LeBron James is Clutch, and It's Stupid to Think Otherwise
Here we go again.
Every year, that old, lazy narrative inevitably comes up about LeBron James not being clutch. It usually occurs during any given playoff game when LeBron gets the ball with a chance to tie it or go ahead in the late going and does one of two things:
1. Passes the ball to an open teammate and they miss the shot.
2. Takes a contested shot that rims out.
It seems like these moments erase the seemingly countless times his teammates have hit that important tying or go-ahead basket, or when he’s done so himself. Um, haters? This was only a few months ago, remember?
Last night was one of those nights when the shot didn’t go down, however. LBJ deferred to Chris Bosh in the corner for the potentially game-winning three-pointer with four seconds to go and it rimmed out, leading to a Miami loss. The Internet immediately blew up with all the painfully inaccurate comments about James not being a clutch performer that we, as more informed hoop heads, have all grown to expect and loathe in such situations.
The thing is, there are sports fans that get stuck in worn out narratives all the time. Our own JJ Zachariason wrote a piece debunking the tired myths about Tony Romo being a bad quarterback and a choker recently, and how the numbers simply don’t back up most of the claims against him. LeBron’s clutch reputation is very similar.
James basically entered the NBA with the Michael Jordan measuring stick attached to his side. When LeBron started missing some late-game shots or (gasp!) passing to open teammates, people quickly tagged him as not being a late-game performer because he lacked the killer instinct of His Airness in the dying seconds, and was more than willing to defer to his teammates when they were rolling or open.
It’s long overdue that we universally accept that LeBron is wired differently than the Jordans and the Kobes, and should henceforth be his own measuring stick. He's happy to give up the big shot if he sees a better one (as his career assist mark of 6.9 per game can attest), and that kind of trust in the teammates that have helped him get two rings should be admired, not abhorred. Even more importantly, now in his 11th NBA season, he actually went and became one of the game’s best clutch performers over the years without the haters really taking notice anyway.
Well haters, here’s the memo.
The more-or-less accepted definition of clutch time in the NBA is a game with a point differential of five or less in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime. Here are the 12 players that took the most attempts during said “clutch time” during the 2013-14 season.
Of the 12 players that have taken an equal or greater number of shots than LeBron in clutch time this season, LeBron is tops in field goal percentage, fifth in three-point percentage (we’re ignoring Jefferson and Aldridge going a combined 2 for 5), and first in effective field goal percentage.
That list is chalked full of the most revered clutch performers in the league (Durant, Irving, Curry, Anthony, Nowitzki), and yet LeBron has been a better shooter in late-game situations than every last one of them this season.
As a result, despite taking fewer attempts than everyone on the list, LeBron is actually tied with Steph Curry for second in clutch shots made this year at 46, trailing only Durant with 50. Also interesting, he’s shot better from long range than Curry in those situations (31.0% to Curry’s 28.0%), when Curry has long had the reputation of being an absolute assassin from deep in the clutch. The only difference is we forgive guys like Curry and Durant when they miss. We don't forgive LeBron for anything.
Based on these numbers, one could argue that LeBron is actually the most efficient scorer in the game in the last five minutes of a close game, and pretty darn close to the most prolific. Even if you reduce the range to the last two minutes, LeBron is still a top-six performer in effective field goal percentage (and is dead even with Curry, for what it’s worth). In other words, LeBron’s pass to Bosh in the corner last night doesn’t erase the fact that he’s become a prime clutch performer.
After all, it’s not like that pass to Bosh was a bad idea. Of all the players that took at least 35 shots in clutch time this season, James, Bosh, and Ray Allen all placed in the top 40 in effective field goal percentage. LeBron has some pretty good options at his disposal.
Allen is one of the best clutch shooters of all time, and Bosh’s 65.7% effective field goal percentage in the clutch this season actually put him second among qualified shooters (ahead of everyone not named Tony Parker). That, combined with the fact that Bosh’s 24 threes made and three-point percentage of 40.7% during this postseason, trumps both Allen (23 made on 38.3% shooting) and LeBron (21 on 35.6%), makes that pass to Bosh probably the most logical basketball play available, doesn’t it?
Let’s put this “LeBron is not clutch” narrative to bed, shall we? We haven't even discussed the fact that "being clutch" isn't exclusive to shooting. How about playing lockdown defense? Creating clutch opportunities for others? Making smart basketball plays at the end of close games, even if it doesn't ultimately result in the win? Check, check, and check.
Any way you slice it, the man is playing on another level that deserves its own tier. He has proven himself time and time again as he’s well on his way to his fourth straight finals (our algorithms still have the Heat at 77.53% to advance) and potentially his third straight title (33.32% championship odds, the best of the four remaining teams).
Besides, if Bosh’s shot had gone down, the narrative would be completely different today. As the quotable Stan Van Gundy says, write the story while the ball is still in the air. And if you still feel like hating and putting LeBron up to the Jordan measuring stick? LeBron might be on his way to getting his third title at a younger age than Jordan (29 compared to 30), and even His Airness had to pass to Steve Kerr to win one of those.