LeBron James is the first NBA player in two decades to get swept in the finals twice

LeBron stands alone in basketball history, in many, many ways.
LeBron stands alone in basketball history, in many, many ways.
Image: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
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The Golden State Warriors’ NBA finals victory was sort of inevitable. When the 2018 playoffs started, the team’s odds to win the championship were 3 to 2, with the Cleveland Cavaliers coming in at 8 to 1. Sports pundits and NBA Twitter were referring to the Cavs as a historically bad finals team, describing them as “LeBron James and [insert collection of useless things here]” (e.g. “I can’t believe LeBron, a box of nails, your brother’s dirty laundry, and 11 Hootie and the Blowfish CDs are going to make it to the finals.”).

But the Warriors’ sweep was still unexpected, especially after they only narrowly nabbed game one, when the Cavs outplayed the Warriors for four quarters and seemed to have a win in the bag with just a few seconds left on the clock, only to blow it thanks to George Hill’s missed free throw and JR Smith’s devastating mental lapse.

The Warriors won in overtime, and never took their foot off the gas from there. Led by Kevin Durant and Steph Curry, the Warriors went on to sweep the best-of-seven series in four games, and make history: the team made LeBron James the first player in NBA history to get swept in two different finals since the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson in 1983 and 1989. (Technically, James Worthy should be included, though he broke his leg in the 1982-83 season and didn’t play in that year’s finals.)

To be fair to James, the fact that he’s made the finals enough times to get swept twice actually says more about his dominance of the Association than it does anything about his failings as a player. This year was James’ eighth—eighth!—straight finals appearance, and ninth overall. And Kareem and Magic are pretty good company to keep.

There have been nine times sweeps since the NBA formed 68 years ago (with the winning team listed first):

  • 1958-59: Boston Celtics vs. Minneapolis Lakers
  • 1970-71: Milwaukee Bucks vs. Baltimore Bullets
  • 1974-75: Golden State Warriors vs. Washington Bullets
  • 1982-83: Philadelphia 76ers vs. Los Angeles Lakers
  • 1988-89: Detroit Pistons vs. Los Angeles Lakers
  • 1994-95: Houston Rockets vs. Orlando Magic
  • 2001-02: Los Angeles Lakers vs. New Jersey Nets
  • 2006-07: San Antonio Spurs vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
  • 2017-18: Golden State Warriors vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

In the 2007 finals, LeBron’s Cavs team was almost laughably terrible. If you think this year’s version of the Cavs was bad, remember that in 2007, LeBron didn’t have anyone as good as Kevin Love as a number-two scoring option, relying instead on Drew Gooden to hit shots.

This year’s Cavs were better, but no match for the Warriors. Golden State’s 2017-18 regular season wasn’t nearly as impressive as any of their previous three, and there was a moment in the Conference Finals when they seemed cooked. But when they got to the finals, they pulled it together enough not to just win, but to win spectacularly.

It’s hard to compare teams across different eras of the sport, but one way to try is to look at a metric called (confusingly) “game score.” It was created by former NBA analyst John Hollinger to roughly measure a player’s per-game productivity (the exact formula can be found here). By combining the finals game scores of each player on the 2018 Warriors, we can get a sense of the team’s productivity as a whole, and then compare it to teams in previous finals.

By that metric, at least, the 2018 Warriors were the most dominant finals team in the past 20 years, at least.

Another way to assess the team is using “net rating.” This is a statistic that attempts to measure a team’s overall dominance based on how many points it scores compared to how many points it gives up per 100 possessions (in order to adjust for pace-of-play and outliers like multiple-overtime games). According to a New York Times analysis, no team to sweep a finals series has had a better net rating than the 2018 Warriors. Their net rating of 16.1 completely destroys the previous record, 10.1, set by the Los Angeles Lakers in 2002. In winning their third championship in four years, the Warriors were fantastic.

Of course, this is a relative statistic—it doesn’t say as much about the absolute skill of one team as it does the difference in abilities between a given team and its opponents. Across a whole season, net rating does, to some extent, assess the true talent level of a team. But in one series it might say just as much or even less about the Warriors’ skill than the Cavs’ lack of it.

That might be why, despite playing at his usual exceptional level, James seemed to end this finals series with a plummeting joie de vivre visible in the light slowly fading from his eyes. At the end of game four, he took himself out for the final minutes.

It was a crushing image to see the best player of this generation, and perhaps of all time, sit on the bench at the end of an NBA finals game. Perhaps he was thinking about the damage it would do to his personal legacy, since his finals record now sits at 3-6. Maybe he was pondering what he could have done if he had two good hands the whole series.

Or it could be that, in his mind, he’d already left the court in Cleveland, and was packing his life up for whatever city he moves to next, to start the final phase of one of the greatest careers in basketball history.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that LeBron James was the first NBA player to get swept in two finals. In fact, he is the third, joining Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (or fourth, if you include James Worthy, who was on two teams that were swept, but only played in the actual finals games one of the years).