Beginning Tuesday, we'll see a rematch of the 2006 NBA Finals, which pitted Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks against Dwyane Wade, Shaquille O'Neal and the Miami Heat. Miami has famously been a huge TV ratings draw since adding LeBron James and Chris Bosh almost a year ago; the Heat's Eastern Conference Finals series against the Chicago Bulls included three of the four most highly-viewed NBA games in cable TV history.
But the 2006 Finals didn't exactly set the Nielsens on fire. The six-game series did an average rating of 8.5 -- that means an estimated 8.5 percent of all households in the United States with a television were tuned in at any given point. That rates as the eighth-lowest ratings the Finals have seen since 1976, per a Wikipedia table.
And it isn't as if LeBron is a surefire Finals ratings winner; in fact, James' only previous Finals appearance, in 2007 as the Cleveland Cavaliers were swept by the San Antonio Spurs, drew the worst ratings since at least 1976, a 6.4. For comparison's sake, Heat-Bulls this season -- on cable television, not network TV like the Finals -- drew a 6.4. So expect LeBron to easily best his last Finals appearance.
Drawing the best post-Jordan ratings will be a steeper task; the 2001 Finals between the Lakers and 76ers drew a 12.1. In the Heat's conference finals series, ratings were up 25 percent over last year's Magic-Celtics showdown. A 25 percent improvement on last year's Lakers-Celtics finals would project a 13.2. It's possible, but might require a very competitive series.