N.B.A. Finals Legend or Loser? Luck Is Often the Difference


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The Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor was 0 for 8 in the N.B.A. finals, including seven losses to the Boston Celtics.

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Associated Press

Even before this season, four series losses in the N.B.A. finals had made dissecting LeBron James’s playoff performances a social media pastime. As his sixth straight finals appearance came down to a decisive Game 7 on Sunday night against the Golden State Warriors, you could sense the amateur Photoshop artists and contrarians preparing their vitriol.

A loss by the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday night would drop James’s finals success rate to 2 for 7 — a ratio that would be decent enough for a batter in a doubleheader but leaves a basketball star like James open to scorn, deserved or not.

Still, James is by no means the hardest-luck N.B.A. star, having won titles with the Miami Heat in 2012 and 2013 — even if that hardly placates his critics.

Elgin Baylor, a Hall of Famer who played his entire career with the Lakers, in Minneapolis and then Los Angeles, was 0 for 8 in the finals, including seven series losses to the Boston Celtics. If Twitter had existed in the 1960s, Baylor might have been the internet’s king of basketball memes. (Imagine Crying Baylor instead of Crying Jordan.)

Baylor’s Lakers teammate Jerry West also fell eight times in the finals, but he was able to win in 1972, after knee injuries had led Baylor to retire. (“I do not want to prolong my career when I cannot maintain the standards I established for myself over the years,” Baylor said in announcing his retirement, nine games into the 1971-72 season.)

The laws of the N.B.A. championship can be fickle. It is fitting that a legend like Bill Russell leads all players with 11 titles, against one finals loss. But sometimes players earn rings — or do not — more as a matter of circumstance. After all, West, despite all those losses, was known as Mr. Clutch.

John Salley was a vital role player on the Detroit Pistons when they lost in the 1988 finals and won the next two titles. He earned another ring with the Chicago Bulls in 1996 but barely played for the team. After spending the next season in Greece and retiring for a couple of years, he returned to the N.B.A. and collected another ring, with the Lakers in 2000.

While Salley was respected with the Bulls and the Lakers for his veteran experience, Robert Horry had a more tangible asset that elevated him from occasional starter to seven-time champion.

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LeBron James lost in the N.B.A. finals for the fourth time in six tries last year against Golden State.

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Tony Dejak/Associated Press

His demonstrated ability to make baskets in the waning seconds of playoff games earned Horry the nickname Big Shot Rob and a spot on the championship squads of the Houston Rockets (1994, 1995), the Lakers (2000, 2001, 2002) and the San Antonio Spurs (2005, 2007), making him the second player, after Salley, to have won a title with three N.B.A. teams.

Horry is also the only player with seven or more rings who did not collect a majority of them during the Boston Celtics’ dominating run from 1957 to 1969, which featured 11 championships.

Among those Celtics, Sam Jones was 10-1 in the finals, and Tom Heinsohn was 8-1. K.C. Jones, Satch Sanders and John Havlicek were a perfect 8-0, and Frank Ramsey won seven of eight.

The only non-Celtic to have appeared in 10 N.B.A. finals is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was victorious six times. His Lakers teammate Magic Johnson reached the finals in nine of his 13 seasons, winning five titles.

Two other longtime Lakers, Michael Cooper and Derek Fisher, appeared in eight finals and won five. (One of Fisher’s finals appearances, in 2012, came with the Oklahoma City Thunder.)

Baylor — he of the 0-8 finals record — actually received a ring for the 1972 Lakers championship, not as an active player but as a member of the team’s front office. Such jewelry was never bequeathed to Larry Foust, who went winless in five finals appearances with three teams. After dropping the 1955 and 1956 finals with the Fort Wayne Pistons, Foust lost in three additional finals, with the Minneapolis Lakers and the St. Louis Hawks.

Max Zaslofsky, a teammate of Foust’s on the 1955 Pistons, was unsuccessful in four finals appearance, having also lost with the Chicago Stags in the Basketball Association of America and the Knicks. A Brooklyn native, Zaslofsky was regarded by his former teammate Dick McGuire as “one of the better two-handed shooters of all time” and spent the early years of his career earning $5 to $10 a game.

James made almost $23 million in salary this season, more than $280,000 per regular-season game. But James demonstrated his value in delivering consecutive 41-point games to resuscitate the Cavaliers in the finals, and Cleveland was looking for another dominating performance as it sought to complete a comeback from a 3-1 series deficit.

But even heroic performances do not guarantee championships: Baylor, that familiar woebegone name, scored a finals-record 61 points in Game 5 in 1962, but the Lakers ultimately lost the series in seven games.

Perhaps to draw inspiration as he tried to prevent another letdown, James spent the postseason reading “West by West,” Jerry West’s autobiography. Whether West hoped that James had found motivation from his book was debatable — he is now an executive board member with the Warriors.

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