LeBron James, the talented and tormented Miami Heat forward, declined to take a late-game shot Friday at Utah. He saw a double-team coming and passed to forward Udonis Haslem, who missed a jumper. The Heat lost, 99-98.
You’d be tempted to think it was the All-Star game all over again. It wasn’t. This wasn’t some made-for-TV pickup game. It was a regular-season game. It mattered. Now, the LeBron debate can continue.
“At the end of the day, games are not lost on one shot at the end, or me not taking a shot,” James said after the game. “But I know the chatter will begin.”
He’s right about that.
Let’s bottom-line this thing: LeBron is among the NBA’s top three players, but he’s not among the NBA’s top three closers.
I could even take things a step beyond that, which means saying LeBron doesn’t have the same late-game killer DNA as, say, in order, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Paul Pierce or Carmelo Anthony. They’re among the best in the league.
I’d put LeBron in the second group with (in no particular order) Kevin Durant, Dirk Nowitzki, Derrick Rose, Chris Paul, maybe Chauncey Billups (maybe), and a few others. And that’s OK.
The point is, LeBron is definitely a top 10 closer in the NBA.
There’s no shame in that, except when you’re LeBron you’re supposed to be in that upper echelon in every glamour category.
Hey, James is still feared late in games. At least that’s what Pierce said.
“I think late-game,” Pierce said of James, “he is unstoppable.”
I asked Pierce about LeBron and his game-closing skills during All-Star weekend, two days before the meaningless All-Star game controversy and seven days before the more meaningful Utah Jazz ending.
Pierce said he couldn’t psychoanalyze James and know whether his late-game struggles are bothersome. But Pierce thinks the truth gets overshadowed because of James’ high-profile status.
“I know that I’ve seen him in late-game situations save his team with big shots,” Pierce said. “So I think a lot of that (gets) overblown because he is who he is, and he’s missed on some late-game situations. (It’s) because he’s one of the biggest stars in the game.”
Sometimes players have issues, or blind spots, or whatever you want to call it. Numerous all-time greats couldn’t hit free throws – Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Tim Duncan and Shaquille O’Neal, to name a few. Numerous all-time greats couldn’t win a title – Karl Malone, John Stockton, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, you know that list.
They’re still elite. LeBron is still elite. He’ll still be remembered as one of the best small forwards to ever play the game.
Of course, LeBron is no Larry Bird, considered by many as the best small forward of all time. But LeBron is up there with Julius Erving, Elgin Baylor, Scottie Pippen and James Worthy. And in my book, LeBron is already ahead of John Havlicek, Rick Barry, Dominique Wilkins, Alex English, Adrian Dantley and that ilk of Hall of Famers.
So this missing late-game gene is all a matter of perspective. LeBron is money. He’s one of the all-time greats at his position.
Of course, it’d complete the fairy tale for LeBron to collect multiple titles, become a late-game assassin, and then be a success in his post-NBA life. But maybe things won’t happen that way. Maybe LeBron never wins a title. Maybe he never becomes a successful late-game assassin.
Now, the obvious problem with that scenario is the Heat needs LeBron to be a late-game asset. Wade can’t do it alone. Chris Bosh might not be enough help. The others – Udonis Haslem, Shane Battier, Mike Miller, Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole, etc… — are complementary guys. They might or might not hit that clutch shot. But that’s not their job.
Hitting that clutch shot is LeBron’s job. It’s why he was hired.
If LeBron doesn’t become a top-tier closer the Heat might not win a title. LeBron has to figure a way to get it done consistently late in games.
Pierce said a successful closer has certain qualities.
“I think you just have to have a certain type of attitude,” he said. “I think you have to have a willingness to want to be in those situations.”
I think LeBron has the desire. I don’t think he shies away from the moment.
At the same time it’s clear he doesn’t rise to the moment as well as Kobe, D-Wade, Pierce or ’Melo.
Disregard what you saw in the All-Star game. It’s not the real world. Criticism of LeBron for not shooting against Utah is legitimate. He made a good pass. Haslem just missed the shot. Then again, James had 35 points, 17 in the fourth quarter. He was hot.
Maybe we can all agree LeBron is a second-tier closer in the NBA — feared and respected, but not as feared or respected as some of his peers. The big question is whether the Heat can win a single title, let alone multiple titles, if James doesn’t eventually become a top-tier closer.
Chris Perkins is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops.com, covering the NBA and the Miami Heat. His columns regularly appear every Tuesday. Follow him on Twitter.