LeBron Titles (05/15/13)

By John Ewing

How many titles would LeBron win if he switched places with the best player on each playoff team?

In Part 3 of his 13th annual NBA Trade Value column Bill Simmons explained his reasoning for LeBron James being the most valuable player in the NBA through a mini-LeBronbag. Simmons often uses email questions from actual readers in his column. Below is one question from the NBA Trade Value column and Simmons’ answer.

Q: Let's say LeBron switched spots with the best player on every other playoff team and we could play out the playoffs 16 different times. How many titles would LeBron win out of a possible 16 (including him just staying with Miami)??—Tommy, El Paso, TX

BS: Assuming we still have the same injuries (including Westbrook's knee) every time in this ridiculous hypothetical scenario, I'm giving LeBron the 2013 title in Miami, New York, Indiana, San Antonio, Memphis, Denver, Golden State, Chicago and the Clippers. Oh, and you could have talked me into Milwaukee after enough drinks.

Simmons has LeBron winning the title 9 times with a possible 10th if we can get him drunk enough. Is he right, can LeBron win that many titles simply by joining another team? We thought we would find out by simulating the playoffs sixteen different times with LeBron switching places with the best player on every team.

How it works:

To illustrate the difference in players (LeBron for Kevin Durant), we have outlined 82games.com’s On Court/Off Court statistics below. In the simulations, we trade LeBron for each team’s best player. ‘Best player’ can be subjective; a case could be made for either Marc Gasol or Zach Randolph as the best player on the Grizzlies. We choose Marc Gasol but the difference in the simulations is nominal between those two players. We then simulated the playoffs (with updated statistics for what has happened through the playoffs) sixteen different times and noted how often a LeBron led team won the title. For our original playoff odds click here. We do not re-simulate the Heat with LeBron as they were our most likely winner before the playoffs began.

Note: This exercise is meant to continue the conversation about the impact LeBron has on the NBA. It is not a definitive answer and many may disagree with the results. Also, On Court/Off Court statistics are not the be-all and end-all statistic that perfectly captures each player’s overall value. 

Example: LeBron James for Kevin Durant

LeBron James On Court Off Court Net
Offense: Pts per 100 Poss. 117.0 105.5 11.5
Defense: Pts per 100 Poss. 104.2 107.8 -3.6
Net Points per 100 Possession 12.8 -2.3 15.1


Kevin Durant On Court Off Court Net
Offense: Pts per 100 Poss. 115.6 106.6 9.0
Defense: Pts per 100 Poss. 103.5 102.2 1.3
Net Points per 100 Possession 12.1 4.4 7.7

Not surprisingly the Heat are by far a better team when LeBron is on the court both offensively (+11.5 points per 100 possessions) and defensively (teams score -3.6 points fewer per 100 possessions). As for the Thunder, Durant makes them a better team offensively when he is on the court but defensively Oklahoma plays better when he is off the court. While LeBron has an edge offensively over Durant it is his defense that makes the biggest difference in the simulation.

Below are the odds for the Thunder to win the title with LeBron on the team. 

Team Without LeBron With LeBron
Thunder 18.9 66.2

By this simulation the Thunder become the most likely winners even with Russell Westbrook getting injured.

When we flip-flop each team’s best player for LeBron: LeBron/Durant, LeBron/Ellis, LeBron/George, LeBron/Noah, LeBron/Lopez, LeBron/Smith, LeBron/Pierce, LeBron/Carmelo, LeBron/Iguodala, LeBron/Curry, LeBron/Harden, LeBron/Howard, LeBron/Duncan, LeBron/Paul, and LeBron/Gasol we get the following odds for each team to win the title. An asterisk by the odds in the With LeBron column indicates that the team is the most likely winner.

Team Without LeBron With LeBron
Milwaukee 0 2.3
Indiana 3.3 20.2
Chicago 0.1 6.7
Brooklyn 0.1 26.5
Atlanta 0 37.4
Boston 0 4.1
New York 2.4 *72.9
Denver 0.4 10.2
Golden State 0.1 *67.2
Houston 0.4 *66.2
LA Lakers 0.1 6.7
San Antonio 16.5 *90.4
LA Clippers 2.3 36.5
Memphis 0.6 *54.0

According to our simulations LeBron would win the 2013 title on the following teams: Heat, Knicks, Warriors, Rockets, Thunder, Spurs, and Grizzlies. Simmons gave LeBron the title nine times. We agree with him on Miami, New York, San Antonio, Memphis, and Golden State. We disagree on Indiana, Denver, Chicago, and LA Clippers. There are three primary problems for each team that did not win the title with LeBron.

  • Seeding - Important in any bracket for home court advantage. It is important to remember that the swap occurs after the season has been played and seeding cannot be changed. Had LeBron played on each team for a full season then we expect that the seeding would be different. A 6 seed is the lowest seeded team to ever win the NBA Finals. In our simulations LeBron wins as a 6 seed and 8 seed.
  • The Miami Heat - Even without LeBron Miami is a formidable opponent (Note: the Heat only win the title when LeBron is on the team but are the 2nd most likely winner in four of the other simulations). Adding players like Paul George or Joakim Noah made it exceedingly difficult for a LeBron led Indiana or Chicago team to win respectively.
  • The San Antonio Spurs - The Spurs were our third most likely winner before the playoffs began. With the injury to Russell Westbrook and removing LeBron from the Heat, San Antonio wins the title 9 out of 16 times when we simulate the playoffs. The Spurs also won it when LeBron is on the team.

Most people agree that LeBron is the best player in the world but simply adding LeBron to any team does not guarantee a championship.