LeBron James and The Truth About Choking

If you worked at 80% efficiency every second of every work day, would you be satisfied?

80%. That’s average, right? Wouldn’t that be acceptable?

Your 80% may be a lot better than mine. The genius in the cubicle beside you might only need to work at 50% efficiency in order to get the same amount of work done. Still, for most of us, 80% would be a solid effort.

We would all admit that sometimes, we are just a little “off.” It’s impossible to be running on all cylinders at every moment. But 80% would be acceptable.

Over the past several weeks (and several years in LeBron’s case), the topic of “choking” has been on everybody’s mind.

It’s time to address this issue once and for all, because the discussion needs a reality check.

lebron-james-choke

The Truth About “Choking”

Whenever Kobe, LeBron, and Dwyane Wade lose a game, the topic of choice on ESPN, the Internet, and around the water cooler is whether or not one of them choked.

But what does it mean to “choke?”

Just because someone loses, does that mean that that player/team necessarily choked?

Not according to the dictionary. It defines choking as “failing to perform effectively because of nervous agitation or tension.”

The key here, I think, is the word effectively. Really, in order for a loss to qualify as a choke, it has to be a loss that should have been a win.

Not could have been.  Not might have been.  Should have been.

That means a player can play less than his best and still not have choked. If choking simply meant “not performing at 100% efficiency,” then we would all be “choking” for most of the day.

For a performance to qualify as a true “choke” job, the player had to play poorly, not just below his peak…but poorly.

When it comes to Kobe, LeBron, and Wade, the truth is we hold them at too ridiculously high of a standard.

The reality is that there are really only three types of teams in basketball:

  • The better team.
  • The lesser team.
  • The lesser team that can possibly overcome its deficiency if its best player(s) plays to 100% effectiveness for a majority of the game.

Seriously. That’s it. Every time two teams lace up the sneakers, each of them falls into one of those categories.

We really try to make basketball far too complicated. We read too much into coaching and chemistry. We read too much into individuals. We try to blame every loss on someone or something specific.

But the reality is that, generally speaking, especially in the NBA Playoffs where it’s not a one-and-done format, the better team on a given night just wins.

Has LeBron James Been a “Choker?”

In LeBron’s case, his biggest problem is that for most of his career he has been languishing on Team #3 – the team that can’t win unless he plays to 100% efficiency every game.

Amazingly, he manages to do this on a consistent basis, but when the playoffs come around and the teams get better, his team often comes up a little short.

But when LeBron loses to a team that is simply better, can we really say that he choked?

Let’s look at some of LeBron’s career.

  • In 2006, the Cavs lost to the heavily favored Detroit Pistons. In the series, LeBron averaged 27 points, 9 rebounds, and 6 assists as he almost single-handedly defeated the defending NBA runner ups.
  • In 2007, the Cavs got swept by the NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs in the Finals. Besides LeBron, nobody else on the Cavs scored more than 15 points per game. The Spurs had three Hall of Famers and a Hall of Fame coach.
  • In 2008, the Cavs lost in seven games to the NBA Champion Boston Celtics. Besides LeBron, nobody else on the Cavs scored more than 14 points per game. The Celtics had three Hall of Famers and a great coach.
  • In 2009, the Cavs lost in six games to the NBA runner up Orlando Magic. LeBron led his team in scoring, rebounding, steals, and assists. The Magic had the best center in the league and exploited the Cavs’ biggest weakness – a weakness, by the way, that LeBron couldn’t possibly address.
  • In 2010, the Cavs lost in six games to the NBA runner up Boston Celtics. LeBron led his team in scoring, rebounding, steals, assists, and blocks.  The Celtics had three Hall of Famers, Rajon Rondo, and a great coach.
  • In 2011, the Heat lost in six games to the NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks.

Now, with the possible exception of 2011, in which of the previous seasons did LeBron lose a series that he should have won?

Be objective.

Do not allow your hate for the man and “The Decision” to cloud your judgment.

In every series LeBron James happened to play on the lesser team. Against the Spurs and Celtics, his teams were out-manned and out-coached. Against the Magic, his team’s biggest weakness was exploited.

It’s not like he ever lost to the Milwaukee Bucks.

Every game, the final result rested on one thing: if LeBron played at 100% efficiency, then his team could win.  If not, it was lights out for his team.

