2024 NBA Finals: Luka Dončić is the series’ best player. What does that mean for the Celtics?

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There is an age-old saying in the NBA: More often than not, the team with the best player wins the series. In a sport that only fields five players to a team, the best player wields remarkable power over the game.

If this is doctrine, Luka Dončić’s Dallas Mavericks will win the NBA Finals, even though Jayson Tatum’s Boston Celtics won 14 more regular-season games. Dončić finished three spots higher (third) in the MVP voting. Tatum may be the superior defensive player, but Dončić averaged more points (33.9), assists (9.8) and rebounds (9.2) per game and did so more efficiently. Advanced statistics significantly favor Dončić.

I think it is almost universally accepted that Dončić is a better player than Tatum, even though the gap is not so far between a five-time All-NBA first-team selection and a three-time All-NBA first-team honoree. To wit, prior to the season, more general managers said they would start a team with Dončić than Tatum.

Using each season’s MVP race as the determining factor for who voters believed was the best player in that particular campaign, the better player has won 41 of 68 NBA Finals — or roughly 60% — since 1956. Since the turn of the century, the player who finished higher in MVP voting has been 12-11 in Finals matchups.

Those are not overwhelming numbers. Hardly doctrine.

However, if you go by a more general idea of who was the best player in each series — weeding out, for example, when Charles Barkley won the 1993 MVP, only for his Phoenix Suns to lose to Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls — you could make the argument that the best player won 56 of 68 championships (82.4%).

That is a pretty convincing number. Enough to lend some credence to that saying.

(Grant Thomas/Yahoo Sports illustration)
 (Grant Thomas/Yahoo Sports illustration)

(Grant Thomas/Yahoo Sports illustration)

Interestingly, LeBron James accounts for five of those 12 losses. (Bill Russell’s Celtics lost to the St. Louis Hawks in 1958. Wilt Chamberlain’s Los Angeles Lakers lost to the New York Knicks in 1973. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Milwaukee Bucks lost to the Celtics in 1974. Elvin Hayes’ Washington Bullets lost to the Seattle SuperSonics in 1979. Magic Johnson’s Lakers lost to the Detroit Pistons in 1989. Kobe Bryant’s Lakers lost to the Pistons in 2004. Dirk Nowitzki’s Mavericks lost to the Miami Heat in 2006. And James lost to the Mavericks in 2011, the San Antonio Spurs in 2014 and the Golden State Warriors in 2015, 2017 and 2018.)

If James, the best player of his generation and arguably the second-greatest in NBA history, can lose five Finals, we should either retire this notion altogether or endlessly debate the G.O.A.T. We chose the latter.

Only one of James’ five losses came when he played for the team with the better record, and Dallas won one fewer game than Miami in 2011. James was not a betting favorite in 2014, 2015, 2017 or 2018. (For the record, Dončić is not the favorite at BetMGM, either.) Six of the other seven — Russell, Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar, Hayes, Bryant and Nowitzki — lost as the better player on the team with the better record.

The team with the better record has finished 47-18 in the Finals, winning nearly three-quarters of the time. Teams that finish with eight or more wins than their opponents are 30-5 (.857 winning percentage) in the title series. It is why James’ victory over the Warriors in 2016 is so remarkable. His is the only win in 10 tries when a team has at least 14 fewer victories than its Finals opponent, as Dallas does compared to Boston.

Is this doctrine, too, then?

Back to the “best player wins the series” theory. You might think the wider the gap between two players, the more likely the better player is to win a championship. Not necessarily true, either. In cases when just one spot separated two players in MVP voting, the higher finisher won 14 of 19 Finals. In cases when five or more spots separated them in the voting, the player who earned more MVP votes won 13 of 19 Finals.

Fascinatingly, the higher finisher has the worst record (4-7) when he finishes three spots ahead of his Finals foe, as Dončić did compared to Tatum. (The team with the better record finished 3-7 in those same series.)

The winner seems more random the deeper you look into it. Each Finals is its own animal. We can still say, more often than not, the better player wins the series. We can also say the same about the better team.

And there is no doubt the Celtics have enjoyed a better season. They are 76-20 overall, owners of a double-digit net rating in both the regular season and playoffs. While Boston and Dallas each boast two of the series’ four best players, the Celtics feature the next three on that list (or five of the series’ seven best players).

