Rankings: Was LeBron James's 2016 NBA Finals performance his best yet?
LeBron James has done the impossible, leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to a massive Finals upset of the 73-win Golden State Warriors.
James won his third Finals MVP in the series, and deservedly so. James was incredible against the Warriors, posting back-to-back 41-point games when Cleveland was facing elimination, then recording a triple double in an epic Game 7.
James is now 3–4 in the Finals, with performances ranging from meltdown to miraculous. How does James's 2016 series stack up with the rest of Finals appearances? We’ve ranked all seven of them below:
7. 2011 Finals
17.8 points per game, 7.2 rebounds per game, 6.8 assists per game
LeBron’s first Finals with the Heat was easily the worst of his career. James struggled against the Mavericks, who flummoxed him with a zone defense and an uncanny ability to keep him out of the paint. The series was catnip for his critics, who could point to LeBron’s fourth-quarter stats as evidence of his inability to perform in the clutch. He was shockingly passive at times in the series, refusing to take J.J. Barea into the post and failing to dominate his matchups defensively. Of course, the series likely set the stage for James’s return to form and was the beginning of his biblical arc in Miami.
6. 2007 Finals
22.0 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 6.8 APG
A young James was no match for the veteran Spurs in 2007. The Cavaliers were swept, with Gregg Popovich daring LeBron to shoot from the outside for much of the series. With space on the perimeter, James couldn’t capitalize with his inconsistent shot. To Cleveland's credit, this series was close over the final couple games. After the sweep, Tim Duncan told LeBron that James would soon be the face of the NBA. Little did Duncan know he and LeBron would still have epic battles to come.
5. 2014 Finals
28.2 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 4.0 APG
The Heat were outclassed by the Spurs in 2014, but by no stretch was LeBron to blame. People may remember the cramps from Game 1, but LeBron was outstanding during this series. He was failed by his teammates, with a limping Dwyane Wade often barely in the frame on defense and Chris Bosh struggling against San Antonio’s frontcourt. James was extremely efficient against the Spurs’ defense, a testament to how much his jumper had improved since his first go-around with Popovich seven years earlier. James shot 57.1% from the field and nearly 52% from three, and the series was ultimately an injustice to his performance.
4. 2013 Finals
25.3 PPG, 10.9 RPG, 7.0 APG
There were so many huge LeBron moments from this series. His emphatic block of Tiago Splitter in Game 2. A Batman-and-Batman game from James and Wade in Game 4. And a clutch jumper—his MJ moment—to clinch Game 7. But let’s talk about Game 6. People love to say LeBron was saved by Ray Allen’s three pointer. This is a horrible opinion. James was unreal on that unforgettable night. Remember when he lost his headband and seemingly found a new level of power? James left every single thing he had on the floor in that game, posting more than 30 points and a triple double to help save the Heat’s season. This was LeBron at his finest. He was everywhere on the court defensively. He anchored lineups in which he was surrounded by four shooters, lifting Miami to new heights offensively. He did everything and more that had been asked of him, and James is more responsible than Allen when it comes to protecting his legacy.
Oh, and James was equally special in the closeout, scoring 37 to seal the deal on his second straight championship.
3. 2012 Finals
28.6 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 7.4 APG
James completed his transformation from villain to hero—a feeling only he and Ye know—with a dominant series in the 2012 Finals. This was the only Finals of LeBron’s career in which it felt like he had a direct rival: Kevin Durant. James took the challenge. He outplayed his counterpart offensively and defended Durant during the game’s key moments. James exhibited a hunger in this series that could only emerge after years of heartbreak. There was a memorable moment in the fifth and final game of the series when LeBron grabbed a rebound over three defenders, missed a shot, got his own rebound, then made a layup while being fouled. The play was a perfect example of James’s physical dominance and refusal to be contained. With a triple double in the closeout game, James ensured his legacy would be one of a championship winner.
2. 2015 Finals
35.8 PPG, 13.3 RPG, 8.8 APG
In an underdog role without his best teammate, Kyrie Irving, James put the Cavaliers on his back in the 2015 Finals. His efficiency dropped as his counting stats rose, but James single-handedly managed to slow down the team that had been running roughshod through the NBA. James’s performance wasn’t enough to lead his team to a win, but it should have been worthy of the Finals MVP award. James slowed the game down against Golden State in 2015, often pounding the ball before going 1-on-5 at the end of the shot clock. Even when everyone in the world knew what was coming, James managed to pour in buckets while scrambling all over the place on defense. The look of exhaustion on James’s face by the end of the series was more than well earned.
1. 2016 Finals
After two years of Stephen Curry hype, James reclaimed his status as the best player in the NBA with an incredible Finals performance. Curry had earned all the accolades usually reserved for James during the regular season, as he was crowned (by many) the league’s best player and earned the NBA’s first unanimous MVP selection. But James thoroughly outplayed Curry for most of the Finals, and personally reminded Curry who the NBA’s top dog was with a degrading swat—and hilarious smirk—during Game 6. LeBron went up against all odds in this series—down 3–1 entering Game 5, going against the winningest regular season team in NBA history—but showed that he himself could serve as an equalizer in the face of so many narratives. James’s back-to-back 40-point explosions in Games 5 and 6 sent a message to every single fan of the NBA: When LeBron James is locked in, there’s no one capable of stopping him.