On Thursday night LeBron James will begin his eighth straight NBA Finals appearance, a stunning feat, but perhaps one that overshadows the fact that these 2018 Finals will also be the 33-year-old’s ninth appearance in the NBA’s championship series.
Through his eight previous Finals series, James has led the Cleveland Cavaliers and Miami Heat to four trips there each, sporting a 3-5 record.
Given the sheer number of Finals appearances James has at this point – his nine is only matched and surpassed by six players in NBA history – it’s fair to say that not all of those trips can be measured equally.
So, with that said, here’s a look at James’ eight NBA Finals, in terms of how he performed individually, ranked.
Stats: 17.8 PPG/7.2 RPG/6.8 APG/47.8 FG%/32.1 3P%
Series outcome: Miami loses to Dallas 4-2
In the first season after James shockingly announced he was departing from Cleveland to Miami on national television to team up with buddies Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, he managed to successfully reach the NBA Finals, beginning this remarkable run of eight straight.
However, as James has found out, more often than not making a Finals and actually winning it are completely different things and this 2011 series is a good example of that.
As you can see from his statistical line, this wasn’t James’ best series. Then-Dallas Mavericks assistant Dwane Casey devised a defensive scheme predicated on mixing and matching zone looks to flummox James and it worked to excellent effect, a lesson James took to heart for the rest of his career.
Stats: 22.0 PPG/7.0 RPG/6.8 APG/35.6 FG%/20.0 3P%
Series outcome: Cleveland loses to San Antonio 4-0
In 2007 a 22-year-old James in just his fourth NBA season led the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals with a supporting cast that included such standout names as Larry Hughes, Zydrunas Ilgauskus and Anderson Varejao.
Facing the mighty San Antonio Spurs with the trio of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker all at the height of their basketball abilities, there wasn’t much expectation for James and the Cavaliers to do much, so getting swept wasn’t much of a surprise.
Still, just the fact that James, at that age and with that team, was able to make the Finals – dethroning a powerful Detroit Pistons team in the process – was a proud accomplishment.
Stats: 28.2 PPG/7.8 RPG/4.0 APG/57.1 FG%/51.9 3P%
Series outcome: Miami loses to San Antonio 4-1
After winning two straight NBA titles with the Heat, James was looking for a three-peat against the opponent he managed to vanquish in the Finals the year before.
Alas, it wasn’t to be. Despite apparently strong numbers from James, the Spurs managed to effectively neutralize his passing game, taking his teammates out of the equation and cruise for a five-game series victory.
Additionally, in Game 1 of the series, James suffered a bout of dehydration and started cramping limiting him to just five minutes in the fourth quarter of that game and dispelling his aura of invincibility in the process.
Stats: 33.6 PPG/12.0 RPG/10.0 APG/56.4 FG%/38.7 3P%
Series outcome: Cleveland loses to Golden State 4-1
After having fulfilled his promise to Cleveland in 2016, last year’s Finals almost felt like it was going to be an expected letdown for James and the Cavaliers.
With the Golden State Warriors out for revenge, with Kevin Durant in the fold this time around, there was nothing the Cavaliers could do – not even an outrageous James triple-double stat line – to prevent this inevitable Dubs championship.
Stats: 25.3 PPG/10.9 RPG/7.0 APG/44.7 FG%/35.3 3P%
Series outcome: Miami beats San Antonio 4-3
Yes, Ray Allen did hit that huge shot in Game 6 to send the game into overtime, paving the way to a miracle force of Game 7. But that shouldn’t take away from the fact that James and the Heat got it done in Game 7, especially when you consider the fact James balled out with the championship on the line for 37 points and 12 rebounds.
Critics will always find something to nitpick at with James, but that still doesn’t change the reality that James managed to beat the Spurs in the NBA Finals.
Stats: 28.6 PPG/10.2 RPG/7.4 APG/47.8 FG%/18.8 3P%
Series outcome: Miami beats Oklahoma City 4-1
After being humbled the year before by the Mavericks, James and the Heat weren’t about to make the same mistakes twice.
In James’ path was an Oklahoma City Thunder team that was heavy on star power – Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka were all on that 2011-12 Thunder squad – but light on experience, and the more veteran Heat took full advantage of that.
Despite shooting poorly from deep, James dominated this series. He had a rough start as OKC managed to hold him to just one field goal in the final eight minutes of the fourth quarter in Game 1, but after that he couldn’t be contained as his combination of scoring and passing was just too much for the Thunder to deal with. Miami would go on to win four straight for James’ first-ever NBA title.
Stats: 35.8 PPG/13.3 RPG/8.8 APG/39.8 FG%/31.0 3P%
Series outcome: Cleveland loses to Golden State 4-2
I know what you must be thinking of here: How can a series loss rank higher than a couple of titles?
Normally, this would be an impossibility, but given the circumstances James faced in the 2015 Finals, as well as that monster stat line, this slides in easily at No. 2.
With James’ fellow Cavaliers co-stars Kevin Love (the entire series) and Kyrie Irving (all but Game 1) out with injury, James took up the slack to all but win two games against a 67-win Warriors squad virtually by himself.
This feat from James not only earned him even more respect and admiration from around the league, but also left many wondering, “What if Love and Irving were healthy?”
Stats: 29.7 PPG/11.3 RPG/8.9 APG/49.4 FG%/37.1 3P%
Series outcome: Cleveland beats Golden State 4-3
So, what if Love and Irving were healthy?
That was answered in 2016, in what is without question the defining moment of James’ illustrious career.
When James left Miami in the summer of 2014 to return to Cleveland he made a promise to his childhood team that he would bring a championship to it, and he delivered with a seven-game effort for the ages.
And while Irving was absolutely vital to the success of this series with his clutch shot-making – Love didn’t actually do too much, for those wondering – and there’s an argument for the impact Draymond Green’s suspension had, this series was all about James.
Cleveland managed to crawl back from a 1-3 deficit against a Warriors club that set an NBA-record 73 wins in the regular season thanks to James and the 36.3 points, 11.7 rebounds and 9.7 assists he averaged during the last three games in the series, in addition to “The Block” in Game 7 with less than two minutes to play in a tie game.
If James never wins another NBA title, it shouldn’t matter a single bit as far as his legacy goes because of this 2016 championship run.