LeBron James, legend in the age of sports skeptics


If the Heat lose, LeBron's legacy will be tarnished based on results from awfully small samples. Is that fair? Would a world of sports skeptics see things differently?

There's a real chance that LeBron James will fail in his latest attempt to add a Larry O'Brien to his vast trophy case. The Miami Heat are down 3-2 to the San Antonio Spurs in the 2013 NBA Finals, needing wins Tuesday and Thursday at home to rescue the 2012-13 season. The Spurs have been downright magical at times, a perfectly built machine humming smoothly. Except when it hasn't hummed smoothly, usually thanks to killer play by the Heat.

If the Spurs win, LeBron will fall to 1-3 in NBA Finals series. In 2007, his overmatched Cavaliers squad was pummeled by these Spurs. (Literally, it was these Spurs.) In 2011, of course, all sorts of bizarre bewitching befell the Heat against the Mavericks. LeBron got over the hump in 2012, ripping the Thunder, but sports memories are short, and 1-3 isn't a good look for a potential G.O.A.T.

LeBron's legacy will therefore be seen as tarnished in the eyes of many. But is that really fair to him?

Something the great, thoughtful Henry Abbott wrote at TrueHoop on Monday got me thinking about LeBron, 1-3 and the potential for a different narrative.

[Let's] be honest, these two teams could play 100 times with no "adjustments" and produce 100 wildly different games, because life's just that varied, and there are degrees of chance and opportunity in every atom. [...]

A lot of basketball wins, including, potentially, the decisive win of these Finals, come because of crazy stuff nobody could have foreseen. People fall over, referees miss things, balls go out of bounds off the legs of well-meaning world champions, great shooters have off nights or electric ones. None of it's from the game plan, but all of it decides games all the time.

We don't hear about it much, though, because nobody values an analyst whose conclusion is "anything can happen."

Skepticism, or at the very least a science-focused worldview, is hitting the sports world. The concept went mainstream in politics in 2012, as Nate Silver took the world by storm. And, of course, it's been around in sports for ages; see Bill James and all of his influences and disciples. But it's becoming mainstream in sports.

And a central tenet of the science of sports (or political polling) is that, at best, you can ascertain probabilities. Silver's projections gave Obama a 60 percent probability of winning re-election during much of the campaign; few commentators seemed to understand (or acknowledge, if we're being less morally charitable) that the 40 percent probability of an Obama loss meant that Silver wasn't actually guaranteeing re-election for the President. Silver readily acknowledged that he didn't know what would happen, but that polling data and other indicators suggested an Obama win was more likely.

Though progress away from the magical woo of winning is being made, we're not that far in sports, at least in basketball. So much of the conversation around wins and losses at this level ignores noise, ignores that probabilities aren't certain. As Abbott writes, people fall over, referees miss things, balls go out of bounds off the legs of well-meaning world champions ... and the narrative largely ignores it. If the Heat lose, it will be an instant referendum on LeBron, on his greatness, on his legend.

But what if the sports world were further along the path to a broadly accepted science-focused worldview? What if, instead of dog whistlin' chest beaters like Skip Bayless, we had skeptics in prominent analysis roles? What if, after a Game 6 or Game 7 Spurs win, instead of focusing on what LeBron didn't do, we talked about what the Spurs did do and how prominent a role random, volatile events like Danny Green hitting 60 percent of his three-pointers over a critical stretch played? (What if during the 2012 Finals we acknowledged the same [positive] noise from the Heat's role players, who shot extraordinarily well?)

That doesn't happen because sports skepticism by default minimizes the importance of postseason success. Even in the NBA, where series are long, the best team does not always win a best-of-seven series. The team that plays best during the 4-7 games of the series wins. The gulf between "the actual best team" and "the team that plays best during the limited timeframe in which the championship is decided" isn't all noise. Matchups, strategy and tactics have impacts. But noise is a lot more important in those 4-7 games than in the 82 games of a regular season. Noise has an oversized impact in smaller samples.

Again, the NBA features larger samples in its postseason: best-of-seven series all the way through, as opposed to the single-game elimination format in football, college basketball and most international basketball tournaments. But 4-7 games still constitutes a small sample size when we're determining the best team from a season which features 82-107 games from its teams. You could find a seven-game sample from the regular season in which the Raptors were better than the Heat because of, in part, noise. Randomness. Those oddities Abbott writes about.

Through this prism of a science-based worldview, determining our best teams with purposely constricted sample sizes is problematic. But it's also highly entertaining, rather practical and extremely lucrative. You can pry the NBA playoffs from my cold, dead hands. The system will not and should not change.

Where I think sports skepticism does enter the equation in terms of the postseason is in the doling out of legend status. And that's where LeBron and the real potential to fall to 1-3 in the Finals comes in.

If, by virtue of the importance of randomness, postseason success is overvalued according to skeptics in sports, then "rings" really aren't a very good measure of a player's value. People fall over, referees miss things, balls go out of bounds off the legs of well-meaning world champions ... and yet we use the results of games decided by those events to rank legends. We have a treasure trove of data about players' performance. LeBron has played 901 games in his NBA career. Yet by Friday morning, we may be dismissing him as a potential G.O.A.T. because of his team's inability to win eight of those that happened to be NBA Finals games.

In a sports skeptic's world, championships won might be a footnote on a players' career C.V. instead of having marquee status. We've made progress in that direction, but we aren't there yet. And frankly, though I loathe the RINGZZZ argument, I'm not sure we're ready for a league in which postseason performance is more an entertaining sideshow than the main event. Can we have a world skeptical enough of the MAGIC of WINNING SPIRIT to put Robert Horry and Derek Fisher in their proper places while still being in awe of Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan? Can we respect Tony Parker's postseason success without thinking it makes him a better overall player than, say, Chris Paul? Can the almost spiritual faith in the power of true greatness to overcome all odds co-exist with a realistic assessment of why true greatness can't always win?

Or, are we destined to have two leagues, the one seen scientifically by skeptics who believe the clutch gene is as real as unicorns and the one seen by those more appreciative of the magic of the moment than tormented by the potential falseness of the result?

As one who increasingly watches the former, I am jealous of fans of the latter, and hope in the coming hours and seasons we can bridge the gap and mix the two in a unified league that respects both science and magic.

More from SB Nation:

Flannery: Finally, The Manu Game | How the Spurs won

Spurs take Game 5, now just one win from the title

Doc, KG to the Clippers? Could happen

Anti-NBA mock draft: Evolution of ESPN's Top-100 Big Board

NBA mock draft: Best-case scenarios | Scouting reports | Big Board

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