2013 NBA Finals Wrap-up & LeBron Finals vs. Jordan Finals

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Congratulation to the Miami Heat on winning their 3rd NBA Championship and on repeating as champs.

I’m going to try to veer away from the sour grapes topics that consume my mind about this team (Ray Allen, I’m trying not to look in your direction) and stick to the positives. Yes they got very lucky to take that game 6 into overtime. I know it was virtually impossible to do so without manufacturing at least 1 turnover, but they did make the furious comeback to at least have that .0001% chance to pull it out. They slugged it out for the offensive boards and hit the big second chance three point shots. The opportunity to stay alive was gifted to them on a platter by San Antonio ineptitude, but the Heat had the will and the talent to reach out and take it.

Pat Riley built this team on the premise that three highly compensated stars and a group of minimum to median salary extras could become a dominant force, and I think we all have to admit that it has pretty much worked out. True, Coach Spoelstra’s play-style has subverted Chris Bosh’s natural inclinations somewhat and made him more of a jump-shooter / defender after the fashion of a PJ Brown / Robert Horry. But the pace and space offense they play requires him to be that perimeter center player, and when he embraces that role at the defensive end, it makes Miami a scary team. The Heat got three good games out of Dwyane Wade in the Finals and won them all. Obviously Wade’s health and ability to perform at a high level continue to be crucial to their ability to compete at their highest level and that was part of the gamble Riley took when constructing a contending team that was intended to be so reliant on a few talented individuals.

LeBron James… What can you say? He had a marvelous series in the true sense of the word. I marvel at the things he does. Quick stats look for his last three finals appearances:

Player Age G MP PTS TRB AST STL BLK TO TS% FG% 3P% FT%
LeBron James 26 6 43.7 17.8 7.2 6.8 1.7 0.5 4.0 0.541 0.478 0.321 0.6
LeBron James 27 5 44 28.6 10.2 7.4 1.6 0.4 3.8 0.558 0.472 0.188 0.826
LeBron James 28 7 43 25.3 10.9 7 2.3 0.9 2.6 0.529 0.447 0.353 0.795
Averages 43.6 23.7 9.4 7.1 1.9 0.6 3.4 0.539 0.468 0.286 0.739

Notice the dramatic improvement from the Dallas series at age 26 to the San Antonio series at age 28. The defenses caused him similar problems, and he actually shot a worse True Shooting percentage this year, but he managed to overcome his confusion and at least take enough shots to make a big scoring impact. This is what we were talking about in this post after game 5. Sometimes the defense enacts a plan that muddies up the offensive strategy but opens up new avenues to score, and the player with the ball has to be willing to make them pay for it. Failing to do so causes LeBron’s 2011 Finals and Rajon Rondo’s 2010 Finals.

Because I know it’s going to come up now, let’s briefly revisit our LeBron James / Michael Jordan comparison for a Finals specific contrast. Note – I stuck in Jordan’s 1990 7 game ECF loss to the Pistons so that we’re comparing at least the same number of series. Jordan losing to the eventual champs in 7 games in the conference finals seems pretty much equivalent to James losing to the eventual champs in 6 games in the finals. For what it’s worth, I think this is an important point.

People (haters) are going to be crowing about how LeBron has already lost 2 NBA Finals while Jordan never lost one, but it should be mentioned that LeBron’s two losses came at ages where Jordan had never had the opportunity to compete in the Finals at all. So Bron getting swept by San Antonio in 2007 isn’t really that different from Jordan going down to the champion Pistons in the conference semis in 5 games in 1988. The Eastern Conference happened to be an absolute beast in the late ‘80s, so advancing to the Finals wasn’t going to happen for Chicago at that point, but if they somehow did advance, I don’t think it’s likely they could have beaten Magic Johnson’s Lakers.

If you want to dogpile on LeBron for playoff failures that Jordan never suffered, I’d say the fair point to make is that Jordan’s Bulls never lost a playoff series in which they were favored (had home court advantage). LeBron’s Cavs had the best record in the East in 2009 and 2010 and failed to make the Finals in both seasons, and his Heat had home court advantage over the Mavs in 2011 when they lost in the Finals. For whatever that’s worth, it may be a difference worth pointing out – though a counter point would be that the Bulls did not manage to secure home court advantage throughout the playoffs in any season until 1991. The fact that James made the Finals at a younger age than Jordan and lost there is in itself neither a sign of superiority nor inferiority and shouldn’t be touted either way.

Whew. Onto Michael’s numbers for his Bulls’ final series when he was ages 26-28:

Player Age G MP PTS TRB AST STL BLK TO TS% FG% 3P% FT%
Michael Jordan 26 7 42.3 32.1 7.1 6.3 2.1 0.6 2.9 0.566 0.467 0.286 0.875
Michael Jordan 27 5 44.0 31.2 6.6 11.4 2.8 1.4 3.6 0.612 0.558 0.500 0.848
Michael Jordan 28 6 42.3 35.8 4.8 6.5 1.7 0.3 4.0 0.617 0.526 0.429 0.891
Averages 42.9 33.1 6.2 8.0 2.2 0.9 3.5 0.601 0.521 0.408 0.871

These are per game stats that don’t account for game pace or opponent defensive rating, and they also don’t account for team strategy, teammate strengths and weaknesses, or include any plus / minus information. The numbers certainly favor Jordan particularly where it comes to shooting efficiency and total scoring, but there’s no use acting like this is an apples to apples comparison. I think the big takeaway I have is something we already knew without looking at the numbers. LeBron and Jordan, while similarly impactful and often uncontestable, are very different players. LeBron is a playmaker first and has to force the issue and take and make shots outside the normal gameplan when necessary. Jordan’s adjustment tended to be a need to dial it back and stay in the team flow instead of pressing too much.

For those concerned with whether or not LeBron is or will be better than Jordan, that’s another topic entirely. Better relates to how a player plays not what he accomplishes. Accomplishments are about legacy, greatness. LeBron is on pace to have an argument to be as “great” as Jordan when we add up all the stats and trophies at the end of his career (a long way off). We can look into whether he’s as good at playing basketball as MJ was another time in a different light.

Okay. That’s more than I even wanted to get into on that topic so I’ll stop.

Spurs fans. Oh, Spurs fans. You took the worst hit I’ve seen a team endure since my beloved Celtics took 20 fewer free throws than their hated Lakers rivals in game 7 of the 2010 Lakers Coronation, pardon me, 2010 NBA Finals. That game 6 ending was patently impossible. You came as close to winning a title as anyone ever has without actually winning a title. Feel free to blame whoever you need to blame to get by.

I have some good news though. Despite what Bill Simmons thinks, your team will still be a serious contender next year. Tim Duncan is not going to fall off a cliff. Tony Parker is still at his best. Manu is slipping but Kahwi Leonard is getting better and better, and the San Antonio front office is still the best in the league. I’d say the Spurs have to be the off-season favorites to win the West, and there was nothing that happened in this NBA Finals to indicate that they could not beat the Heat in a rematch. Here’s to 2014!

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