In 2006, the Pistons closed out the Cavs despite LeBron’s 27 points and 8 boards. Could LeBron have played better? Yes. Did he play POORLY? Absolutely not.

LeBron didn’t choke in 2006.

In 2007, the Spurs whipped the Cavs in four games. For the series, LeBron averaged 22 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists. Could LeBron have played better? Yes. Did he play POORLY? Absolutely not.  (Let me also add that the Spurs would have probably beaten the Cavs that year no matter how great LeBron was…that team was just better.)

LeBron didn’t choke in 2007.

In 2008, the Celtics closed out the Cavs at home despite LeBron’s otherworldly 45-point output. Only one other player on the Cavs finished with more than 8 points. Could LeBron have played better?  No.

LeBron didn’t choke in 2008.

In 2009, LeBron averaged 38.5 PPG against the Magic…and his team lost. He also averaged 9 rebounds and 8 assists for the series. This series fascinates me the most, because if you look at the box scores, you can almost see LeBron realizing in Game 4 that he had to do everything for his team. In the last three games, he pulled down 33 rebounds and played at a higher level than anyone I have ever seen – including Michael Jordan.

He even hit an unbelievable game winner in Game #2 to keep his team in the series longer.

No matter how you slice it, LeBron didn’t choke in 2009. Not only could he not have played any better, I’m not certain anyone in history could have played better.

The 2010 series against the Celtics is infamous now. LeBron looked like he quit before Game 5 in what ended up being his last home game in Cleveland. Still, it’s easy to forget that in the deciding Game 6, LeBron finished with 27 points, 19 rebounds, and 10 assists.

Could have he played better over the course of the entire series? Yes. Did he play POORLY? Yes…in game 5. Did he choke? Maybe. But boy…that Celtics team was GOOD.

Can’t a guy have one off game?

It’s Time For a Choking Reality Check

Let’s stop looking for the scapegoat every time a team loses. Basketball is my favorite sport in the world because if the better team plays a better game, then it is always rewarded with a win.

For five years in Cleveland, LeBron had to be at 100% efficiency every night for his team to win. If he played a game at 90%, it was likely that the Cavs would lose.

You and I would settle for 80% on a daily basis…and he couldn’t perform at less than 90%. What an unbelievable amount of pressure to play under.

Now here is the part where you say, “He’s a professional athlete…he’s LeBron James…he’s the guy that said, ‘Not one, not two, not three…'” And of course, you are right – he came across as an arrogant jerk for those two weeks.

But let’s stop saying that he choked every single time he loses one game or series.

Again, basketball is not that complicated. The better team usually wins unless the other team is lifted by a stellar individual performance.

Did Gordon Hayward choke in the 2010 NCAA Title game because he missed his last three shots? No!

Is Kobe not clutch because his team is losing to an Oklahoma City Thunder team that everyone picked to win in 5 anyway? Of course not!

Losses do not always (or even often) equate to choke jobs.

Most of the time, the better team wins.

That is exactly what will happen in the last three games of this Indy/Miami series.

Without Chris Bosh, Indiana is simply a better team than Miami. At any given point, the Pacers will have 5 of the 7 best players on the floor. If LeBron or Wade is taking a breather, it’s even worse for Miami.

Indiana has more size – the Heat can’t defend Hibbert and West, or keep them off the boards consistently.

Indiana has more depth – Darren Collison was their best player yesterday, and he’s not even the sixth man.

Indiana plays better team defense.

Indiana has more quality players.

Indiana has better coaching.

Miami has LeBron and Wade.

In Game 4, LeBron and Wade both played at 100% efficiency.  They scored 38 consecutive points and finished with 70 for the game.  They pulled down 27 rebounds and dropped 15 dimes.

And yet, they still needed Udonis Haslem to hit some big shots down the stretch to close out the game.

LeBron and Wade played about as well as humanly possible while Hibbert and West were in foul trouble for most of the second half and only finished with 18 points between them.

And yet, the Heat were only up six with 30 seconds left in the game as an Indiana three clanged off the rim.

That doesn’t tell me that LeBron and Wade choked in games 2 and 3.  That tells me that Indiana is just better.

So what will happen Tuesday night?  It’s up to LeBron and Wade.

