famer, All-NBA 1st Team), Klay Thompson (Hall of Famer, All-NBA 3rd Team), Draymond Green (Hall of Famer, All-NBA Defensive 1st Team), Andrew Bogut (All-NBA Defensive 2nd Team)
Once again, LeBron James made the Finals this time with his hometown team Cleveland Cavaliers. With Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love by his side, LeBron James made the Cavs the favorite in the Eastern Conference. Making it all the way to the Finals, they are up against Stephen Curry and the revolutionary Warriors team who introduced the small-ball lineup with Andre Iguodala playing the power forward spot. Unfortunately for LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love went down with injures leaving him to fend off the Big Three Warriors by himself. He had a sensational series, but the Warriors had too much with Andre Iguodala winning Finals MVP over LeBron James and sending him home with a loss.
2016 NBA Finals
Competition: Stephen Curry (Hall of Famer, All-NBA 1st Team), Klay Thompson (Hall of Famer, All-NBA 3rd Team), Draymond Green (Hall of Famer, All-NBA 2nd Team, All-NBA Defensive 1st Team)
The greatest achievement in LeBron’s career came in the 2016 NBA Finals, whereby he played the Warriors against this time with a healthy Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. The Cavs were down 3-1 in the series, and it looked like LeBron would have to suffer yet another loss in the Finals. But he took his game to another level, and alongside Kyrie Irving, were too dominant for the Warriors as they won the NBA title in a historic comeback. LeBron was the undisputed best player in the series, although Kyrie Irving hit the biggest shot of the game in Game 7 to win the series.
2017 NBA Finals
Competition: Kevin Durant (Hall of Famer, All-NBA 2nd Team), Stephen Curry (Hall of Famer, All-NBA 2nd Team), Klay Thompson (Hall of Famer), Draymond Green (Hall of Famer, All-NBA Defensive 1st Team)
LeBron and the Cavs once again made the NBA Finals to play the Warriors, except Golden State added superstar player Kevin Durant to join their Big Three of Curry, Thompson, and Green. LeBron still had Irving and Love, but the Warriors were just unstoppable with Kevin Durant as they beat down the Cavs convincingly. LeBron held his own and would have been Finals MVP in the victory, but Durant and the Warriors were too dominant on both ends as KD won Finals MVP and added the 5th Finals loss to LeBron’s record.
2018 NBA Finals
Competition: Kevin Durant (Hall of Famer, All-NBA 1st Team), Stephen Curry (Hall of Famer, All-NBA 3rd Team), Klay Thompson (Hall of Famer), Draymond Green (Hall of Famer, All-NBA Defensive 2nd Team)
LeBron and the Cavs made the NBA Finals yet again, this time without Kyrie Irving who was traded to Boston. It is a shame LeBron did not have his little brother Irving by his side because their duo was truly exciting to watch. Without Irving, LeBron had to lead average players to battle against the Golden State Warriors juggernaut led by Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry. In one of the most embarrassing Finals moments in history, J.R. Smith dribbled out the clock instead of helping the Cavs snatch Game 1. LeBron put forth a Goliath 50-point performance that went to waste, effectively ending the series the Cavs lost 4-0.
2020 NBA Finals
Competition: Jimmy Butler (All-NBA 3rd Team), Bam Adebayo (All-Defensive 2nd Team)
With LeBron’s 3rd NBA team, he won his 4th NBA title. While certainly not the toughest opponent that LeBron faced and the easiest challenge in both MJ’s and LeBron’s competition, James and the Lakers beat the Heat in 6 games. LeBron James had Anthony Davis by his side, while Jimmy Butler was left to fend for himself as both Bam Adebayo and starting point guard Goran Dragic were out with injuries. Butler held his own with iconic performances, but LeBron and Davis were the best duo in the NBA and the Lakers were too good for any team in the league. While LeBron’s easiest challenge, the Heat were no pushovers as LeBron James had to play at an MVP level to win his 4th Finals MVP.