None of it may matter. The Mavericks can win four times in seven games against these Celtics. Tatum can play better than Dončić in the series. This is the fun of sports. We get to see which doctrine rules the day.

This was a fun exercise, though. Sort through the history books of the NBA Finals’ “best player” and “best team” yourself.

1955-56 NBA Finals: Philadelphia Warriors (45-27) def. Fort Wayne Pistons (37-35), 4-1

1956-57 NBA Finals: Boston Celtics (44-28) def. St. Louis Hawks (34-38), 4-3

1957-58 NBA Finals: St. Lous Hawks (41-31) def. Boston Celtics (49-23), 4-2

1958-59 NBA Finals: Boston Celtics (52-20) def. Minneapolis Lakers (33-39), 4-0

1959-60 NBA Finals: Boston Celtics (59-16) def. St. Louis Hawks (46-29), 4-3

1960-61 NBA Finals: Boston Celtics (57-22) def. St. Louis Hawks (51-28), 4-1

1961-62 NBA Finals: Boston Celtics (60-20) def. Los Angeles Lakers (54-26), 4-3

1962-63 NBA Finals: Boston Celtics (58-22) def. Los Angeles Lakers (53-27), 4-2

1963-64 NBA Finals: Boston Celtics (59-21) def. San Francisco Warriors (48-32), 4-1

1964-65 NBA Finals: Boston Celtics (62-18) def. Los Angeles Lakers (49-31), 4-1

1965-66 NBA Finals: Boston Celtics (54-26) def. Los Angeles Lakers (45-35), 4-3

1966-67 NBA Finals: Philadelphia 76ers (68-13) def. San Francisco Warriors (44-37), 4-2

1967-68 NBA Finals: Boston Celtics (54-28) def. Los Angeles Lakers (52-30), 4-2

1968-69 NBA Finals: Boston Celtics (48-34) def. Los Angeles Lakers (55-27), 4-3

1969-70 NBA Finals: New York Knicks (60-22) def. Los Angeles Lakers (46-36), 4-3

1970-71 NBA Finals: Milwaukee Bucks (66-16) def. Baltimore Bullets (42-40), 4-0

1971-72 NBA Finals: Los Angeles Lakers (69-13) def. New York Knicks (48-34), 4-1

1972-73 NBA Finals: New York Knicks (57-25) def. Los Angeles Lakers (60-22), 4-1

1973-74 NBA Finals: Boston Celtics (56-26) def. Milwaukee Bucks (59-23), 4-3

1974-75 NBA Finals: Golden State Warriors (48-34) def. Washington Bullets (60-22), 4-0

1975-76 NBA Finals: Boston Celtics (54-28) def. Phoenix Suns (42-40), 4-2

1976-77 NBA Finals: Portland Trail Blazers (49-33) def. Philadelphia 76ers (50-32), 4-2

1977-78 NBA Finals: Washington Bullets (44-38) def. Seattle SuperSonics (47-35), 4-3

1978-79 NBA Finals: Seattle SuperSonics (52-30) def. Washington Bullets (54-28), 4-1

1979-80 NBA Finals: Los Angeles Lakers (60-22) def. Philadelphia 76ers (59-23), 4-2

1980-81 NBA Finals: Boston Celtics (62-20) def. Houston Rockets (40-42), 4-2

1981-82 NBA Finals: Los Angeles Lakers (57-25) def. Philadelphia 76ers (58-24), 4-2

1982-83 NBA Finals: Philadelphia 76ers (65-17) def. Los Angeles Lakers (58-24), 4-0

1983-84 NBA Finals: Boston Celtics (62-20) def. Los Angeles Lakers (54-28), 4-3

1984-85 NBA Finals: Los Angeles Lakers (62-20) def. Boston Celtics (63-19), 4-2

1985-86 NBA Finals: Boston Celtics (67-15) def. Houston Rockets (51-31), 4-2

1986-87 NBA Finals: Los Angeles Lakers (65-17) def. Boston Celtics (59-23), 4-2

1987-88 NBA Finals: Los Angeles Lakers (62-20) def. Detroit Pistons (54-28), 4-3

1988-89 NBA Finals: Detroit Pistons (63-19) def. Los Angeles Lakers (57-25), 4-0

1989-90 NBA Finals: Detroit Pistons (59-23) def. Portland Trail Blazers (59-23), 4-1

