On Wednesday night, LeBron James had unquestionably his worst playoff performance as a Miami Heat. He bricked eight of his ten shot attempts, turned the ball over three times and mustered only four assists and two rebounds. According to a measurement devised by John Hollinger, the O.G. of basketball advanced statisticians, it was the second-worst playoff performance of James’ career. Not surprisingly, the four-time MVP’s struggles were a big reason Miami lost 93-90, failing to close out Indiana on the road.
This dud, of course, was an exception. Heading back home for Game 6 tonight, Miami is still a 7-point favorite according to the top books at sportsbettingpal.com. James, who has for the most part been superlative throughout the prime of his career,
is still expected to emphatically did lead them to a fourth straight Finals appearance. His success in May and June is a big reason the two-time NBA champion is at age 29 already considered one of the greatest players in the history of the game.
But is he the best?
We’ll have a good answer within a few years, and along the way every piece of evidence will add or subtract from that final verdict. So far, James’ career highlights have been just as impressive as other G.O.A.T. candidates. But lowlights should count, too. Here’s how James’ Hindenburg of a night compares to the worst playoff performances* of his rivals to the all-time throne:
Date: May 19, 1985
Line: 14 PTS (27% FG), 8 TOs, 7 REBs, 6 ASTs
Game outcome: Boston 104, Philadelphia 115
Series outcome: Celtics Won 4-1
If LeBron is to one day be widely considered the game’s greatest player, he needs to first lock down the all-time first team small forward spot. That means pushing aside Larry Bird, who won’t go down without a fight in more ways than one. LeBron already has more overall MVPs, but this season he failed to be the first player to pull off an MVP three-peat since Bird did it in 1984-86.
The worst game of Bird’s playoff career in his prime years wasn’t as bad as James’. Both men have excuses. On Wednesday night, James couldn’t stay on the floor and get into a rhythm, not with the refs blowing the whistle on him five times and a certain “Ron Artest-Stephen Jackson-Jamaal Tinsley Molotov cocktail” blowing into his ear. In 1985, with Boston up 3-0, Bird showed up for Game 4 with his right index finger badly swollen. The official stance was it happened in Game 3, but an unidentified eyewitness claims Bird injured the hand while throwing a haymaker in a barroom fight a couple nights before.
Whatever the case, the injury might have cost Boston a title. Bird shot 42% from the field after the apparent incident and in the Finals the Celtics fell 4-2 to the Lakers.
Date: May 11, 1989
Line: 15 PTS (41% FG & 25% FT), 1 TO, 8 REBs, 3 ASTs
Game Outcome: Chicago 97, New York 114
Series Outcome: Chicago Won 4-2
You can’t blame Knicks point guard Mark Jackson for sticking it to the crowd. He was feeling good. In Game 2 of a series in which New York was favored, he’d just stolen the ball from his Airness – so why not have a little fun and mock Jordan’s signature gesture? M.J., after all, was looking human as Jackson and “Jordan stopper” Gerald Wilkins were en route to limiting him to a career playoff low 15 points with their full-court press. Jackson couldn’t help but stick that tongue out.
Chicago head coach Doug Collins showed Jordan the tape of Jackson’s jauntiness, and that was all she wrote. Chicago wiped New York out 111-88 in the next game, and despite that Game 2 statistical black eye, Jordan ended up averaging 35.9 points, 9.5 rebounds, 8.4 assists and shooting more than 52% on field goals in the 6-game series. Talk about a bounce back.
The next series against Detroit saw Jordan’s second-worst playoff performance thanks to a famously aggressive Pistons defense that left no shortage of bruises.
How tough was the defense Jordan had to score on?
Fast forward to the 52 second mark in the following film. Watch Detroit’s Dennis Rodman literally push Jordan to the ground after a shot attempt:
Jordan just lays there, becoming at one with the pain, while nobody seems to notice. No complaining. It’s playoff time – pain is to be expected. Contrast this with the way James tried to bait a foul from Lance Stephenson at the end of Wednesday’s game and instead ended up flailing wildly while airballing a three-point attempt that could have helped Miami knock Indiana out. James is a better passer than Jordan ever was, yes, but he’s also a far superior flopper.
Date: April 5, 1973
Line: 18 PTs (50% FT); Other stats N/A
Game Outcome: Milwaukee 97, Golden State 102
Series Outcome: Milwaukee lost 4-2
The nearly 7’3” Abdul-Jabbar is the most prolific scorer the league has ever seen. And with a baseline sky hook extending to 18 feet, he had the most unstoppable go-to move known to man. All the same, Abdul-Jabbar had his spots – and he usually preferred them to be closer to the basket. A defender who could push him off those spots gave his team a chance.
