Howlin' Around the NBA: The Clutch Debate

Note: Tom (@Tom_NBA) and Derek (@DerekJamesNBA) both really like talking about the NBA, even when it doesn’t pertain to the Wolves. And since very little about the NBA pertains to the Wolves at the moment, this is the first in a series of email exchanges from around the NBA.

SEE, LEBRON IS PASSING HE SUCKS!!!1!!! -The Internet

"SEE, LEBRON IS PASSING HE SUCKS!!!1!!!" -The Internet

Tom: So Derek! Since LeBron is dominating conversations even more than he dominated the Pacers on Sunday afternoon, let’s have a Howlin T-Wolf discussion about him.

Here’s my starting point, and my two cents on the LeBron clutch debate. It’s fascinating to me that people think the best option for the Heat late in a game is to have James shooting the ball. Two things drive me nuts about this. The first: LeBron is a decent mid-range jumpshooter, but nothing spectacular (42%). He is mediocre from three point range (36% this year). The second: LeBron is not only a phenomenal talent with the body of a basketball god, he is also very smart. He knows full well that his forte isn’t jumpshots. His offensive game is at its best when he is doing his freight train meets pissed off rhinoceros impersonation.

My point is this: he knows that the best shot for the Heat in crunch time isn’t him taking a (likely forced) jumper. He also knows that NBA defenses collapse and generally do a very good job of preventing baskets close to the hoop as the game winds down, and that he is less likely to draw a foul in a close game with very little time left. Combine all that, and you have a fantastically talented player whose game quite simply isn’t built for last-second heroics.

I think LeBron recognizes the limitations in his game, and unlike Kobe (who went 2-10 at the end of Game 4), he plays within those limitations. This is smart basketball. So why do we want LeBron to shoot so desperately when the evidence is right in front of us that his game isn’t well suited to crunch time offenses? (Note: this is a rhetorical question. Obviously people like basketball narrative better than basketball.)

Derek: I hope you know that it physically pains me to use the “C” word. It’s a filthy, dirty, and shameful word that people throw around far too often. And now, you’re making me break my moratorium on the word “clutch” (What word did you think I meant?). It’s fine though, as long as it doesn’t become a habit.

I’ve been a LeBron fan for years, even through The Decision, but one thing that always drove me nuts about him was that the most talented, fastest, and strongest player on the court kept settling for jumpers over and over again. Lo and behold, what did we see from LeBron right from the start? More post-game, and fewer triples. I felt compelled to mention that to reinforce your point about him being smart and understanding his strengths and weaknesses. As you said, it’s not easy for a guy looking to score from 15 feet and in to have sustainable late-game success that way.

That being said, his fourth quarter struggles still frustrate me, but for different reasons than many. Let’s get this out of the way with: There probably shouldn’t be many games where a 3-time MVP isn’t taking a shot in the fourth quarter. Still, remember, what do we kill Kobe for? Being a ball domineering hog that doesn’t do enough to get his teammates involved. Yet, LeBron gets crucified if he has 0 points and 4+ assists in a quarter. The sick part is that I get irritated when he doesn’t just because I’m going to hear about it from the same 90% of the internet.

See, I’m not convinced he can win here.

The funny thing here is that Michael Jordan didn’t take every big shot (Steve Kerr, or John Paxson, anyone?), and guys like Magic could setup teammates as well as take over if the moment called for it. I think LeBron is like that, and that’s what he needs to do when defenses collapse, as you mentioned. I hope people remember after Sunday that LeBron can not only step up, but carry his team in a pivotal must-win playoff game.

You know what no one is talking about? How LeBron has had to pick Wade up two of the Heat’s last four playoff series. But we don’t talk about that because Wade has a ring and ‘Bron doesn’t.

Tom: Yeah, it’s funny how LeBron doesn’t get credit for being clutch when he goes off for 40 points and 18 rebounds in an absolute must-win Game 4. I was having this discussion with someone today, and she kept saying that he wasn’t clutch because of the last 20 seconds in a game. But isn’t propelling your team to a victory in a game that had Sunday afternoon’s magnitude also clutch? I say most definitely.

