Faulting the Faultless: The Mystery that Didn’t Exist

The Quick Point
June 14, 2012

In a few hours the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder will tip off for Game 2 of the Finals, and I feel as though I have to go ahead and initiate a pre-emptive strike in preparation for the feedback that will inevitably follow if LeBron James doesn’t walk away with a win – which is possible. This seems like an exercise in futility, like a fruitless attempt to explain common sense to uncommon people.

The criticism surrounding LeBron is nothing new. The accusations that he sinks in the fourth quarter, that he doesn’t have the mentality or motivation to be a true champion quickly became the status quo when the critics from his hype-ridden high school days finally came to terms with the fact that he was actually good enough to thrive in the NBA. They needed something new. It’s chic to pretend that LeBron doesn’t perform down the stretch because it makes this absurdly dominant, physical specimen seem mortal. His infallibility delights us.

By us, I’m only being polite, I mean you. Provided that “you” are one of the “yous” who can’t seem to comprehend what the man is all about.

A few days ago Bethlehem Shoals posted a column on GQ about the complexities of LeBron James. It came up on my Facebook feed. Maybe there was a full moon last week, maybe it just caught me in a weird mood, but I was slightly offended on LBJ’s behalf and had some spare time on my hands to write back. Mostly, I just felt sorry for him, the All-Everything NBA superhero who can’t seem to catch a break from the psychoanalysis that seeps out of the internet every time his team makes a headline. 

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I wrote the following to Shoals:

I’ll never understand how the world perceives LeBron James. I get that it’s fun to wonder what version will show up on a given night, but really the only choices are “Phenomenal LeBron James” or “Super Phenomenal LeBron James”. Usually it’s enough to get his team a win, but obviously sometimes it’s not. The idea that you talk about here, but that’s been around for as long as he’s been around, that he’s this enigma, I think, takes away from the player he actually is. How this apathetic, unmotivated stigma around him developed in the first place beats me. He may not lust for blood like Kobe Bryant or Kevin Garnett, but night in and night out he’s the single-most dominant force in the NBA. I don’t get why he has to drop 40 points, or 30-plus and a triple double to avoid being labeled passive. People don’t call Josh Hamilton passive if he doesn’t hit a home run, or Tom Brady if he doesn’t throw for 400 yards. Sometimes the man can take over a game all by himself, but sometimes he has to settle for 29-6-3. To me it’s that simple.

He never responded, and I can’t say I really expected him too, it was right before tip off, after all and it’s not often that we talk anyway. The thing is, I didn’t really need him to, I just needed to say it out loud because I’d started to feel a little bit crazy. Shoals is hardly the only one though, and perhaps it’s just his writing style that makes this already-sensitive topic so ingratiating – the same style that makes him one of the generation’s most entertaining sports writers, mind you. No homo.

Earlier today I saw a screen-crapped graphic pop up on r/NBA. It’s a table comparing LeBron’s Game 1 production in the first three quarters of the game to his production in the fourth. You’ll see that he hung 23 points on the Thunder in the first three quarters, but only seven in the fourth. If you’re not a mathematician/older than five, that’s hardly disproportionate. His rebound totals reflect a similar pattern.

The extent to which the media and the fans are willing to reach when the subject is LeBron James is getting ridiculous. And I’m offended for LeBron because LeBron is too nice to get offended for himself.

When I read Shoals’ take on LeBron, I saw a similar stretch, a more theatrical stretch accounting for his purpose as a man, as a basketball player, etc. We could sit here and comb through each and every one of the decisions James made on the court in Game 1 or in the Eastern Conference Finals, we could all scrutinize his behavior and search for the deeper meaning of his actions. Sure we could stake out on our couches veering desperately into our televisions for a clue that will let us in on the infinitely complex inner workings of LeBron’s consciousness.

Or we could just… not, because that’s all stupid.

I’m pretentious enough to have memorized what Occam’s Razor means after hearing it on television, but honest enough to admit it. It applies here. With all things being equal, the simplest explanation is most the most likely answer. Do we honestly feel that LeBron James has some debilitating mental hiccup that’s preventing him from being the greatest basketball player of all time?

I went back through LeBron’s game log after reading the GQ column to see if I was missing anything… to see if he had in fact actually shit the bed on occasion and I just, in my defensive hysterics, ignored it. It wasn’t the case. James’ worst game since the playoffs started was a 19-point, nine-assist, seven-rebound performance in Game 2 against the Knicks.

The next worst? 22-7-3. Everything else more or less seems to fall within the 30-point range, with double digit rebounds and somewhere between five and seven assists. These are just numbers, I know, but when you take into consideration his shooting percentage and his sheer presence whenever he sets foot on the court, it’s safe to say that none of this is ever LeBron’s fault.

None of it.

If LeBron drops 30 points in the first three quarters of a ball game, but only five in the fourth while his team drops a close one, why should he be the one to bear that responsibility? It’s not like he’s costing his team possessions with ill-advised shots. Sure, in a perfect world the Heat would run an offense that ends in LeBron steamrolling his way into the paint for an easy basket, but when everybody else in the building knows to expect it, it’s not so simple.

Let’s use a different example to drive this point home, and let’s use Matt Maloney because it’s his Fleer Metal 1996-97 basketball card that I’m currently using as my book mark. If Matt hits 8 of 10 free throws in a game, the majority of which came in the first half, but missed two down the stretch that could have sealed the Houston Rockets a victory, is it his free throw shooting that cost his team the victory? You’d be silly to think so.

If LeBron James dominates a basketball game as often as he does – and trust me, he dominates, if Kobe Bryant hit 30-plus points on .450+ shooting we would all be decorating our birthday cakes with his likeness – but then he doesn’t dominate in the fourth quarter, are the first three quarters of production moot? If LeBron’s team doesn’t win a game, it’s not because he’s not motivated enough to do so, it’s not because he’s not trying, it’s not because he’s – oh god, I can’t believe I’m repeating this here – passive.

It’s because he’s being contained. Credit the defense, discredit the Erik Spoelstra, discredit his teammates for not making themselves dangerous enough to free him up a little bit. The fact of the matter is, 99% of the performances LeBron James put forth are spectacular, he is that good. When and how he scores the points don’t matter. We’re in a day and age right now where I’m not sure if people don’t realize that, or if they just don’t recognize what it really means. Matt Maloney is a great free throw shooter!

That’s it, that’s all, it’s that simple.

Every time we try to pretend that there’s this underlying psychological problem that’s keeping LeBron James from being one of the classics, we’re kidding ourselves. Does anybody in their right mind honestly think that he wants to lose? Is anybody anywhere in the world, all things being equal, indifferent to whether they win a game or lose? The answer’s no, and I have explicit video footage of a Monopoly game gone wrong that can support it.

Give LeBron James a break. He’s the best player we have in the game today. Usually it’s enough for him to singlehandedly guide his team to a win despite everybody on Earth knowing full well that he’s Miami’s go-to threat, but sometimes it’s not. There may be a problem with the Heat, but it’s not LeBron James.

Admit it, get over it, and most importantly – enjoy it.

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