In the last edition of Goal Posts, we examined several ways that LeBron James could work through poor performances in the NBA Finals, particularly in the fourth quarter of close games. On Thursday evening in Game 5 vs. the Dallas Mavericks, James again performed below expectations. The teams now return to Miami with Dallas leading the series 3-2. The outcome of this series will go a long way towards determining the perception of James by both media and fans.
The somewhat ironic part of this story is that James notched a rare triple double in Game 5, with 17 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists, yet this appeared to almost infuriate his critics more. I was in New York City watching the game with two fellow college basketball coaches, one from Iowa and the other from California. One commented that this may have been the quietest triple double he had ever seen. As he said that, I received a text message from a friend in Minnesota who called it the worst triple double in history. The next day as we walked through Chinatown in New York, two street vendors argued loudly about James, with one of them using a host of derogatory terms to describe his play. How many players are excoriated after a triple double? The answer is very few, in part because few players ever achieve a triple double, particularly in the NBA Finals, and even fewer would be roundly criticized for that performance.
Now, statistics do not tell the whole story, and many of the criticisms of James may be warranted. However, I think the media circus that has surrounded James since he signed a $90 million shoe contract while still in high school, continued with his decision to play for Miami last season, and has peaked during this series boils down to two factors:
1) People want James to be somebody he is not.
For years I watched Kevin Garnett compete viciously for the Minnesota Timberwolves, often leading them to the playoffs where they would lose in the first round. Garnett is one of the top all-around players in the NBA, but most NBA experts agree Garnett does not have a go-to scorer's mentality. Garnett would rebound, pass, and score, but late in games he did not excel when it came to scoring. In fact, the Timberwolves best season occurred when they signed Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell, both of whom had more of a scorer's mentality than Garnett. It was only when Garnett was traded to Boston and had Paul Pierce and Ray Allen that he was able to win an NBA Championship. Garnett is more in the mold of Scottie Pippen to Michael Jordan - an outstanding complementary player who can do it all, but is at his best when not expected to score huge amounts of points.
I believe LeBron James is similar to Garnett and Pippen in the sense that he is an amazing all-around player, one of the best the game has seen, but he does not have the mentality to score in the same way Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan did en route to a combined 11 NBA championships. Now, James may improve in this area, but a big part of the answer to this is that the public wants James to be somebody he is not. For many reasons, some of his own doing, James has been built to be infallible. None of us are, and this expectation can only lead to perceived failure. If we want to appreciate James, then we ought to expect him to do what he's done in the past: score points in varied amounts, defer to teammates in the clutch, and play an overall solid floor game. Let's also keep in mind the poor performances in big games that Kobe Bryant turned in during the 2008 and 2010 NBA Finals. In 2008, the Lakers were blown out by the Celtics and Kobe was roundly criticized. In 2010, Kobe shot horribly in Game 7 but the Lakers prevailed...and most fans forgot about this performance...which leads us to the real key for LeBron to quiet his critics...
If Miami won Game 5, I doubt that James would have been criticized for his triple double. People may still have commented that he could do more, but my hunch is that most people would find it hard to argue with a player who helps his team win while achieving a triple double. Quite simply, if the Heat and James win the title, critics will back off (but they will not disappear). It will be virtually impossible to criticize James' play, unselfish and deferential as it may be at times, if the Heat win the title. If the Heat lose, James will be continue to be saddled with the label "can't win the big one".
Vince Lombardi is often quoted as having said, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." Although accounts of this quote indicate Lombardi was really talking about the desire to win being what matters, the reality is in our culture, a supreme emphasis is placed on winning.
Had the Heat held on to win Games 2 and 4, James would likely be lauded right now for achieving the pinnacle of success in basketball. If the Heat win Games 6 and 7, James will receive platitudes from people who have harshly criticized him. If they lose, the criticism will only intensify. Odds are Game 6, and a big part of James' legacy will come down to the last few minutes and rest on a couple big plays, just as the last three games have. Watch public opinion shift if the Heat win two consecutive games at home. Winning may not be everything, but it sure matters.
My prediction: Miami Heat defeat the Dallas Mavericks in 7, with LeBron James playing well and Dwyane Wade winning the MVP.