I absolutely agree that LeBron can’t win. I’ll be interested, though, to see how many people shift to the “LeBron is amazing, I wish people would just appreciate him more” narrative next season. It seems like that’s the basketball hipster opinion at the moment, and basketball hipster mentality often trickles throughout the internet (example a: suddenly nobody likes Blake Griffin anymore).

People who know me know that I’m not a big fan of the Lakers, but I try to be fair and balanced as much as possible. For instance, I am well aware that Kobe Bryant is somewhere in the 5-10 range of greatest players of all time, even though I want to poke him in the eyes “The Three Stooges” style. But he killed the Lakers on Saturday night. Absolutely killed them. I watched the game, and he was amazing through three quarters. But in the fourth, he was awful. When Gasol threw away that pass to Durant, I felt like Gasol was so wrong-footed to have been given the ball that he momentarily panicked. The second most talented player on your team shouldn’t be so shocked to get the ball in crunch time that he throws it away.

Derek: That’s absurd. You know who was really great in the last 20-seconds of games? Robert Horry; no way that person could tell me or you they’d rather have a Robert Horry caliber player instead of a LeBron James. You could watch any game, find any player’s 20-second stretch, and say, “That could’ve been better.” You’re really picking nits at that point.

That must make me a hipster since I’ve been beating that drum since the start of the 2010-’11 season. You know what the next big turn will be if the Heat win the title? Kevin Durant. Right now, he can do no wrong as a 23-year old scoring champ, and the Thunder bandwagon is overflowing. He’s also one of the most likeable players in the world. Now, I don’t want this to happen, and I think KD is great, but rational thought doesn’t always prevail, especially on the internet. I can see it now: “Is Durant too humble?”, “Why doesn’t he pass more?”, “Is he just a great scorer?”, and other ridiculousness. It may not be a huge turn on him, but any turn on KD would certainly be jarring to see. Remember, LeBron used to be everyone’s sweetheart before he left Cleveland, and that changed almost overnight.

Like all great players, I love Kobe, and am generally indifferent when it comes to teams not the Timberwolves. I just like to watch good basketball. Now, on to your point. I remember watching that game too, and Kobe certainly did shoot the Lakers out of that game. The defense has to know to load up on Kobe in the 4th because he’s probably not dishing it out to the open guy; after all, that’s not how you become the hero. One thing that LeBron certainly has on Kobe is knowing when he doesn’t have it, and when it’s better to focus on setting up others instead. Now, if his teammates don’t hit their shots, that’s not ‘Bron’s problem.

The semi-funny thing about Game 4 was Kobe’s postgame comments about how Pau should’ve shot the ball instead of passing when Mike Brown had been making sure all season long that Kobe and Andrew Bynum got their touches first, and Kobe had been in hero mode all throughout the 4th quarter. So, all of a sudden Pau was supposed to know he should’ve shot it, especially after the way Kobe glared at Steve Blake after he bricked the 3 at the buzzer earlier in the series? Please.

Tom: The crazy thing is that Kobe seems to play into everyone’s narrative even more than LeBron, it’s just that the TRUE Kobe narrative (Top 10 greatest player, very competitive, dominates the ball, blames his teammates, takes too many shots at the end of games) is really only discussed among basketball bloggers and stat heads. Everyone else seems to think that the Kobe narrative is “Great player, always hits the last second shot, is the second coming of Michael Jordan.” He’s not. He’s just Kobe. And like LeBron, people should appreciate him for what he is, warts and all.

Derek: That or Kobe’s narrative is more defined by now, and more accurate. I like your last point about Kobe being Kobe. I think it’s true for every great player. No player is perfect and can do it on their own; you need the proper supporting cast, and coach to make it all fit. Not even the great Michael Jordan could until the Bulls brought in a coach (Phil Jackson) implement a system (The Triangle) to get him to trust his teammates. Even MJ was the guy who couldn’t win it, until he did, and that’s what propelled him past Isiah and, eventually, Bird and Magic.

Whether it’s Kobe, Durant, ‘Bron, or anyone else, we should recognize greatness and appreciate it while we can, because special players don’t stick around forever. I began watching basketball around towards the end of the primes of players like Karl Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, and other greats of that era, and know that I would’ve loved to have taken in more than I did. If we’re not careful, the same will happen with us and a guy like LeBron. Narrative basketball isn’t real basketball.

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