LeBron James has now made the NBA Finals for eight straight seasons. It’s not the longest Finals streak in NBA history — that belongs to Bill Russell, who made it 10 straight times from 1957 to 1966.
But whereas Russell only had to win one round (and occasionally a second short one) to get on the doorstep of a title, James has needed to win three seven-game series each season. That means he’s vanquished 24 straight Eastern Conference teams.
We can argue endlessly about this accomplishment. Was the East bad during these eight seasons? Probably to some degree. Did LeBron’s victories make those East teams look much worse by association? Absolutely.
Still, consider the weight of this streak. Twenty-four teams, all of which worked hard enough to make the postseason, took their best shot against LeBron. All 24 ultimately failed. Some of those teams barely slipped into the playoffs, but some were titans in their own right.
Let’s rank them.
732. 2017-18 Toronto Raptors (59-23, lost 4-0 in 2nd round)
23. 2012-13 Milwaukee Bucks (38-44, lost 4-0 in 1st round)
This was the series that made Brandon Jennings a meme legend for his exuberant “Bucks in 6!” prediction.
There were two reasons this took off. One, the six-game series prediction was unusually specific. Two, it came on the heels of a disjointed regular season best remembered for the Monta Ellis-Andrew Bogut trade that kick-started the Warriors’ turnaround. That team, against the Heat at the peak of their powers, had no chance.
22. 2013-14 Charlotte Bobcats (43-39, lost 4-0 in 1st round)
Steve Clifford’s first Charlotte team was an overachieving unit that rode Al Jefferson and a stifling defense to a surprise playoff berth. But Jefferson suffered a painful foot injury in Game 1 and was limited the rest of the series. That was that.
21. 2012-13 Chicago Bulls (45-37, lost 4-1 in 2nd round)
This was the year Derrick Rose kept sitting out past the timetable of his ACL injury (now known as Pulling A Kawhi). It was also the year of Luol Deng’s botched spinal tap procedure, Kirk Hinrich’s zillion nagging injuries, and the start of Joakim Noah’s foot issues. Somehow, Chicago got by the Nets in the first round and won a game in Miami in this series. I’m still not sure how.
20. 2016-17 Indiana Pacers (41-41, lost 4-0 in 1st round)
These Pacers have the honor of the most competitive first-round sweep ever, with just 17 points separating the two teams. Still, they were coming apart thanks to Paul George’s cloudy future, and only a late Lance Stephenson intervention got them into the playoffs in the first place.
19. 2016-17 Boston Celtics (53-29, lost 4-1 in conference finals)
By record, this team is too low, but remember that Isaiah Thomas didn’t play in the final two-and-a-half games of the series and the Cavaliers won the games he did play by a combined 57 points.
18. 2010-11 Philadelphia 76ers (41-41, lost 4-1 in 1st round)
Doug Collins’ first Sixers team overcame a 17-25 start to surge into the playoffs behind Andre Iguodala, Jrue Holiday, an old Elton Brand, and Lou Williams. They were actually underrated as hell, but just ran into a great team.
17. 2014-15 Boston Celtics (40-42, lost 4-0 in 1st round)
See above, except their second-half surge was fueled by a midseason trade, not internal improvement.
16. 2011-12 New York Knicks (36-30, lost 4-1 in 1st round)
This was the year of Linsanity, Carmelo Anthony’s jealousy, Mike D’Antoni’s demise, and Mike Woodson’s hot finish playing D’Antoni’s style. This was the year Lin got hurt near the end of the year, ushering in the Baron Davis era (which also sadly ended in injury). This was the year Amar’e Stoudemire punched a fire extinguisher.
What a strange team.
15. 2015-16 Detroit Pistons (44-38, lost 4-0 in 1st round)
The highlight of the Stan Van Gundy era, which is a sad statement. They were never the same after Stanley Johnson trash-talked LeBron.
14. 2015-16 Atlanta Hawks (48-34, lost 4-0 in 2nd round)
13. 2016-17 Toronto Raptors (51-31, lost 4-0 in 2nd round)
12. 2014-15 Chicago Bulls (50-32, lost 4-2 in 2nd round)
It’s amazing to think that the Cavaliers would’ve been down 3-1 to this team if LeBron hadn’t ignored David Blatt’s play call in Game 4. These Bulls were aging, hobbling, and starting to rebel against Tom Thibodeau’s methods. A 94-73 Game 6 loss at home to end their season proved how broken they were.