Just remember: if they lose, it doesn’t mean that they choked.

(Well, unless LeBron starts inexplicably shooting free throws left handed again…)



About Jon Washburn

Jon Washburn grew up in Indianapolis, IN and as such, is a diehard Pacers, Colts, and Cubs fans. When it comes to college, he cheers for Notre Dame football fan and Purdue basketball. Yes, this sounds shady, but since he grew up without cable, he learned to love Notre Dame - the only team on TV. Glenn "The Big Dog" Robinson was at Purdue when Jon was in his formative years, so he latched onto them as well. Did that make him a fair-weather fan at the time? Sure. Give him a break...he was 8...and he has stayed with those teams ever since. Currently, he lives in Charleston, SC with his wife who grew up in Cleveland. Although he is no longer physically in the Midwest, his heart will always be there. Jon goes by the name "Twitch" because he has Tourette's Syndrome. Hit him up on his twitter @jwtwitch.

Comments

  1. It’s interesting that you focused on complete game statistics, and didn’t really look at 4th-quarter numbers, or late “clutch” numbers for LeBron. Honestly, if he scores 40 points but passes up an easy shot to win the game or misses 3 free throws in the waning minutes and his team loses by 3… THAT’S STILL CHOKING.

    Then again, I can see how you’d feel the need to defend a choker, after years of doing so for Peyton Manning.

    • Hater.

      • Tony the Stat Master says:

         Just kidding somewhat on the Hater usage, Patrick, but you are wrong in your usage of the word choking.  Could you say someone choked if they didnt hit the last shot to win the game? sure, but to stereotype them for every game is silly

        I dont know if youve played basketball, but many times the best player on the team takes the last shot.  Rarely is that guy seen as a choker unless its a wide open shot.  A college or high school player that misses a fadeaway or contested shot at the buzzer isnt seen as choking.  You have to realize that most players dont hit 50% of their shots, let alone pressure packed, defense-playing-their-hardest-on-you shots.  Free throws and wide open shots are different.

    • Scottie Mac says:

      Technically, passing to a teammate is deferring to choke. Maybe he doesn’t want to know if he’s a choker or not and thus gives up a shot. Missed free throws — well, everyone’s going to miss some but missing with the game on the line can label you a choker. Kobe, in Game 3, did not choke as he knocked down every free throw. In Game 4, he did: two crucial turnovers and a missed shot to close out the game. (Or maybe that’s just less than 100%)

  2. Great article Twitch…good work

  3. Tony the Stat Master says:

    Wish every person viewed LeBrons career like this. Seven years on the worse team…one year on the better.

  4. Keith Mullett says:

    I agree with most of your post here, Jon, but I can’t overlook LeBron’s apprehension to being the one to take the last shot or put the Heat in his back in the final minutes.  He did in Cleveland, but I suspect it was because he simply didn’t have anyone else to defer to.  In Miami he seems gun-shy at best, afraid at worst.  Even at the All-Star Game Kobe screamed at him to take the shot, and he didn’t.  Admittedly, I openly root against the Heat and LBJ so I may be biased, but you don’t see Kobe, Durant, Rose, Pierce, Wade, Dirk, Melo, or CP3 take the same criticisms because they openly relish the chance to close games.  Win or lose, those guys all but demand the opportunity to be the one to try to win/ice the game.  LeBron has repeatedly shied away from those moments, and worse, I’m afraid the stigma will only intensify if he doesn’t perform heroically at the end of a few playoff games on his way to a title.  
    LeBron is still the league’s best player, and I’m 100% with you that he shouldn’t take all the blame for almost all the early exits his teams have faced.  If I were him, I would wait until the next close game, demand the ball, and take the shot, regardless of other options, just to prove that he wants it.

  5. I don’t dispute Lebron’s greatness or talent, but he is expected to win it all, and his failure may or may not be due to pressure he is putting on himself. His last two Cleveland teams had the leagues best record yet both failed in the playoffs. Last year the Heat had home court advantage in the finals His current Heat team has, just as last years Heat team had, three all stars and perhaps 3 of the leagues top ten players. 

    To me, it appears that no matter who he is paired with or plays with, he will not win the Championship. It won’t be the first time or the last time a great player fails to win it all.

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