That’s exactly what happened during the 1973 Playoffs when Milwaukee, led by Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson, were upset by a balanced Warriors squad featuring Rick Barry, Cazzie Russell and the 6’11” Nate Thurmond.
Throughout the series, Thurmond continually beat Abdul-Jabbar to his favorite spots on the floor and worked hard to to cut down on entry passing angles. As a result, he held Abdul-Jabbar to an “unheard of” 42% on field goals, 11 percentage points below his norm, according to Bob Ryan’s 1975 book “The Pro Game.” Abdul-Jabbar, who averaged at least 32 points a game in three of his first six postseasons, averaged only 22.8 in this one (along with 16.2 rebounds). After the series, the Bucks’ Jon McGlocklin said: “I think it’s disgusting. To me, we’re a better team than they are, but they played harder as a team. They were smarter in the playoffs than they had been in the regular season, and we weren’t nearly as smart or as hungry.”
Abdul-Jabbar said Thurmond was the best defender he ever faced.
James must leapfrog two active players in achievements before he is widely considered the greatest of all time. They are:
Date: June 10, 2004
Line: 11 PTs (31% FG), 4 TOs, 5 ASTs, 3 REBs
Game Outcome: Los Angeles 66, Detroit 88
Series Outcome: Los Angeles lost 4-1
After winning Game 2 of the Finals, Bryant and the Lakers arrived in Auburn Hills three games away from winning their fourth title in five years – a stint of success that would have surpassed even the Chicago dynasties of the 1990s. In a pivotal Game 3, though, Kobe didn’t exactly grab the bull by the horns. Instead, the long-armed Tayshaun Prince harassed Bryant into missing all four of his first half shot attempts. Bryant didn’t score until connecting on a third-quarter jumper to close Detroit’s lead to 54-42.
“He had a hard time shooting,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said afterward. “This is a tough background to shoot in, it’s a different one, and the basket, he had a few things that didn’t go down for him; didn’t get to the line too often.”
This game was the start of a miserable stretch run for the most talented NBA team to not win a title. The Lakers featured four future Hall of Famers, including Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Gary Payton and Karl Malone (who was hobbled by a knee injury in the series). The coaching staff featured two Hall of Famers in Phil Jackson and Tex Winter.
Date: April 30, 2005
Line: 11 PTs (26% FG), 11 REBs, 3 TOs, 2 ASTs
Game Outcome: San Antonio 86, Denver 78
Series Outcome: San Antonio won 4-1
Of course Tim Duncan would manage a double-double even in the worst playoff game of his prime. What more would you expect from a player who puts up excellence with such predictability that he’s bestowed the nickname “Death & Taxes”?
Like James in Indiana, Duncan was shackled by foul trouble in this one – a Game 3 on the road. After playing five first half minutes and scoring four points, Duncan was absolutely atrocious in the third quarter. The Nuggets’ Marcus Camby played a role in his missing all eight of his shots. In the end, though, Duncan’s teammates (i.e. Ginobili) picked up the slack and the Spurs rolled, winning the series and eventually the 2005 title.
While James never had the opportunity to lock horns with Bryant in the Finals, he and Duncan have gone at it twice. Both all-time greats have notched their belt at the other’s cost, and it looks like a deciding Series III could be in the pipeline for this June. Whichever player leads his team to victory in that series would have a big leg up on the other in future G.O.A.T. arguments.
In the end,
even if Indiana shocks the world and wins the series, James’ Game 5 clunker will be tiny asterisk on a glorious career. Even if he were to never play another game, James has already become a legit contender in the Greatest of All Time conversation.
Still, his accomplishments from here on out could clearly push him to the front of the line. Those achievements will boil down to the cold numbers: number of titles, gold medals and MVPs won; total number of points, rebounds and assists, as well as win shares and true shooting percentage.
As fans of certain players, we love to fixate on the good. But we should look at their worst of times along with the best when trying to paint a complete picture of that player’s overall greatness. Just because the lowlights are scarce doesn’t mean they should go unexamined.
It’s evident James’ playoff lows are worse than his rivals for greatest of all time status.
*I only looked at performances from ages 25 through 29. These are prime years in most players’ careers. Plus, I didn’t want to extend points of comparison past LeBron’s current age (although he has played more NBA playoff minutes than most other 29-year-olds).