Top 10 Finals Underachievers in NBA History
Over the last five years LeBron James has made a name for himself. He's known as the "King," he's won multiple MVPs, and he's one of the most polarizing personalities in sports.
He's also known for mediocrity on the biggest stages, dropping well below his statistical averages in the playoffs and particularly the Finals. Many fans consider him to be the biggest underachiever in NBA Finals history.
But where do his performances stack up against against other all-time great Finals flops?
10. Karl Malone, 1997 Finals
When a player wins a regular season MVP, he is held to a different standard. In the finals the MVP is expected to play at least equal to his averages. Malone didn't, and the difference may have cost him a ring.
In the 1997 Finals he averaged 23.8 points per game, 3.6 below his season average. His stats were also boosted by a 37 point effort in Game 3, with many of those points coming in garbage time. In the other games of the series he averaged only 21.2 ppg.
This, coupled with many infamous moments, including missing two free throws at the end of Game 1 that would have put the Jazz up two with seconds remaining, showcased the difference between Malone and Jordan, who put Malone to shame with over 32 ppg.
9. Kevin McHale, 1987 Finals
Playing in one of the greatest rivalries on the biggest stage is typically where Hall of Famers shine. McHale didn't.
Playing in one of the highest scoring finals of his era, he managed to score only 20.5 ppg, more than five points below his average.
This was especially significant because the Lakers averaged almost exactly five more points per game during the series. And when playing next to Larry Bird, a HoFer has no excuse. Defensively and offensively he just didn't get it done.
8. Larry Bird, 1985 Finals
After critiquing McHale, you must have known Bird wasn't far behind.
In a complete reversal of what happened two years later, Bird laid an egg while McHale played above his regular season output. It's hard to criticize a player who averaged 23.8 points per game in the Finals, but Bird averaged nearly five points more in the regular season (28.7).
Losing 4-2 by an average margin of less than three per game really puts this in perspective. Stars of Larry Bird's caliber are expected to carry their teams through the finals, not be outperformed by the supporting cast.
7. Dwight Howard, 2009 Finals
A prime example of a series where the role players outplayed the superstar.
Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis have never been considered much more than supporting cast, but in 2009 they each outscored Howard by more than two ppg, in what could only be described as an embarrassing performance.
It started with an invisible Game 1. Howard scored only 12 points, was 1-6 from the field, and was no more than average on the defensive end. The Lakers outscored the Magic and Howard, the Defensive POTY, by an astonishing 34 in the paint and 25 for the game.
For the rest of the series Howard's performance would not recover as he averaged 15.4 per game compared to his regular season 20.6, as the Magic went on to lose 4-1.
6. Earl Monroe, 1971 Finals
Appearing in the only NBA Finals in Boston Bullets' history, and the only of his career, Earl Monroe had a lot to play for. And he failed miserably.
Averaging just 34 percent from the field, he recorded only 16.3 points per game throughout the series, below his regular season average of 21.4, and even below his career average of 18.8.
Monroe and his team were swept in four, for only the second time in NBA Finals history.
The Bullets, known for a prolific offense, wouldn’t reach a score past the century mark until the final game of the series, where they never led past the first quarter and entered halftime at a score of 60-47.
5. LeBron James, 2007 Finals
In one of the more controversial Finals of the decade, LeBron and the Cavaliers were decisively swept by the Spurs.
The contest wasn’t even close; the Spurs won each game by an average of eight points, holding LeBron to 35 percent shooting and 22 points per game, well below his regular season average of 47 percent shooting and 27.3 ppg.
It was Cleveland’s, and LeBron’s, first appearance in the Finals, and it really showed. LeBron was unable to shoot from outside (4-20 from three-point range) and struggled to finish at the rim.
He was also criticized for being unwilling to move without the ball. Overall, the Spurs were able to contain James, who had been highly touted as the most talented player in the league.
4. Patrick Ewing, 1994 Finals
Many Knicks fans associate this championship with John Stark’s poor performance but it was Ewing, as the team leader and star, who was ultimately responsible for the loss.
The Knicks, trying to bring an NBA championship to NYC for the first time in over 20 years, lost a heart breaker in seven games to the Rockets.
The key matchup was Ewing vs. Olajuwon, where Olajuwon outscored Ewing in all seven games, recording 26.9 points per game on 50 percent shooting. Ewing scored only 18.9 ppg and shot 36 percent for the series. This was a significant drop from his regular season averages of 24.5 points per game and 49 percent shooting.
