LeBron James has now reached the NBA Finals six times in his 12 years in the league. In almost any other era this would be quite the feat. However, given the unique circumstances over those dozen years, the accomplishment rings hollow.
In the last decade, the NBA’s two conference system has helped insulate the Eastern Conference playoff bracket from any serious competition prior to the Finals. While Western Conference powerhouses battle for supremacy in rounds 1 and 2, the best Eastern Conference team will face light competition and perhaps only have to ratchet up their effort in the Eastern Conference Finals.
This year has typified the dichotomy. The Cavaliers march to the Finals went through Boston, Chicago, and Atlanta. The Celtics would have been a lottery team in the West. The Bulls likely wouldn’t have made the Western Conference 8th seed either. Atlanta had a strong regular season record but struggled as a number one seed in the East, nearly losing to a banged up Washington Wizards team before getting swept by the Cavs.
These types of soft matchups come on an annual basis for the Eastern Conference and this is why LeBron James is seemingly always in the running for a championship: While his eventual Western Conference counterparts are slugging it out, James is breezing his way to the Finals.
Once the championship match is set, James mathematically has a 30-40 percent chance, at worst, of winning the title. All he needs is for his opponents to be injured, tired or fall under the pressure and he will grab another championship after taking one of the easiest routes in history to get there.
The Eastern Conference no longer has the Cagey Celtics, Detroit’s Bad Boys, Jordan’s Bulls or the Punishing Knicks to get through. Now James’ best competition is typically the mentally weak Pacers or the oft-injured Bulls.
Of course, it’s not James’ fault he has zero competition but there needs to be an asterisks next to his six Finals appearances.
Here’s LeBron missing what would have been the game-winner in Game 1 of the Finals.