1990-91 NBA Finals: Chicago Bulls (61-21) def. Los Angeles Lakers (58-24), 4-1

1991-92 NBA Finals: Chicago Bulls (67-15) def. Portland Trail Blazers (57-25), 4-2

1992-93 NBA Finals: Chicago Bulls (57-25) def. Phoenix Suns (62-20), 4-3

1993-94 NBA Finals: Houston Rockets (58-24) def. New York Knicks (57-25), 4-3

1994-95 NBA Finals: Houston Rockets (47-35) def. Orlando Magic (57-25), 4-0

1995-96 NBA Finals: Chicago Bulls (72-10) def. Seattle SuperSonics (64-18), 4-2

1996-97 NBA Finals: Chicago Bulls (69-13) def. Utah Jazz (64-18), 4-2

1997-98 NBA Finals: Chicago Bulls (62-20) def. Utah Jazz (62-20), 4-2

1998-99 NBA Finals: San Antonio Spurs (37-13) def. New York Knicks (27-23), 4-1

1999-2000 NBA Finals: Los Angeles Lakers (67-15) def. Indiana Pacers (56-26), 4-2

2000-01 NBA Finals: Los Angeles Lakers (56-26) def. Philadelphia 76ers (56-26), 4-1

2001-02 NBA Finals: Los Angeles Lakers (58-24) def. New Jersey Nets (52-30), 4-0

2002-03 NBA Finals: San Antonio Spurs (60-22) def. New Jersey Nets (49-33), 4-2

2003-04 NBA Finals: Detroit Pistons (54-28) def. Los Angeles Lakers (56-26), 4-1

2004-05 NBA Finals: San Antonio Spurs (59-23) def. Detroit Pistons (54-28), 4-3

2005-06 NBA Finals: Miami Heat (52-30) def. Dallas Mavericks (60-22), 4-2

2006-07 NBA Finals: San Antonio Spurs (58-24) def. Cleveland Cavaliers (50-32), 4-0

2007-08 NBA Finals: Boston Celtics (66-16) def. Los Angeles Lakers (57-25), 4-2

2008-09 NBA Finals: Los Angeles Lakers (65-17) def. Orlando Magic (59-23), 4-1

2009-10 NBA Finals: Los Angeles Lakers (57-25) def. Boston Celtics (50-32), 4-3

2010-11 NBA Finals: Dallas Mavericks (57-25) def. Miami Heat (58-24), 4-2

2011-12 NBA Finals: Miami Heat (46-20) def. Oklahoma City Thunder (47-19), 4-1

2012-13 NBA Finals: Miami Heat (66-16) def. San Antonio Spurs (58-24), 4-3

2013-14 NBA Finals: San Antonio Spurs (62-20) def. Miami Heat (54-28), 4-1

2014-15 NBA Finals: Golden State Warriors (67-15) def. Cleveland Cavaliers (53-29), 4-2

2015-16 NBA Finals: Cleveland Cavaliers (57-25) def. Golden State Warriors (73-9), 4-3

2016-17 NBA Finals: Golden State Warriors (67-15) def. Cleveland Cavaliers (51-31), 4-1

2017-18 NBA Finals: Golden State Warriors (58-24) def. Cleveland Cavaliers (50-32), 4-0

2018-19 NBA Finals: Toronto Raptors (58-24) def. Golden State Warriors (57-25), 4-2

2019-20 NBA Finals: Los Angeles Lakers (52-19) def. Miami Heat (44-29), 4-2

2020-21 NBA Finals: Milwaukee Bucks (46-26) def. Phoenix Suns (51-21), 4-2

2021-22 NBA Finals: Golden State Warriors (53-29) def. Boston Celtics (51-31), 4-2

2022-23 NBA Finals: Denver Nuggets (53-29) def. Miami Heat (44-38), 4-1

2023-24 NBA Finals: Dallas Mavericks vs. Boston Celtics

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