Michael Jordan went 6-0 in the NBA Finals and won Finals MVP every time. It's on the short list of most unassailable accomplishments across all of sports.
Eavesdrop on any MJ vs. LeBron James debate in America, and Finals record will be among the very first things discussed. But LeBron's 3-4 record needs extra context, especially if he drops to 3-5 after one more loss to this powerhouse Golden State Warriors squad. As one of the greatest teams in NBA history by most metrics, these Warriors look like the toughest competition James has faced in his eight trips.?
So, how do MJ's six Finals opponents compare? Who has had the tougher overall challenge -- and by how much? Let's rank the opposing teams historically to find out.
Comparing the opponents
For the purposes of this exercise, we'll use FiveThirtyEights ELO ratings, which measures teams across all eras ( full explainer here).
One reason for using ELO ratings is that it carries over from the regular season into the playoffs and updates after every game. It lets you do things like evaluate the merits of the 1995-96 Bulls on Dec. 15, March 12 and June 9 throughout the ebbs and flows of a season, as opposed to viewing a team as a single data point. It allows us to gather a snapshot of any team at any point, like say, every NBA finalist entering Game 1 of the championship round.
Not only did the Warriors enter Game 1 of the 2017 Finals as the best team that James has ever faced in the championship round -- and better than any team Jordan ever faced in the Finals -- but they also entered as the best finalist in NBA history, according to ELO ratings. The 12-0 record and scoring margin of 16.3 points per game were the best ever entering the Finals.
It's not just some fancy algorithm or napkin calculus proclaiming this team as truly historic. No matter how you slice it and no matter how they've arrived here, it's a wonderful team. Their greatness is something that even James himself couldn't avoid admitting.
"I mean, you take one of the best teams that we had ever assembled last year, that we saw in the regular season and in the postseason, and then in the offseason you add a high-powered offensive talent like ( Kevin Durant) and a great basketball IQ like that, that's what stands out," James said after Game 1. "I mean, it's no if, ands, or buts. It is what it is."
Facing greatness is nothing new for James. He faced Tim Duncan's San Antonio Spurs three times. He faced a veteran Dallas Mavericks squad with Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion and Tyson Chandler. He faced a hungry Oklahoma City Thunder team with a young Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
Now he is facing this star-studded Warriors squad for a third straight time, with Durant signing up for this latest ensemble. According to ELO ratings, James has faced the three best NBA finalists of all time in a three-year span.
It's probably not much of a surprise then to declare that James' best opponents have been better than Jordan's, whose hardest matchup by this measure was the 1998 Utah Jazz. The Jazz finished one spot ahead of Jordan's 1998 Bulls team in the ELO ratings.
Perhaps more surprising is taking stock of Jordan's earlier opponents. Though the 1991 Lakers rate as a powerful opponent, the 1992? Portland Trail Blazers, 1993? Phoenix Suns and 1996 Seattle SuperSonics all rate as worse opponents than the 2007 Spurs, who rank as the easiest team James has ever faced. Considering he entered that series with Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Larry Hughes as his right-hand men, James wasn't exactly in a position to take advantage.
That 2007 Spurs squad rates as the 35th-best Finals team, placing it in the 73rd percentile of teams graded out by FiveThirtyEight. By contrast, the '07 Cavs ranked as the 61st-best finalist, worse than every single team since then that has reached the ultimate stage.
Add it all up, and James has faced eight of the 35 best NBA finalists. If you take the average all-time rank of each of his Finals opponents, you end up with a mean rank of 19. Do the same for Jordan, and you land on an average of 35. That basically means the average team Jordan faced in the NBA Finals is the same as the worst team James ever played on the biggest stage.
Nobody can ever take away MJ's sterling 6-0 record. After all, you can only beat the teams in front of you. Just know that, regardless of whether James misses out on another title chance, he'll have faced a Finals gantlet far more difficult than His Airness ever did.