LeBron James claims that he's never been better, and that will need to be an accurate statement if he hopes to add a third Larry O'Brien Trophy to his mantle. He's faced plenty of tough foes during his five previous trips to the NBA Finals, but not a single one of them stacks up favorably against the 2014-15 Golden State Warriors.
"I think if you put it all together, yeah," the four-time MVP recently told ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin. "If you put everything together as far as my mind, my body, my game. If you put everything in one bottle, this is probably the best I've been."
It's time to prove it.
James' career in the NBA Finals began when he carried a lackluster—and that's being generous—supporting cast onto the sport's biggest stage and was quickly annihilated by the 2007 San Antonio Spurs, who swept his Cleveland Cavaliers.
Granted, most games were fairly close (86-76, 103-92, 75-72, 83-82), but this was still nothing other than a beatdown.
Next, he succumbed to the 2011 Dallas Mavericks, a team riding a red-hot Dirk Nowitzki and a whole host of veteran contributors. James' next two Finals showings were successful, and the young 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder and far older 2013 San Antonio Spurs were the victims. But in 2014, the Spurs got their revenge, playing some of the most flawless basketball you can ever hope to witness.
But of those five previous opponents, not a one was on the same level as Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and the rest of the current Dubs.
The most obvious way to look at this is simply by using winning percentage.
Below you can navigate to see how the six relevant squads stacked up in this category during both the regular season and the postseason (heading into the Finals, not after the ultimate series):
Golden State is already at the top during the regular season and trails only the '13 Spurs in postseason win percentage, but that's not exactly the most telling stat. After all, not every win is created evenly.
Which is more impressive?
- Team A wins by 20 points while playing in the home arena of a championship contender.
- Team B wins by a single point while playing at home against a bottom-feeding squad with its three best players injured.
Obviously, Team A had a superior performance.
Nonetheless, both get the 1-0 record, and there's no way to differentiate between them while only looking at wins and losses. There is if you dig deeper, and that's where Basketball-Reference.com's simple rating system (SRS) comes into play. SRS looks at margin of victory and strength of schedule before spitting out a single number to represent a team.
And that's what we'll take a peek at next:
Frankly, it's not even close.
The last time a team posted a double-digit SRS was in 1997, when the Chicago Bulls (10.7 SRS) were continuing to make the NBA into their own personal plaything. In fact, these are the only squads to break past 10 throughout the entire history of the Association:
- 2014-15 Golden State Warriors, 10.01
- 1996-97 Chicago Bulls, 10.7
- 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, 11.8
- 1991-92 Chicago Bulls, 10.07
- 1971-72 Milwaukee Bucks, 10.7
- 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers, 11.65
- 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks, 11.92
That's only seven teams in all of NBA history, and just one of James' Finals opponents is on the list. But let's go even deeper by isolating offense and defense.
Here, we'll look at four different categories for the Finals teams: offensive rating, adjusted offensive efficiency (ORtng+), defensive rating and adjusted defensive efficiency (DRtng+).
The adjusted numbers allow for context, as they show how a team fared in relation to the league-average mark during the year in question, such that a score of 100 is exactly average and anything above is superior on both sides of the court. Of the following four categories, a lower score is only better for the unadjusted version of defensive rating:
Quite obviously, the Warriors have the best offense of the six. The lead is pretty clear after looking solely at offensive rating, and adjusted offensive efficiency makes it even more apparent.
But the Warriors aren't just some jump-shooting team that relies on scoring points in bunches to win. They also happened to be the league's best defensive squad all year, and they stack up favorably against many of their five competitors here.
Remember, it's better to have a lower defensive rating, and the Warriors allowed fewer points per 100 possessions than all but the historically excellent unit of the '07 Spurs. Adjusting for the context of the league, the final portion of the above graphic (where it's again better to have a higher number) pushes the other two San Antonio iterations ahead, but only barely.
This is a dominant two-way squad, and that combination is simply unsurpassed. There's a reason why Bleacher Report's Dan Favale called Golden State "a deeper, more well-rounded Warriors team for the ages" at the end of his Finals preview, predicting that the Western Conference representatives would hand James the fourth defeat of his career in the final round of the playoffs.
If we merge together the adjusted numbers on each side of the ball, we can find what I refer to as TeamRtng+ (full explanation here). Lo and behold, it's a familiar team popping out with the top number during the regular season and living up to that standard during the playoffs:
For the regular season, the Warriors aren't just the best team among these six. They also stack up rather well historically, with only seven squads finishing ahead:
- 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, 106.38
- 1996-97 Chicago Bulls, 105.71
- 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks, 105.65
- 2007-08 Boston Celtics, 105.6
- 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers, 105.52
- 1971-72 Milwaukee Bucks, 105.26
- 1991-92 Chicago Bulls, 105.14
- 2014-15 Golden State Warriors, 104.91
- 2008-09 Cleveland Cavaliers, 104.77
- 2012-13 Oklahoma City Thunder, 104.68
Now as you can see, finishing near the top of this leaderboard doesn't guarantee a title.
All the same, it's good news for the Dubs that they're also close to the pole position in postseason TeamRtng+, and the average of the two scores leaves them ahead of the other five squads James has faced in the Finals.
As a highly unscientific way of providing an overall picture, let's now take each of the categories we've discussed, give teams six points for a first-place finish and one for a last-place showing, then add up those ranks and see who finishes with the highest total.
This year's Warriors sure seemed to be at or near the top of every category when stacked up against the five other Finals teams James has competed against, but do they take the proverbial cake?
Really, we shouldn't be surprised that it's not even much of a competition.
Curry is this year's MVP, and he's been virtually unstoppable ever since the start of the 2014-15 campaign, playing top-notch defense all the while. If you're still trying to argue that the Warriors 1-guard is a lackluster stopper, you need to stop relying on preconceived notions, watch some more film, read this brilliant breakdown from ESPN.com's Ethan Sherwood Strauss and re-form your opinions.
Thompson, his fellow Splash Brother, has been a consistent source of All-Star-caliber two-way play. Green was in contention for Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved Player. Andrew Bogut remains one of the most impactful rim-protecting presences in the Association.
And that's saying nothing of the playoff version of Harrison Barnes or the powerful bench.
This is just a complete team, and it's rather easily the best one James will have had to face on the sport's biggest stage. So again, Cleveland needs to hope its best player meant what he said about his own level of play.
As good as James has been throughout his legendary career, he needs to find another new gear if he hopes to topple these giants from the Bay Area.
Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.com and my own databases.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.