by: Landry Locker (@LandryLocker)
The LeBron James-Michael Jordan debate is getting repetitive, new layers aren’t being added to the discussion and people are failing to realize that all rings aren’t equal. Whether it’s because of tougher competition or less talented teammates the difficulty of winning a championship varies. This list isn’t about sparking the repetitive MJ-LeBron debate, it’s about looking at their opponents in the NBA Finals.Here’s Landry Locker’s power ranking of the 14 NBA Finals opponents LeBron and MJ faced during their career.
No. 1: The 2016-17 Golden State Warriors
Jordan never played a team this good in the Finals and this will be the best team James has faced at the end of the season.
This year the Warriors went a “quiet” 67-15 and are led by four All-Stars all in their primes.
They won 73 games in the previous season, but still got better. How do you do that? By adding the second best player in the league.
There’s a reason the Warriors were willing to break up their record-setting team, there’s a reason Golden State hasn’t lost a single game in the playoffs and there’s a reason they’re a heavy favorite against the Cavs.
Regular Season/Finals Result: 67-15/TBD
No. 2: The 2015-16 Golden State Warriors
It’s amazing that a record-setting team that won 73 games led by the back-to-back unanimous MVP (Steph Curry) is the second best team on this list, but again, there’s a reason they made the changes they did and have cruised to the Finals this season.
The 2015-16 Warriors were being talked about as the best team in league history and if they’d been able to hold onto their 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals it would’ve been hard to argue against.
Regular Season/Finals Result: 67-15/Lost to LeBron’s Cavs in seven
No. 3: The 2014-15 Golden State Warriors
The 2014-15 Warriors also went 67-15 and were looked at as the beginning of a Dynasty. They were fortunate to face a depleted, banged-up, shorthanded Cavs team in the Finals and even trailed 2-1 in the series before pulling away, but they were by far the best team in the NBA all season, were led by Curry during his first MVP season and were being credited for revolutionizing the game.
Regular Season/Finals Result: 67-15/Defeated LeBron’s Cavs in six
No. 4: The 2006-2007 San Antonio Spurs
The battle-tested Spurs had won two of the last four championships and Tim Duncan was going for his fourth against a LeBron-led team that had no business being in the NBA Finals and were only there because of his heroics against the Pistons.
San Antonio was led by three future Hall Of Famers including: A 30-year-old Duncan, a 29-year-old Manu Ginobili, and a 24-year-old Tony Parker.
There were also solid role players on the roster including: Robert Horry, Michael Finley, and Bruce Bowen.
Oh yeah, I forgot to mention arguably the best head coach in league history in Gregg Popovich.
Regular Season/Finals Result: 58-24/Defeated LeBron’s Cavs in four
No. 5: The 1992-93 Phoenix Suns
The Suns had the MVP of the league in Charles Barkley, who averaged 25, 12 and 5 during the season. They also had SEVEN guys who averaged at least 11 points: Dan Majerle 17 points-per-game, Kevin Johnson 16, Richard Dumas 15, Danny Ainge 11, Tom Chambers 12 and Cedric Ceballos 12.
They also had to beat a very, very good Seattle Sonics team in seven in the Western Conference Finals in seven games to get to the Finals.
Regular Season/Finals Result: 62-20/Lost to MJ’s Bulls in six
No. 6: The 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs
This is the series where Kawhi Leonard emerged as one of the best players in the game and LeBron’s supporting cast let him down.
James averaged 28 points, seven rebounds and four assists and shot 57 percent from the field, but it wasn’t enough.
The Spurs dominated the series and shot 47 percent from three in an epic display of team basketball.
Regular Season/Finals Result: 62-20/Beat LeBron’s Heat in five
No. 7: The 2012-13 San Antonio Spurs
Ranking the 2013-13 and 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs was the most difficult part of this exercise. If I had a gun to my head there’s a strong chance that I would pick those Spurs teams to defense the nineties Sonics and Suns, but it’s hard to say for sure.
However, the two biggest advantages they have over those two teams are 1. Championships experience and 2. A coaching advantage
This version of the Spurs had a 36-year-old Duncan, a 35-year-old Ginobili and 20-year-old Tony Parker. Kawhi Leonard was a solid player, but wasn’t at his current status or even the status he’d gain the following season when he won MVP of the Finals.
Regular Season/Finals Result: 58-24/Lost to LeBron’s Heat in seven
No. 8: 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks run itself was the most impressive, surprising Finals run of my lifetime, but part of what makes it so impressive is that the team wasn’t that talented.
The Mavs roster was comprised of hungry veterans chasing their first championship ring including: Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Shawn Marion, Tyson Chandler, Peja Stojakovic and DeShawn Stevenson.
Nowitzki was the best player in the world during the run and Rick Carlisle’s coaching job was one of the best in NBA Finals history.
He shuffled lineups throughout the playoffs and his decision to insert J.J. Barea into the starting lineup in Game 4 of the Finals with the Mavs trailing 2-1 was a move that Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra never adjusted to. THINK ABOUT THAT… J.J. Barea is 3-0 in the NBA Finals as a starting shooting guard.
