Let me start this out with this disclaimer: I’m a huge LeBron James fan. I used to run a website called LeBronJamesNews.com. I think he is the best pure talent in the NBA today.
That said, not all is right in the mighty kingdom of LeBron. What I speak of are his troubles in the so-called “clutch.” Now, “clutch” is hard to define -- and to be fair, a basket in the first quarter counts for the exact same amount of points as a basket in the fourth quarter -- but let’s run this stat by you. In the final two minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime, in games in which the Cavaliers are tied or trailing by 3 points or less, LeBron James is shooting 0-for-11 from 3-point range. No matter how you slice it, that’s a problem. Strangely though, my problem isn’t with the 0, it’s with the 11. Why is LeBron James, admittedly not a great three-point shooter, taking so many 3s in key situations?
Well, there are two problems that have conspired to result in that stat, and I’m going to state pretty bluntly here.
Problem #1: LeBron’s teammates are terrible.
This isn’t really his fault, but it’s causing a huge problem for his game. Let’s flash back to January of 2006. There was a span of games in which LeBron passed the ball off in those “late-and-tight” situations, causing the media to jump on him. Why wasn’t he taking those shots? Isn’t he the superstar? Who wants Flip Murray taking game-winners when you’ve got LeBron?
Now, add that criticism to the years of watching guys like Eric Snow, Flip Murray, Anderson Varejao, Damon Jones, Daniel Gibson, Larry Hughes (do I need to go on) miss shot after shot, and you can understand why the guy with “crazy court vision” (to quote one of his early Nike commercials) is reluctant to pass the ball, even when he’s double-teammed 25 feet from the basket at the end of a game.
Problem #2: LeBron can’t shoot free throws.
Again, to be fair, the guy’s not Shaq, but he’s not Larry Legend either. He’s finally back over 70% (70.3 entering tonight’s game against the Nets) but spent much of the season in the 65-68% range. More importantly, he’s missed critical shots down the stretch. He missed 3-of-4 in a 17 second stretch on Feb. 1 against the Heat, and exactly a month later, went 0-2 in the final 17 seconds against the Mavericks.
Add these two problems together, and what do you get? A player who will always have the ball in his hands down the stretch, but is reluctant to take it to the basket, and is more reluctant to give it up to an open teammate when the double-team comes.
Now, with LeBron it always comes back to MJ. Early in his career, MJ didn’t have the free throw problem (he was an 85% shooter), but he did have the teammate problem. He didn’t always trust them. It was Phil Jackson who taught MJ to trust his teammates and be willing to give it up to them in key situations. When that started to happen, lanes opened up for MJ, because the other defenders on the floor couldn’t sag off their man, for fear of a precision MJ pass (see: Jim Paxson, Steve Kerr, Bill Wennington, et al).
This brings us to problem #3, aka “The Real Problem”: Mike Brown. Now, I like Mike Brown. He seems like a nice enough guy, and he’s a great assistant coach. He’s just not a head coach. There’s nothing wrong with that -- there have been tons of coaches throughout the years who were fabulous assistants but terrible leaders. It’s the backup QB theory. The most popular guy in town is always the guy carrying the clipboard, but once he’s under center, he’s also under fire. Mike Brown can’t take that heat, so it’s time for him to get out of the kitchen, and get out of LeBron’s way.
One other thing I need to mention here: LeBron James’ career took a turn in the Summer of ’05, when Michael Redd decided to re-sign with the Bucks. I understand why Redd made that choice -- it was an extra guaranteed year and another $20 million in guaranteed bucks. But Redd could have been the Pippen to James’ Jordan, and James would have had the teammate he could have trusted to make the open shot. Instead, James is still looking for that missing piece, and Redd is a very rich man who’ll be watching the playoffs from the comfort of his couch.