As LeBron James gets set to play in his sixth NBA Finals I figured it would be fun time to rank his opponents in the championship round. James has battled three different incarnations of the San Antonio Spurs, the Dallas Mavericks, Oklahoma City Thunder and is getting ready for the Golden State Warriors.
6. The 2006-2007 San Antonio Spurs
This version of the Spurs was more impressive on paper than they actually were. San Antonio finished the regular season with a 58-24 record, an +8.4 point differential and rolled through the playoffs going 16-4. As good as all those numbers look they were twisted by a weaker NBA at the time. There were only two 60 win teams and five 50 win teams in the league that season. The Spurs got to play a team in the Western Conference finals in the Jazz whose second best player was Carlos Boozer. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were all close to or at their peak, but the supporting cast wasn’t nearly as strong as the two later San Antonio teams James faced.
5. The 2010-2011 Dallas Mavericks
This Mavericks team and the Thunder team were the two toughest for me to place. Dallas went 57-25 in the regular season and had a +4.2 point differential. They had an extremely impressive run going 16-5 in the playoffs including a dominant sweep of the favored Los Angeles Lakers. Dallas also got the advantage of playing the first incarnation of the James’ Heat. If they get them a year late like the Thunder did they probably lose. The Mavs team built around Dirk Nowitzki, Tyson Chandler, Jason Kidd, Jason Terry and Shawn Marion really was tremendous. There were two 60 win teams and seven 50 win teams this season. The league was trending stronger, but not all the way to where it was a couple years later.
4. The 2011-2012 Oklahoma City Thunder
I’m guessing this is probably the most controversial of all the rankings. Oklahoma City had a real chance to beat the Thunder, but head coach Scott Brooks played Kendrick Perkins too much. In 116 minutes Perkins was on the court the Thunder were outscored by 10.9 points per 100 possessions. In the 124 minutes Perkins was off the court the two teams played to a virtual tie in pace based stats and OKC outscored Miami by five points total. Out of all the teams, even with Serge Ibaka, James Harden and Russell Westbrook not being the players they are today, those three with Kevin Durant gave them the strongest top four of any Heat opponent. The Thunder finished the regular season with a better winning percentage and had a higher point differential than the 10-11 Mavs. The two seasons had the same amount of what would have been a win percentage of a 60-win team and 50-win teams (11-12 was a strike shortened season). OKC also had to go up against the second incarnation of the Heat when they settled in and were a better team.
3. The 2012-2013 San Antonio Spurs
With a little bit of better luck this team would have been the champions. Even with that they were a slightly worse version of the 13-14 Spurs that went on to win. San Antonio was 58-24 with a +6.4 point differential. Kawhi Leonard was good, but still coming into his own. This was arguably Tony Parker’s career best season and Tim Duncan did Duncan things. They were hurt by Manu Ginobili not playing to his typical standards especially in the finals. Keeping things slightly shorter cause the comparison bleeds into the next ranked team.
2. The 2013-2014 San Antonio Spurs
With some slight improvements the Spurs went from losing in seven against James to romping the Heat in five. Kawhi Leonard took a step forward and I’d take this version of San Antonio’s supporting cast over the previous. Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli >>>> Gary Neal and Stephen Jackson, plus better versions of Ginobili, Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw. Both the 12-13 and 13-14 Spurs teams finished seventh offensively and third defensively. The championship squad won four more games during the regular season and had +7.7 point differential versus a +6.4. They won the title and seemed to be just a tad bit better across the board.
1. The 2014-2015 Golden State Warriors
Yep, they haven’t won it yet, but by pretty much any statistical measure the Warriors will be the best and most accomplished team to stare down James in the NBA Finals. Golden State pulled this off in arguably the most talented NBA season out of the one’s being compared. This season had the highest combination of 60 and 50 win teams (10) than any other year James made it to the finals. Golden State won the most games (67), the only opponent with a win percentage over .800, the only squad with a point differential over ten (+10.1) and the only team to finish in the top two in both offensive and defensive rating. They’ve rolled through the playoffs to this point with a 12-3 record. Golden State has the deepest group out of these six rosters — Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, Andrew Bogut, Draymond Green, Shaun Livingston and Leandro Barbosa have all been consistently in the rotation during the playoffs leaving out David Lee. I’d argue Lee would be in the rotation of every other team James took on. The Warriors still have to finish the job, but if they do it’s pretty clear they were the best team James had to play.