Whether you measure it by wins per appearance or by diving deeper into the analytics of it all, LeBron James has been fantastic over the years in conference finals series, coming out with his hand on top in all but one occasion.
James has been to the conference finals six times in his career; twice with the Cavaliers (in 2007 and 2009); four times with the Miami Heat, in all of his four seasons there (2011-2014). The 2009 series against the Orlando Magic was the only one in which James ended up on the losing side.
In 2007, the young Cavaliers met the Detroit Pistons in the conference finals. It was the fifth consecutive trip for the Pistons to that stage, a year following their win over the Cavaliers in the conference semifinals. But James improved, and that was enough to make the difference. After losing the first two games, the Cavs won four in a row, including game 5 in Detroit, in overtime, with James scoring 48 points. He averaged 25.7 points, 9.2 rebounds and 8.5 assists in that series.
After losing in the finals that year (swept by the Spurs) and losing to eventual NBA champions Celtics in the 2008 conference semifinals, James and the Cavaliers had the best record in the league to build up their confidence in the 2009 playoffs, not to mention his MVP. But the Orlando Magic stood in their way, beating the Cavaliers in six games. James averaged an incredible 38.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 8 assists, but couldn’t do it on all his own.
Losing in 2010 to the Celtics in the conference finals was the final time James appeared in Cavaliers uniform. Then came the decision, the Big Three and the beginning of his Miami period. The first year? Reaching the NBA finals and losing to the Dallas Mavericks. In the conference finals James and the Heat beat the Chicago Bulls in five games. James averaged “just” 25.8 points per game, but his defense, especially on Derrick Rose in closing moments, proved to be a huge difference maker.
In 2012 James was the MVP for a third time and won his first NBA title, leading the Heat to a 4-1 win over the Thunder, landing him the finals MVP. The conference finals were a lot more difficult, being the last stand for the aging Boston Celtics. The Celtics had a 3-2 lead, but James in a now legendary game 6 (45 points) took the momentum back before an easy win in game 7. He averaged 33.7 points and 11 rebounds in that series, shooting 52.7% from the field.
In 2013 it was a repeat for the Heat as champions, for James as double MVP. The conference finals “trouble” were the Indiana Pacers, in a series with both teams finding it difficult to win on the road in the final games of the series. The Heat won game 7, and James finished averaging 29 points and 7.3 rebounds per game.
His last season with the Heat also resulted in making the NBA finals, although this time losing to the San Antonio Spurs. The Heat encountered the Pacers in the conference finals for a second time (third year in a row in the playoffs overall), this time needing only six games to make it through. James, despite Lance Stephenson’s best efforts, averaged 22.8 points while shooting 55.9% from the field.
This was for those who measure greatness through winning. But there’s also analytics, like the guys at FiveThiryEight love to dive into, to prove that James is the best player in NBA history when it comes to performing in the conference finals.