Choking happens to athletes all the time, but that doesn't make it an indictment on the player. In 1997, in Game 5 of a semifinals series against the Jazz, an 18-year-old rookie Kobe Bryant shot not one, not two, but four airballs in the final five and a half minutes of regulation and overtime, in a game his Lakers eventually lost. By any definition, this was choking at its most obvious. Now, 15 years later, Kobe Bryant is regarded as the clutchest player in the NBA by a mile; a 2011 Sports Illustrated poll asked 166 players, "Who do you want shooting with the game on the line?," and a whopping 74% of them chose the Black Mamba. The next closest player, Kevin Durant, got only 8%.
LeBron James wasn't even in the top five.
Like Kobe, LeBron has had some disappearing acts in crunch time, most notably in the 2011 finals. Unlike Kobe, LeBron has become defined by his failures. But LeBron is a totally different animal from Kobe. Kobe resembles Michael Jordan in his brazen willingness to try to take the game over, to take as many contorted, mid-range fade-aways as humanly possible, and to always take the final shot. LeBron is a much more efficient player, even eliminating the weakest aspect of his game, the three-point shot, from his arsenal this season. Often, he seems content to let D-Wade and Chris Bosh take the last shot in the game, and whereas Kobe seems to exhibit a rabid competitiveness -- shown last week when he indignantly referenced an ESPN ranking that had him listed as the seventh best player in the league -- LeBron doesn't seem to have that drive. He was perfectly willing to join the Miami Heat and relinquish his role as the team's alpha dog, as the team leader and primary go-to-guy; it's hard to imagine Kobe willingly accepting a such subservient role.
At the same time, it's hard to believe Kobe wouldn't bristle at having such a pathetic showing in a poll by his peers. LeBron is the best player in the NBA, and not even 2% of player said they wanted him with the ball in the final minutes.
And maybe that's why Kobe is considered clutch and LeBron isn't. Whereas Kobe's imprint is always on the fourth quarter, LeBron will just vanish sometimes for no conceivable reason. With the Heat, he's developed a nasty tendency in the fourth quarter to hand the ball off to one of his teammates and just sit there in the perimeter, not even trying to get open. Not even trying to make a screen, or direct a play, or do anything that makes it look like he's in the offense. It's not even about deferring to Wade or Bosh -- there are times when he simply doesn't try, where he'll allow a gnat like J.J. Barea or Jason Terry to guard him without ever posting them up.
In simplest terms, LeBron James is hiding himself in the offense. Anyone who's ever played basketball can see it. I certainly know what it's like to have an off game, and to make a less concerted effort to find a shot out of fear that maybe I'd get the blame, or let my team down, or look badly. But I'm not an NBA player. LeBron seems to embody that self-consciousness mentality in every fourth quarter he plays. He seems to do as much as he thinks he has to, or as much as he thinks is acceptable, but little else besides that.
There's never been an NBA superstar quite like him. It's one thing to fail, but it's something else entirely to skirt being aggressive altogether. Still, even with his occasional failures in the final minutes and his at times passive demeanor, it's hard to define him as a choker. What he did in Game 5 of the 2007 conference finals against the Pistons, where he scored 29 of the Cavaliers' final 30 points, ranks among one of the greatest clutch performances of all time. And it was his ability to drill key shots in the fourth that allowed the Heat to stage a fourth quarter comeback against the Bulls in Game 5 of last year's conference finals. So whatever his problem is, it's a complex one. There is no clear-cut reason why someone with several brilliant performances in the closing seconds is also the guy unwilling to take 10 shots in the fourth quarter.
I do have a theory however. And if you'll allow me to speculate, I'll slide on my shrinks' glasses as LeBron lies down on the couch...
LeBron James is an incredibly image conscious athlete, who, in a bizarre dichotomy, also has no idea how to manage his image. He is someone with an otherwise stalwart personality, a player with a steady marriage who does good work in the community, who never gets into trouble or gets a DUI or is caught smoking an illegal substance, or anything like that. And yet he is also someone who finds himself among the most hated athletes in sports, who routinely has press conferences or YouTube videos or commercials that manage to get under people's skin. He had the fortitude to turn his "Decision" program into a charity event that gave $3 million to needy children, but wasn't image savvy enough to realize how pompous his televised farewell would play off.
He almost never steps into a position where he's knowingly vulnerable to criticism -- no, not criticism of his general behavior, which he gets plenty of -- criticism of LeBron James the basketball player. The same way Wilt Chamberlain went out of his way to secure his distinction of never fouling out of a single game, to the point that it became a detriment to how hard he played, LeBron is the same way when it comes to avoiding blame.
From the very second he stepped on the court, LeBron has been compared to Michael Jordan, a player with a legacy so perfect that it can't be replicated. LeBron, it seems, doesn't even try to reach those expectations though, because maybe he knows that if he did and failed, people would realize that he isn't Michael Jordan, a revelation that might wound him somehow. Why else would he so clearly avoid taking part in the Slam Dunk Contest, something he even reneged on at one point? Why did he simply appear to give up towards the end of the Celtics/Cavaliers series? Why did it take him more than ten minutes to even attempt a shot in the second half of the Heat's Game 6 loss to Dallas, in a series where he scored just 18 points in the final periods?
Because he does as much as feels he's obligated to, and nothing more. Even in the final game of that Chicago series, there wasn't any risk to those shots he was taking because the Heat were trailing the entire time. And when he was in Cleveland, even if he failed, he always had the safety net of analysts saying, "Well, he has barely anything around him. It's an accomplishment that Cleveland even got that far in the first place." In Miami though, the moment there suddenly became expectations, he suddenly became an incredibly passive player in the closing minutes of games, to the point that he allowed Jason Terry and J.J. Barea to "guard" him in the NBA Finals. This can't be a coincidence. There's no reasonable explanation why LeBron James, in the midst of an otherwise solid 9-15 performance, would go a whopping ten minutes before shooting in Game 6 of the finals. Kobe, Michael, Bird, Magic -- not only would these guys never go that long without taking a shot, they certainly wouldn't do it when they were having an efficient game. But that's the misnomer in James' efficiency numbers -- they're efficient because he's unwilling to try something risky and potentially unsuccessful, even when the team needs it from him.
Is this a perfect theory? Oh good heavens no. Honestly, I can't even rationalize why it's the case, but I think anyone with eyes and enough knowledge of the game can see when a player doesn't want to be a part of the offense. And when that player happens to be the best player in the NBA, there has to be something mental going on -- some sort of warped mentality that's allowed this disappearing act to go on unabated.