Relax, Lakers: LeBron James Has History of Taking Losing Teams to Finals

LeBron James, middle

Getty LeBron James, middle

The Lakers got off to an 0-2 start in this season of high expectations, and with the ankle injury to LeBron James, no doubt there is concern in Laker-land. But there shouldn’t be too much concern. That’s because James’ injury is not believed to be nearly as severe as the high ankle sprain that kept him out for much of the second half of last season and, more important, because James has been here before.

LBJ has been to 10 NBA Finals, of course, and incredible run for a player in the modern salary-cap era. In six of those 10 runs, though, James was on a team that was below .500 during the season—sometimes early, sometimes later, but always with some turmoil and controversy attached.

Here’s a look at the six times LeBron led a team to the Finals after having a losing record during the season.

2010-11, Miami Heat

Under .500: 0-1

Low point: OK, the team had a losing record only after dropping an ugly opener to Boston. But a month later, the Heat were just 9-8 and James famously bumped coach Erik Spoelstra while walking off the floor during a timeout in a loss to Dallas. This came amid heated rumors that James, who signed with Miami that summer, wanted Spoelstra fired.

Quote: “No, I don’t think so,” Spoelstra said on an NBA Twitter interview in 2020, when asked if the bump was intentional. “When you’re on teams like that, they naturally get micro-analyzed. We were 9-8 after that game, it exploded in the media.”

LeBron Bumps SpoelstraDuring the Heat's loss to the Mavs on Saturday, LeBron James and Erik Spoelstra meet in The Bump heard 'round the league.2010-11-30T01:23:50Z

The bounce-back: Spoelstra kept his job, and the Heat rallied to win 21 of their next 22 games, with James averaging 26.9 points on 51.6% shooting (43.9% 3-point shooting) in that span. Miami finished with the No. 2 seed, went 12-3 in the East playoffs to reach the Finals, but lost to Dallas.

2013-14, Miami Heat

Under .500: 1-2

Low point: It wasn’t that the Heat lost two in a row after winning their opener. It was that they lost to Philadelphia, which would finish with 19 wins that season, as well as a Brooklyn team that was considered Miami’s biggest threat in the East. It marked the first time the Heat had been under .500 since that 2010 opener.

Quote: “We just have to have a little more sense of urgency,” James said after the two losses. “It’s not doomsday right now.”

The bounce-back: The Heat won 13 of their next 14 games, with James averaging 26.9 points on an incredible 61.3% shooting, 47.6% from the 3-point line. The Heat went 12-3 in the East playoffs but lost the Finals to San Antonio.

2014-15, Cleveland Cavaliers

Under .500: 19-20

Low point: The Cavs suffered their sixth straight loss on January 13, 2015, part of a down stretch that saw James sit out for the longest stretch of his career, with foot and back injuries, for 15 days. Cleveland lost the last game before James went out and the first game he returned, marking nine losses in 10 games. It was James’ first season back with Cleveland, and the first year of head coach David Blatt.

Quote: “I think the process over the first few months of us struggling had everything to do with us and how we’re playing today. … I think everything that we went through the first few months have put in a position to succeed at this point,” James said after the Cavs improved in the second half of the season.

The bounce-back: While James was out, the Cavs overhauled the roster, trading away Dion Waiters and Lou Amundson for J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert, and later sending away two first-round picks for center Timofey Mozgov. After the Phoenix loss, Cleveland got its footing and won 12 straight. They struggled with Chicago in the conference semis, but swept their other two series and reached the Finals, where they lost to Golden State after Kyrie Irving suffered a knee injury.

2015-16, Cleveland Cavaliers

Under .500: 0-1

The low point: The Cavs were not under .500 for long, but the low point of the season actually came after a win over the Clippers that pushed Cleveland to 30-11. James had hinted frequently that he did not much like Blatt as coach and admitted to changing the offense without consulting Blatt. James got closer with assistant Tyronn Lue throughout the year and, at the midpoint of the season, replaced Blatt with Lue.

LeBron James on firing Coach David Blatt! – Cleveland CavaliersBuy BoingVert's professional vertical jump program for only 9$! Awesome Basketball T-Shirts! – Facebook: Twitter: All rights belong to their respective owners! This is just for entertainment!2016-01-23T18:16:40Z

Quote: “Listen, man, I don’t pay no bills around here,” James said, when asked about whether he endorsed keeping Blatt as coach. Blatt was fired two weeks later.

The bounce-back: The Cavaliers were actually worse under Lue in the second half of the year, going 27-14, but went 12-2 in the East playoffs and stunned the Warriors in the Finals, winning in seven games.

2017-18, Cleveland Cavaliers

Under .500: 5-7

The low point: The Cavs dropped to 5-7, the second-worst start by any LeBron James team, after a loss to Houston. After having traded away Kyrie Irving to Boston, the Cavs were disjointed to start the year and ranked 30th in defense through their first 12 games.

Quote: “My numbers are down, the team’s numbers are down, obviously it is a direct correlation of all those things,” James said in January 2018. “I could care less about me individually, but when I’m not playing to my standard and we’re losing, I got to do a better job as well.” James averaged 28.2 points, 9.6 assists and 9.6 rebounds from there.

The bounce-back: The Cavs rallied to win 18 of 19 games after the 5-7 start, but the roster was still clearly lacking. At the February 8 trade deadline, Cleveland sent away Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder, two of the key pieces they’d acquired in the Irving deal, plus Derrick Rose and Iman Shumpert, getting Rodney Hood, Larry Nance, Jordan Clarkson and George Hill in return. It was still one of the weakest rosters James has played with, but James pushed them through a difficult postseason (two seven-game series) before the Cavs were swept in the Finals.

2019-20, Los Angeles Lakers

Under .500: 0-1

The low point: There were many low points across the NBA in this COVID-19-ravaged season, but the opening loss to the upstart Clippers—who had outmaneuvered the Lakers to land Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in the offseason—raised questions about whether the Lakers’ dominance in Los Angeles was coming to an end. The gum-flapping Clippers certainly brought up their opening defeat of the Lakers whenever possible.

Quote: “They put theyself in a position to get what they’ve been talking sh** about all year,” James said in 2020, reflecting on the fact that the Clippers did not reach the West finals. “And I just couldn’t fathom the part or come to the realization that they did not seek that opportunity when it was right there … up 3-1.”

The bounce-back: The Lakers won 24 of 26 games after the loss to the Clippers, and after a break of nearly four months because of the pandemic, the team rallied to win a championship in the Orlando “bubble,” going 12-3 in the West playoffs before beating Miami in the Finals. The Clippers blew a 3-1 lead in the conference semifinals, and never faced the Lakers in the playoffs.


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