It appears that my editorial on LeBron James caused a bit of a stir today.
If you are reading this, you have probably read the article that started this whole mess and my colleague's response. If you haven't, I suggest you click on the links and read them so you can have context for this little debate.
When I wrote that I was sitting on my couch and watching Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, I wasn't lying. I looked at the clock and there really was 9:31 left in the third quarter and the Miami Heat really were up by 15 points. Remember when Kevin Garnett drew the technical foul? I do. So we were all watching the same game.
Since we were all watching the same game, we all saw James methodically pick apart the Boston Celtics in the first half, en route to 30 points in that first half, a Heat franchise record for a playoff game. He would end up with 45 points, 15 rebounds, and 5 assists. When was the last time that combination (45+ points, 15+ rebounds, 5+ assists) occurred? 1964. 48 years ago. That's more than two decades before I was born and began learning how to anger large amounts of people at once. Since everyone was watching that game, everyone, including myself, can appreciate the greatness we saw.
See what I did there? In case you didn't click on the links, here's what you missed: I started out by giving you an article published early this morning about James' historic performance in Game 6. It is a good article by Yahoo!'s Adrian Wojnarowski, a writer whose work I enjoy reading. But then, I followed it up with three other articles in the form of game recaps, which all paint the same picture that Wojnarowski's article does. And that is James as an unstoppable force who is putting his team on his shoulders on the way to championship glory.
What's the common thread between the other three articles, published in 2007, 2009, and 2010?
You know. You might have trouble admitting it to yourself, but you know.
The common thread is James' team fell short of the title and twice fell short of making the NBA Finals.
For all of the otherworldly performances, all of the MVPs, all of the awe and adulation bestowed upon King James, he hasn't been able to reach the top of the mountain. And that is the goal. In a sport where one superstar can single-handedly affect a team, a game, and a series, he has yet to deliver. He has shown his dominant abilities in games and can capture our attention unlike any other basketball player alive, but that doesn't negate the fact that he has failed in his ultimate goal.
My criticism of James doesn't mean that I am not a Heat fan. In fact, I criticize because I am a Heat fan; because, I actually want to see the five, six, seven rings that were talked about during the Big 3's introductory celebration. Being a fan of a team doesn't have to mean blindly following whatever direction the team is headed and buying into what is sold to the fans by the front office or the media. Being a fan can mean critiquing your team and honestly evaluating its direction and chances of success, because you want the team to succeed. That is what I did by focusing in on the player expected to lead us to those championships.
I don't want to focus too much on the "respect tap." I have already spent enough words talking about it. However, I would like to briefly address a point made by colleague, Daniel. It is precisely that the act was "in the heat of the moment" which bothers me. It's the subconscious lapse in concentration, recognizing an opponent's feats, when he needs to be focused on winning for the entire game. If he had done it in a calculating method - if James had tapped Rajon Rondo and stared him down - I would have actually respected that, because that means he was trying to get in his head. He would be trying to intimidate the player who has so far been the alpha dog of the series, because it is James, the most talented player on the planet, who should be - or at least want to be - the alpha dog on the court at all times. But alas, it is something that James cannot control. He wants to be everybody's friend.
So it makes no difference to me that James is not mired in some statistical slump. Like Daniel has illustrated, James has performed great during the playoffs and, except for a declining free throw percentage, has improved his numbers as he's gotten deeper into the playoffs. What's more, he just won his third NBA MVP trophy. And yes, he deserves to keep his Olympic gold medal.
This idea of "clutch" and what it constitutes and how it is perceived has been debated since Bill James came along and introduced sabermetrics, a method of evaluating a player using quantitative and not qualitative (such as "clutch") data to baseball. These advanced statistics have since spread to other sports for measuring the worth and success of a player (for basketball, John Hollinger's PER system may be the most recognizable one to fans). I usually count myself among those who believe these metrics have allowed fans to better evaluate players. But I do believe there is such a thing as clutch. It can be crudely measured using the same statistics we rely on in all other game situations and applied to higher-pressured scenarios (baseball example: batting average with runners in scoring, two outs, team either leading or trailing by one run; basketball example: PER inside of two minutes of the end of regulation with the team either leading or trailing by less than four points, etc.). And these kinds of measurements can be created for any situation in any sport. But what makes this idea of "clutch" so hard to measure is that it is innate in a person. It is in their brain, it cannot be accurately measured. Of course, it is also open to interpretation.
What I saw from James in Game 6 can and should be considered clutch. Facing elimination, he played an incredible game and lifted his team to victory. But like I said in my original article, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter that the Heat won last night and if they win tomorrow night, and James is the deciding factor, that probably won't change my mind either.
The goal, as stated earlier, is to climb to the top of the mountain. He has gotten his team near the top of the mountain. He has gotten them so close that they can smell the top of the mountain. But it doesn't necessarily take a "clutch" performance or "clutch" gene to get to the top of the mountain. It takes a certain "nerve" gene to get there. And that is what James is missing. Not the "clutch" gene, but the nerve gene. Michael Jordan had it. Kobe Bryant has it. Dwyane Wade has it.
Like any good sabermetrics fan, I look at the data and evaluate. And nothing I have seen from James in his two years with the Heat, or in his career, leads me to believe he has the nerve to lead his team to the top of the mountain.
Against whatever my heart tells me, I have to trust my brain on this one.
I just hope that I'm wrong and Daniel is rightt.