The all-time NBA tournament is here. The best teams of all time are competing for the ultimate prize. There are Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics, Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers, Wilt Chamberlain’s Philadelphia 76ers and LeBron James’ “Los Mialand Hecavalakers”? It’s a tough decision. What team would James be on in this instance? Unlike most other all-timers, James doesn’t have one signature team that is clearly the best above the rest. While Cleveland will always be the team he is most associated with, was it really his best stop? Let’s take a look.
The Cavs are where James began his illustrious career, but his best Cleveland team came more than a decade after he was drafted — but I don’t mean his championship 2016 team either. I’m of the opinion that the 2017 team was actually superior.
Some may ask how the team that got destroyed in a five-game finals could possibly be better than the 2016 team that won it all after being down 3-1 against a 73-9 Warriors team. To start, the “Big Three” of the team — James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love — had another year together, which helped improve their chemistry.
In 2016, the Cavs made the switch from David Blatt to Tyronn Lue halfway through the season and had Irving miss the first 24 games of the season only to be in and out of the lineup for the rest of the way. There was much more chaos around the team in the 2016 season for those reasons and because they hadn’t won yet. But in 2017, the Cavs were the defending champions and played like it. Combine that extra experience with the addition of veteran sharpshooter Kyle Korver, and you’ve got yourself a team that is ready to repeat.
The only reason the Cavs didn’t was because they faced the greatest team in NBA history in the finals. I’m not even exaggerating. Nobody is ever beating that 2017 Warriors team in a seven-game series. The Cavs were actually the only team to even take a game off the Warriors in those playoffs, an impressive feat by itself.
The only real weakness of this team was that it was below average defensively. The Cavs were the 21st best defense in the league, largely due to Irving and Love being below-average defenders. While the elite shooting and offensive production made up for it, the Cavaliers’ lack of defense makes it hard to choose them as James’ best team ever, especially considering how elite his other two teams were at that end of the floor.
Unlike with the Cavaliers, there is no question as to which Miami Heat team was LeBron’s best. The only answer is 2013. The Heat rolled through the 2013 regular season, becoming only the 13th team in NBA history to win at least 66 games in the regular season. They were also elite on both ends of the floor, being ranked the second-best offense and ninth-best defense that season.
Furthermore, this Heat team also had James’ best “Big Three” trio. Love and Irving were good players, but Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were just better. Wade was a legitimate superstar who made multiple All-NBA teams while playing with James, while Bosh had a similar playstyle to Love but could actually defend.
The Heat even added former NBA All-Stars Rashard Lewis and Ray Allen off the bench, the latter of whom was instrumental in their title run. Miami also had the best coach out of all of James’ teams in Erik Spoelstra, who almost won Coach of the Year on numerous occasions and even managed to lead the fifth seed to make an NBA finals appearance for the first time ever this past season.
The only black mark on this Miami Heat team was that it didn’t dominate the playoffs like it did in the regular season. Going to seven games against the juggernaut San Antonio Spurs is fair, but to let the 49-win Indiana Pacers, led by Paul George, aka “Playoff P,” take you to seven games is pathetic. One of those games against the Pacers was won with a James buzzer-beater — without that, the Heat might not have even made the NBA finals.
Los Angeles Lakers
As when a Monster Energy drink looks like it would be green based on the can but is actually orange, appearances can be deceiving. James’ 2020 Lakers entered the season less favored than either of the two teams mentioned previously. The preseason over/under for the Lakers was at 50.5, six games under the 2017 Cavs and 10 games under the 2013 Heat.
Despite the doubts, the Lakers won the NBA title in dominant fashion, never letting a single series go to game seven and losing only three total games in the Western Conference playoffs. The Lakers were within the top five on offense and defense before the season got suspended, so they didn’t have many weaknesses. Their only perceived fault was their depth, which turned out to be a nonissue as the Lakers’ role players stepped up when it mattered most.
Former stars-turned-role players Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard were as good if not better than any role player James had played with before, not to mention Anthony Davis, who is clearly the best teammate Hames has ever had. Wade was never as good on either offense or defense even in his prime, and 2013 Wade was great but clearly past his prime.
So now, when the NBA finally hosts its imaginary all-time team tournament, LeBron can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that the choice for which of his teams is the best is an easy one — it’s the 2020 Los Angeles Lakers.
Tom Aizenberg is a columnist. Contact him at [email protected].