Perkins: Let’s face facts, LeBron is a second-tier closer

MIAMI – OK, he did it again.

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, covering the NBA and the Miami Heat. His columns regularly appear every Tuesday. Follow him on Twitter.


  1. Yaw says

    Did Miami really bring LeBron in because Wade can’t go 1-on-5 in championship series to carry an inferior team to title? I remember history suggesting otherwise.

  2. Don says

    Honestly, outside of Miami, was this even a question in most fans’ minds? His late game woes in games has been pretty well documented since the inexplicable game he had against the Celtics in game 6(?).

    I agree, though, that the distinction between being the best player in the league and top 20 as a closer (by whatever metric you use, I agree that “clutch” is subjective but I think it can be at least partially quantified) is an important one, and more significantly, many people will still refuse to allow for such a distinction to be made (again, likely localized to the Miami region).

  3. Rob says

    I’m not sure that even a “2nd Tier” Closer description works…….

    Dirk outscored Lebron by 46-0 in the 4th Quarter of the last Five Finals Games………..when the score was within 5 points either way

    The effect on Lebron’s Team??????……..Dallas outscored Miami by 85-35 Combined in the last 5 minutes of the last 5 Games

    All Stats easily verifiable from the Play by Play for Games 2-6 of the 2011 Finals

    * 2004 Olympics – Bronze;
    * 2006 World Championships – 3rd Place;
    * 2007 Finals v Spurs: 35% FG and Swept 0-4
    * 2008 Olympic Final v Spain – 4th Qtr: 2 Points v Kobe’s 12 pts and 4 assists;
    * 2009 early Flame Out against Orlando;
    * 2010 Flame out and capitulation v the Celtics

    All the above are easily seen by the naked eye and are not hidden behind some advanced stats……….this Track record has a verified effect on his Team and their ability to Win when all the Chips are on the line………..when his Teammates see Lebron shrink in the moment, their confidence is also eroded

    • Frank says

      Ironically you didn’t mention how well Bron played in that early fadeout to the magic. A game winner, 3 40 point games, and 17 points 5 boards 5 assist in game 5 with his back against the wall. He played the magic better than kobe played them. Check the stats, go back and watch the games, as an expert do wateva. the difference is that o other can eclipsed 20 besides one game.

  4. David says

    @sheridanhoops I’m gonna have to agree with you in probably everything, but saying that the heat will never win a championship just becuase Lebron does not become the ultimate closer is just nonsense. Lets not forget the heat were 2 games away of winning the championship with the worst bench i’ve ever seen… This year Miller and Haslem are healthy, Battier is an incredible defender, Cole is a much better asset than Bibby/Arroyo combined, Chalmers is playing his best season, Bosh is a perinal all-star playing great, and in your list I belive D Wade is mentioned as one of the top tier closers and last time I checked he’s still on the team. Oh I almost forgot than Lebron is playing one of the best season in NBA history!!! maybe I’m not an expert like you but to me making a statement that a team playing at such a high level like the heat will not win a championship becuase of that factor is crazy.

  5. Matt says

    The problem with “clutch” is everybody has a different definition. The link below is an analysis of “clutch” NBA shooters since 2000, and attempts to help us understand who has been “clutch” in different perceived “clutch” situations.

    From the data provided it appears that in nearly every situation Lebron has performed above average, including the playoffs. So why do we continue with the same narrative over and over?

    1) It provides traffic to sites such as this, ears to the radio, and eyes to the TV.

    2) People will continue to argue their beliefs in the face of facts because we aren’t wired for truth. Its called the argumentative theory of reasoning which simply states we don’t ask questions to find truths. We ask questions to gain authority over others by winning the argument at hand.

    Through 36 games Lebron is having a season for the ages. That’s what NBA fans should be talking about, and that’s what sportswriters SHOULD be writing about.

  6. Dylan says

    I agree that he is a top 10 closer. His wide skill set is what makes him a top three player in the league, but his greatest strength is also his greatest weakness. He can make 3s, he can post, he’s got some midrange, but he’s also looking for his teammates. In the last minute all of that is probably going through his mind. Or none of it.


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