The Superfriends of the Miami Heat are going up against the Dirk-led Dallas Mavericks in Game 1 of the NBA finals tonight. The Heat are led by LeBron James, who has finally learned how to be a true leader, take over games in the playoffs, and turn in some truly “clutch” performances.
Or, at least, that’s what the mainstream narrative will tell you about the Miami Heat. The truth is that LeBron James is probably the best basketball player in the NBA, crunch time or no, and his spectacular abilities with a basketball don’t magically disappear depending on what month it is. It’s not that he’s “learned” how to close games; it’s that you don’t actually remember him playing incredible basketball in the playoffs for his entire career.
James has already authored eight of the top-75 playoff games by Game Score (since 1991). That’s as many as Michael Jordan, only LeBron has done it in fewer games. He’s been absolutely dominant in late-game situations in both the regular season and in the playoffs over the last few years.
Yet people seem to overlook all of this, and it’s because he hasn’t won it all yet. It’s the same cognitive process that leads people to believe Kobe Bryant was significantly better than Karl Malone when facing elimination, only he wasn’t.
“Clutchness” is something sports analysts have tried to study and define for years. But the most common conclusion is that a player’s crunch-time ability is largely a figment of our imagination brought on by selective memory, cognitive bias, and SportsCenter highlights. ESPN’s Henry Abbott caused a firestorm when he made a strong case that Kobe Bryant — a being of pure championship mettle with ice water in his veins, we are told — has actually been little better than league-average in important situations. This was followed up with the suggestion that, if you really want someone to win a game for you, it’s best to hand the ball to LeBron James and let him do his thing.
Too often, sports commentary boils down to a desperate desire by members of the media to construct all-encompassing narratives when it’s often a case of good luck, bad luck, or performing exactly as can be expected. So when Mark Jackson (or whatever random NBA analyst) talks about LeBron James’ growth as a player and as a “closer” during the NBA Playoffs, just roll your eyes and appreciate the talents of LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki, and Dwayne Wade as they put on their show.