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LeBron James' NBA Finals runs come with an asterisk

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As much as LeBron James has accomplished in his career, he's had one important handicap: The Eastern Conference.

LeBron James has been to four consecutive NBA Finals series and five in his career. That accurately suggests a high level of dominance over the Eastern Conference. After all, James is in just his 12th season. His five conference titles in 11 full years is a darn strong rate.

The ring bearers of the previous generation -- Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan -- have seven and six conference banners, respectively. They've each had at least 17 full seasons. LeBron is on pace to pass those two legends within the next couple of years, assuming his success in the East playoffs continues.

Of course, LeBron has a long way to go to catch up where it really matters: Actual NBA championships. LeBron has two. Kobe and Duncan each earned five. And therein lies the rub. LeBron's teams have won the East in half of his seasons. But once there, their success rate plummets. That fact, plus what we know about the NBA's deep conference imbalance, leads me to question whether winning the East is actually much of an achievement at all, at least compared to winning the West.

As it turns out, making the Finals out of the West has been a much more difficult challenge in most of the past 15 years. This chart shows the average regular season scoring margin of teams that each conference's champ beat in the playoffs each year.

Paths to the Finals

For instance, last year the Heat and Spurs won their conferences. The Heat's number is an average of scoring margins of the teams they beat to get to the Finals (the Bobcats, Nets and Pacers) and the Spurs' number is an average of scoring margins of the teams they beat to get to the Finals (the Thunder, Blazers and Mavericks). The Heat's average East playoff opponent strength was +1.06. The Spurs' average West playoff opponent strength was +4.24.

When you run those numbers over the past 15 seasons, the West path to the Finals has been appreciably more difficult 11 times, the East path has been more difficult three times and it was essentially a push once. The exceptions to the norm: From 2009 through 2012, when the East had multiple strong contenders and the West was more deep than daunting. James' teams missed the Finals the two years the East's opposition was best.

A comparison of the average difficulty of making the Finals in each of the trips LeBron, Kobe and Duncan have made paints as stark a picture. (Note: we didn't include Duncan's first Finals berth in 1999 since that was a bizarre lockout season.)

Finals Paths

LeBron's been to the Finals very frequently. But the data shows that the path to the Finals in the East -- where LeBron has spent his entire career -- is almost always easier. So, while the Finals berths are an accomplishment, they are a lesser accomplishment than making the Finals out of the West, especially in the case of LeBron's fellow all-timers who have racked up banners in the tougher conference.

This isn't about diminishing LeBron's accomplishments. It's about putting them in the proper context.

Tim Duncan flirted with the Orlando Magic in 2000. How many Finals would he have made if he'd jumped ship? Ten? Kobe was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets in 1996. How many Finals would he have made if he hadn't been traded? Twelve?

Of course, Duncan and Kobe have traditionally had better supporting casts and coaches, and the basic numbers used here don't account for injuries to opponents that may overrate the difficulty of the Finals paths. There's a lot of context missing from this basic study.

But it's something to keep in mind when we consider the greatness of Kobe, Duncan and the other stars of the West. Their paths to glory have been a lot tougher than the paths of their Eastern contemporaries.