I stand by the notion that if Spoelstra would have put LeBron on Dirk and focus on defense rather than letting him struggle offensively that Miami wins that series, but Carlisle completely outcoached Spoelstra and the Mavs won the title.
This is by far the worst performance between MJ and LeBron in the Finals and there’s not a close second.
Regular Season/Finals Result: 57-25/Defeated LeBron’s Heat in six
No. 9: The 1991-92 Portland Trail Blazers
This Blazers team had athleticism on the perimeter and a lot of beef down low. WAY more beef than the 1995-96 Sonics, which is why they’re ahead of them on this list.
On the perimeter, Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter and Danny Ainge averaged a combined 53 points.
On the block, the Blazers had Jerome Kersey (12 points and eight rebounds per game), Buck Williams (11 and 8), Kevin Duckworth (10 and 6) and the versatile Cliff Robinson, who chipped in with 12 points-per-game.
This was a very, very underrated team.
Regular Season/Finals Result: 57-25/Lost to MJ’s Bulls in six
No. 10: The 1995-96 Seattle Sonics
This was my favorite team growing up and I loved watching them play. It’s too bad that Shawn Kemp’s alleged off-court habits and inability to stay in shape led to the decline of such a good team that was a big part of the Western Conference in the mid-nineties.
The Sonics were battle-tested. They had lost in the first round to Denver in one of the biggest upsets in league history in 1994 as well as to the Lakers in the 1st round in 1995 after they lost in seven to the Suns in the Western Conference Finals in 1993. Kemp was only 26 during the season and probably the second best player in the league at the time. Gary Payton was only 25 and one of the, if not the best point guard in the league.
Seattle got 17 per-game from Detlef Schremph and 15 from Hersey Hawkins mainly on the perimeter, but their biggest weakness was beef down low to help Kemp do the dirty work.
Some say this ranking is disrespectful, but remember that this Sonics team lost in the first round of the playoffs the two years prior to meeting the Bulls in the Finals.
Regular Season/Finals Result: 64-18, Lost to MJ’s Bull in six
No. 11: The 1990-91 Los Angeles Lakers
This was Magic Johnson’s final NBA stand and MJ’s first championship, but the Lakers didn’t stand a chance.
The 32-year-old Johnson averaged 19 points, seven rebounds and 12 assists that season and James Worthy led the team in scoring with 20 points-per-game, but this was the last leg of the Magic era and the great Lakers teams of the eighties.
Regular Season/Finals Result: 58-24/Lost to MJ’s Bulls in five
No. 12: The 2011-12 Oklahoma City Thunder
It seemed like a foregone conclusion that this young OKC team led by a 23-year-old Kevin Durant, a 22-year-old James Harden, and a 23-year-old Russ Westbrook was going to win or at least appear in multiple championships. They dominated the Heat in Game 1, but lost the next four games and never appeared in the Finals again.
The 2011-12 season was shortened by the lockout in the summer of 2011, which caused Dallas to break up their championship team, and many feel that the young Thunder team with fresh legs benefited from the shortened schedule.
Regular Season/Finals Result: 60-22/Lost to LeBron’s Heat in five
No. 13: The 1996-97 Jazz
Utah was a good team led by arguably the best PG/PF duo in NBA history and a Hall Of Fame coach in Jerry Sloan, but they were also lucky as hell to have peaked when they did.
Timing was HUGE for Utah during their two runs to the NBA Finals.
The great Sonics teams of the nineties began to fall apart that season because of Shawn Kemp’s holdout and alleged off-court issues, the Rockets were getting old, it was pre-Tim Duncan in San Antonio and they faced the younger, Del Harris-led Lakers in the second during Kobe’s rookie season and Shaq’s first year with the team. They made it to the Finals on Stockton’s three-pointer in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals against the Hakeem, Drexler, Barkley Rockets.
Karl Malone was the MVP of the league, Stockton was great, but this was a team of two stars and a bunch of role players. Jeff Hornacek and Byron Russell were the only other two players to average double-digit points.
Again, give the Jazz credit for playing the game the “right way.” However, when Shandon Anderson, a 35-year-old Antoine Carr, Adam Keefe, Greg Foster and Howard Eisley are the guys coming off the bench it’s hard to call this a great team.
Regular Season/Finals Result: 64-18/Lost to MJ’s Bulls in six
No. 14: The 1997-98 Utah Jazz
They had three guys averaging double figures: Malone, Stockton, and Hornacek and played the game the right way. However, this team maximized their potential and had a favorable path to the Finals.
Timing was once again huge for the Jazz in 1997-98 and the Western Conference was very average.
They beat the aging Rockets in five games in the first round, Tim Duncan’s Spurs team in his rookie year in the second round and swept the Lakers in the WCF before Kobe became elite and was sharing time with Eddie Jones.
They maximized their talent, but they also benefited from the state of the rest of the west.
Regular Season/Finals Result: 62-20/Lost to MJ’s Bulls in six