Despite setting a finals record for most number of blocks in a series, Ewing played well below his abilities. The Knicks haven’t been back to the Finals since, setting their championship drought at 38 years.
3. Elgin Baylor, 1970 Finals
Elgin Baylor is a rarity among hall-of-famers, having never won an NBA championship. He lost eight NBA Finals, seven of them to the Celtics. In each of his losses to the Celtics he played above his regular season averages. In the 1970 Finals he lost to the Knicks, but this time the loss fell squarely on his shoulders.
Playing alongside Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West, there was no excuse for poor execution. Baylor scored 17.9 ppg, more than six points below his regular season 24 ppg. Besides his scoring troubles, he hurt his team in other ways.
In Game 3 he fouled out early, leaving West and Chamberlain to play the final minutes with a large deficit. Jerry West made an incredible 63-foot shot to send the game into overtime, but without Baylor the Knicks were too much to handle as the Lakers lost 111-108.
The Lakers would win two of the next three to even the series to 3-3, but Baylor disappeared again in Game 7, scoring 19 points on 7-19 shooting, losing the final game by a margin of 14 points (99-113).
Baylor would retire two years later.
2. LeBron James, 2011 Finals
In LeBron’s second appearance on this list, he takes the No. 2 spot. Losing to the Mavericks in 6, he played nothing like the MVP candidate or superstar he was all season.
After a strong Game 1, he demonstrated his inability to finish games as Dallas roared back after a 15 point deficit to win in the final seconds. After doing just enough to get by in Game 3, the next game James had perhaps the most invisible game of his entire NBA career:
Eight points on 27 pecent shooting. Game 5 and Game 6 weren’t much better; he scored an average of only 19 points ppg. For the series he averaged 17.8 points, nearly nine points below his regular season average of 26.7 ppg.
In such a close series, the fourth quarter was a critical period. LeBron scored only 18 points in all six fourth quarters combined, which was especially significant in a series where five games were decided in the final 12 minutes. In all three games that came down to the final possession LeBron did not score in the final five minutes.
LeBron is one of the most controversial figures in basketball, which causes a lot of scrutiny. His dirty laundry is spread over every type of medium imaginable, most of which is entirely irrelevant to his abilities as a basketball player.
LeBron has received a lot of undeserved criticism over the last few seasons but after his showing this postseason, most of it doesn’t seem so undeserved.
1. Wilt Chamberlain, 1969 Finals
The final name on the list of finals flops is Wilt Chamberlain, proving that even the best of players can have a horrible series. Placing Chamberlain above LeBron was a difficult choice but, because of the intense rivalry between the Celtics and Lakers, the 1969 finals seemed to carry more weight.
The 1969 Finals were part of a series of hotly contested championships that spanned the previous decade. Though they were all close, the Lakers failed to win a single series, losing the previous five finals matchups against the Celtics. In an effort to finally defeat the Celtics and win a championship, the Lakers signed Chamberlain during the 1968 offseason.
Chamberlain continued with his statistical success in LA, although he had difficulty adapting to the Laker offensive schemes. He averaged 20.5 ppg and the Lakers won 55 games that season.
In the Finals things were different. Throughout the series Chamberlain scored well below his averages, costing them victories on several occasions. In contrast to Chamberlain’s numbers, Jerry West was unstoppable, scoring an average of 37.9 points a game. But without Chamberlain’s assistance, the series was out of reach.
In Game 4, despite West’s monstrous effort of 40 points, Chamberlain recorded only 8 as the Lakers lost 88-89. And in the most infamous game of the series, Chamberlain was invisible in Game 6, scoring only eight points as Boston won 99-90, escaping possible elimination.
Everything came down to Game 7, where West dominated again, scoring 42 on 48 percent shooting. But it wouldn’t be enough as Chamberlain scored 18, again well below his season average, allowing the Celtics to escape with the win and the trophy.
In the end, Chamberlain scored only 11.7 ppg, 8.8 points less than his season average, and more than 25 points below West’s incredible average of 37.9 points per game.
Lakers fans would criticize his Game 6 effort for years to come, and the memory was never truly buried until three years later when Chamberlain finally captured his first championship with the franchise by defeating the Knicks in 1972.
But Wilt Chamberlain’s inexplicable 11.7 points per game series will go down as one of the biggest Finals under-achievements in NBA history.