Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The War of the Cliches, Or, Why Most of What You've Heard About Game 5 is Wrong

I didn’t think I’d write more LeBron-related prose, but I’m surprising myself. The cursors on word documents fired up and began racing across screens across the nation, oh, about ten seconds after the Cavaliers lost the game, and the reactions were basically divided into two camps: those critical of LeBron, and those who are more empathetic of LeBron.

And it was interesting, almost a generational thing: I’d say of the reactions I’ve read, the negative ones are far more likely to be older, far more likely to rely on the gauzy images of Basketball Saints Past, and generally far less fluent with the statistics. On the other hand, the relatively evenhanded ones (the ones who analyze more than LeBron and allow for doubt) are more the opposite: more internet-based and more statistically inclined. That said, it was an issue that cut both ways: at least some bloggy types people thought LeBron’s performance revealed a lack of character.

Accusing someone of a lack of character is a curious thing, particularly in the NBA. We like to psychoanalyze. We like the notion that our acts directly reveal character, and that small moments in particular can reveal character, so that something like Game 5 can be used to indict someone’s entire career. I think this is a pretty silly tendency, whether in the NBA or not. Character is something so subtle, something that interacts so complexly with circumstance, that it’s a difficult thing to judge with any degree of certainty over the course of two hours.

For one, there’s the bias of success. We call the same trait different names depending on whether there’s success or failure around them. LeBron’s seeming lack of intensity was often unfavorably contrasted with Kobe’s seeming blinding intensity to win, and yet when LeBron appeared more successful than Kobe we thought that LeBron’s easygoing nature made him more relatable to his teammates and they’d be more likely to try hard. In reality, neither LeBron nor Kobe changed much, personally speaking, since that period and we just want things to be different. It’s more interesting that way.

And of course the idea that LeBron comes up short in big moments—and that this is somehow a recurring problem—is about the silliest, daftest idea that I’ve heard in a long time, and would be one of the dumbest ideas ever floated by the media, if they hadn’t been responsible for such trends as the Iraq war or falling all over Woody Allen’s latest film. Now, if you’re of that persuasion, I suppose I could point out that LeBron has led the league in postseason PER in the last two years, or just use this:


And this:


Yes, these are the highlights of a professional choker.

Anyway, LeBron is far from the first superstar to have a bad game. Celtics fans will happily recall that Kobe was comprehensively awful against them for an entire series in the Finals. Then there’s a real stain on Kobe’s career, far greater than this stain on LeBron’s, his giving up on a Game 7 against Phoenix. Kobe gave up on a game. No one seems to remember this, and certainly no one seems to remember this now. But it’s true—Kobe objectively gave up on a game. Anyway, even leaving aside Kobe, Magic’s career is stained by some bad postseason performances. Tim Duncan has performed poorly from time to time. These things happen.

In situations like this, I’d just like to remind people that they don’t really know. Is LeBron injured? We don’t know, do we? (John Hollinger points out that James has played far worse after only one game of rest this series than after multiple games. (insider)) Are the Celtics playing that much better? The defense that much better? There are so many variables that we can’t know or won’t know that it’s amazingly premature to speculate as to What It All Means. We can safely say it was a disappointing moment for a usually great player, but it's difficult to say why. What was confirmed—what we already suspected—is that LeBron’s teammates simply aren’t that good. It’s a team full of nice role players. That’s what makes LeBron’s achievements all the more impressive: he’s made several Eastern Conference Finals and an NBA Finals when the second-best player to play with LeBron is….? I’m genuinely stumped who’s produced the most besides LeBron. No other NBA star has won a championship with comparable supporting talent, and I’d be surprised to hear of one who’s led his team to comparable results with such a mediocre supporting cast. We know what we always knew: LeBron is the very best player in the league, for the difference between his very good games and his occasional bad games can be seen in this series—it’s 30 points.

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