11. 2013-14 Brooklyn Nets (44-38, lost 4-1 in 2nd round)
Remember when these dudes tanked to fall to the No. 6 seed and the Heat’s side of the bracket on account of a 4-0 regular-season record? That ended well.
10. 2013-14 Indiana Pacers (56-26, lost 4-2 in conference finals)
The Pacers had already collapsed by this point. The Heat just gave them the knockout punch.
9. 2017-18 Indiana Pacers (48-34, lost 4-3 in 1st round)
These Pacers, on the other hand, put up the best fight of all the teams LeBron vanquished this season. It took a heroic Game 2, a buzzer beater in Game 5 and a tense Game 7 that went down to the final few possessions to finally finish them off.
The Pacers weren’t quite as good during the regular season as their performance in this series suggested, but they proved to be a difficult matchup for the Cavaliers because of its length on the perimeter and shooting skill at all five positions. (Also, Victor Oladipo). But the Pacers didn’t have LeBron, and that made the difference.
8. 2017-18 Boston Celtics (55-27, lost 4-3 in conference finals)
The Celtics clearly had more talent than their plucky underdog reputation merited, but they still were down two injured All-Stars. It’s hard to place them much higher than this, no matter how formidable they looked without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.
7. 2011-12 Boston Celtics (39-27, lost 4-3 in conference finals)
The name on the front of the jersey, the competitiveness of the series, and LeBron’s signature Game 6 obscure how average this Celtics team really was. They slogged through a difficult lockout year, then nearly got taken out by the No. 8-seeded 76ers in the second round. They awoke from their slumber to push LeBron to the brink, but I’m not sure this was the best Celtics team LeBron beat.
6. 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks (60-22, lost 4-0 in conference finals)
The Hawks had the second-best regular-season record of any LeBron opponent, but this was hardly the team that blitzed the league in January and February. Kyle Korver shattered his ankle in Game 2 (thanks, Matthew Dellavedova!), DeMarre Carroll suffered a knee injury in Game 1, Thabo Sefolosha was the victim of police brutality by the NYPD, and the Hawks were kinda getting figured out anyway, having been pushed in the first two rounds by the lowly Nets and inconsistent Wizards.
5. 2015-16 Toronto Raptors (56-26, lost 4-2 in conference finals)
You might think I’m overrating this team, but they did win 56 games, including two against James’ Cavs at full strength in the regular season. The first two rounds of the playoffs were a little awkward, but Toronto also got two games in this series despite not having Jonas Valanciunas healthy.
Let’s not let the sins of future Raptors teams infect this one.
4. 2011-12 Indiana Pacers (42-24, lost 4-2 in 2nd round)
This was Danny Granger’s last great season, and also was the beginning of Paul George’s emergence. After Chris Bosh suffered an abdominal strain in Game 1, the Heat looked vulnerable and fell behind, 2-1, in the series. But thanks to a Tom Crean pep talk (traitor!), Dwyane Wade dominated Game 4 and the Heat pulled through in six.
3. 2010-11 Boston Celtics (56-26, lost 4-1 in 2nd round)
This was the year Jeff Green was supposed to put Boston over the top. Instead, he put LeBron over the top seven years later.
Still, this Celtics team was really damn good and would have ranked even higher had Rajon Rondo not dislocated his elbow in Boston’s Game 3 victory. He somehow led Boston to victory that night, but was not the same player the rest of the series.
2. 2012-13 Indiana Pacers (49-32, lost 4-3 in conference finals)
That won/loss record is deceiving. It’s better to think of the Pacers as a team that evolved in three stages:
- PHASE 1: Formidable upstart. This began when Frank Vogel took over for Jim O’Brien midway through the 2010-11 season and ended somewhere in the middle of the 2012-13 season, when the Pacers were a nice, but not threatening middle-of-the-pack East squad.
- PHASE 2: Legitimate juggernaut: This stretched from the middle-to-end of the 2012-13 season to halfway through the 2013-14 season, when they were on top of the league. This is when Paul George emerged as one of the best players in the game, going toe-to-toe with LeBron and earning his respect.
- PHASE 3: The sad fall. This was the second half of the 2013-14 season.
This series was smack in the middle of the juggernaut phase.
1. 2010-11 Chicago Bulls (62-20, lost 4-1 in conference finals)
MVP Derrick Rose. A supporting cast that had coalesced rapidly under Tom Thibodeau. A real titan that was revolutionizing defense while riding an emerging star that threatened LeBron’s hegemony.
There’s no question the 2010-11 Bulls were LeBron’s toughest opponent, which makes it all the more impressive that he led the early version of the Heatles to a 4-1 series victory.