They say that second place is the first loser. As someone that’s lost in a few big games in my time, I know that sometimes it really can feel like it. Something always held against Lebron in the great GOAT debate with Jordan are his 6 finals defeats. Is Lebron the greatest NBA Finals loser of all time, if not who is?
Which player lost the most NBA finals? Jerry West is the NBA player who has lost in the most NBA Finals, with 8. His record stands at 1 and 8 all time. Wests long time teammate Elgin Baylor is second, with 7 losses and 0 wins. Lebron is 3rd with 6 defeats and 3 wins.
Should these records really be held against these game changing players? Does helping your team finish second in a season really mean nothing in the summation of your career? There’s plenty to get into here.
The Hall of Fame Roadblocks
Just as Jordan is known for dominating an entire decade in the 1990’s and preventing many big names from fulfilling their ring winning potential, this has happened time and time again in the NBA. Dominant players or franchises can wipe out entire title contenders. Recently the Golden State Warriors have stopped a James Harden led Houston team, built for title contention from even getting into the Finals. It is no surprise therefore that the two players at the top of the “Finals Losers” list played at the same time as Bill Russell. Russell was drafted in 1956, he went on to make 12 of 13 NBA finals. Losing just once in 1958. West (drafted 1960) & Baylor (drafted 1958) played almost their entire careers during this dominant stretch by Russell. Baylor playing his final NBA game at the start of the 1972 title winning season for the Lakers. He didn’t play in the finals or receive a ring. Notably Jerry West is the only player ever to win finals MVP on the losing team. Against the Russell led Boston Celtics West averaged 38 points during the series as his Laker team went down in 7 games. He had a triple double in Game 7 (42 points, 13 rebounds, 12 assists). His one win came in 1972 against the New York Knicks, where his teammate Wilt Chamberlain took home MVP honours after a dominant 5 game performance. So it’s clear to see that neither West or Baylor should be considered losers. If Russell hadn’t dominated quite so consistently, or for quite so long they would surely have less finals losses and more finals wins on their record. Lakers vs Celtics during that period was an ALLTIME rivalry and they should get credit for their part in it.
The third player on that list is Lebron James. To many people the greatest player ever to step on a Basketball court. Of course his legacy seems far from over as he is at the start of his journey with the Lakers and Anthony Davis. He’s already racked up a career chocked full of finals losses, wins and individual accolades. He too has run into some Hall of Fame roadblocks. Not in the shape of any one player, but in the shape of two different dynasties. Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs were first to draw blood from the then young King James. In 2007 Popovich and co pushed LeBron’s underhanded Cavs off the court in 4 games, a sweep. The narrative at the time was that Lebron had done well to even get there so early in his career and he would surly have many opportunities to try again. He would achieve this emphatically, but not before the only real black spot on is finals legacy. After moving to the Miami Heat to team up with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, Lebron reached his second finals in 2011. He came up against a strong and organised Dallas team, led by Dirk Nowitzki. Lebron famously melted down in these finals, at times being guarded out of the game by the diminutive JJ Barea.
He would in fact manage to avenge his early defeat to the Spurs in 2013, after the famous Ray Allen shot allowed James’ Miami Heat team to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat against the Spurs. A sweet moment for Lebron as he clinched his second title, his first having come the year before against a plucky Thunder team boasting 3 future MVPs. This win against the Spurs was followed the next year by round 3 as Lebron once again faced off against Timmy, Duncan and Manu. Popovich had created a precision basketball machine, fuelled by the memory of having victory snatched away from them the previous year they blew a jaded and fatigued Miami team away. Lebron wouldn’t play for Miami again, returning to Cleveland as a brand new dynasty quietly rose on the West Coast.
The next 4 seasons would see Lebron go up against a Golden State Warriors team that just seemed to get better and better. Lebron lost the first battle in 2015 as he faced the then surprise finalists without his two Allstar teammates Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving who both suffered season ending injury during the playoffs. He was victorious in 2016, fulfilling his promise of bringing a title to his home town of Cleveland for the first time. Benefitting from a Draymond Green suspension along the way. After that the tide would turn forever as the Warriors added Kevin Durant to a squad that had won a record 73 games the year before. Durant, supported by a host of Allstars would best Lebron in the next two Finals, forcing Lebron to pick up sticks and move to LA with his Finals record at its current 3 and 6. The Dallas defeat really the only black spot on his finals resume. Who could blame him for losing twice to the Spurs and 3 times to the Golden State Warriors?
What about the winners?
The top of the list is dominated by the Celtics of the Russell era. Bill Russell, Sam Jones, Tom Heinsohn, K. C. Jones, Tom Sanders, John Havlicek, Jim Loscutoff, Frank Ramsey and Bob Cousey. So let’s skip past them.
The next most winning player in Finals history is Robert Horry. Winning a total of 7 times for the Rockets (2), Lakers (3) and Spurs (2). He benefitted from playing with some of the All-time greats, Hakeem, Kobe and Duncan. Although to call him simply a role player would be unfair, he was far from being considered a star on any of those teams. Where West and Baylor were in the right place at the wrong time, it seems that Horry had the opposite happen. Although he had enough moments to earn himself the name, Big Shot Bob.
Other notable Finals winners are Kareem Abdul Jabbar (6), Magic Johnson (5), Dennis Rodman (5), Ron Harper (5) and Steve Kerr (5). Of course these all tasted defeat on occasion as well.
The two true Finals winners (aside from Russell and the Celtics) are Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. During the 1990’s they played in 6 Finals together for the Chicago Bulls, winning all 6 of them. They have easily the most Finals wins without defeat in NBA history. If this is the true measure of success then they should be considered the best players the NBA has ever seen. The debate will rage on over who is the greatest of all time and how we measure it. Something that will never change though, Michael Jordan prepared for 6 NBA finals. He never tasted defeat. Of course, we shouldn’t ever forget that Scottie Pippen was right there with him the whole time.
How many rings has Kobe Bryant got?
Kobe Bryant has 5 NBA title wins to his name. He lost in the Finals twice.
Which coach has won the most Finals?
Red Auerbach of the Celtics won 9 NBA titles as a coach, losing in the finals just once (1958)
Did Bill Russel ever lose in the Finals?
Yes Bill Russell lost in the finals once, in 1958 he lost to the St Louis Hawks in 6 games.
Have you ever wondered who has won the most NBA rings? I have taken a look at the players who have got so many rings they don’t have enough fingers to put them on, check out the article here.