SPORTS: LeBron James: Not a Choke Artist

Written by Ben Wagner on . Posted in Sports

Today we awoke to a new season — the summer of LeBron.

For 3 years the NBA has been holding its breath, knowing that some of its top players — including Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and, of course, LeBron James — become free agents this summer. LeBron is expected to be courted by a plethora of teams, all hoping to attract him to play in their respective cities. Up until yesterday, Lebron’s current team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, were the front runners to re-sign him and keep him in Cleveland. However, last night the Cavaliers lost to the Boston Celtics and ended their season early, starting the speculation about where LeBron will be playing next year.

But this also marks a new era in LeBron’s career. LeBron’s no-show performance in game 5 of the Boston series has given the anti-LeBron crowd ammunition to use against him. You see, there exists a large group of people who don’t like LeBron James. They don’t like the hype, his playful demeanor, his arrogance in proclaiming himself King James, or they just can’t stomach that he’s better then whoever is on their team. The point is, this group (which consists of Skip Bayless, Lakers fans, and irrational people from the state of Michigan) have called LeBron over-rated, a loser and, most importantly a choke artist.

This is simply irrational and not true. Calling LeBron James a choke artist is like calling James Cameron a box-office disappointment. The numbers just simply don’t back it up. Did the Cavaliers lose this past series? Yes. Did they “choke” away a 2 games to 1 series lead? Yes. Does LeBron bear a part of the blame and responsibility for this? Absolutely.

However, it needs to be stated that a) Mike Brown is a terrible coach, and his game management, game-planning, and in-game adjustments are as responsible for the Cavaliers loss as anything; b) LeBron does not have a great supporting cast. Mo Williams would be a serviceable bench player on a good team, coming off the bench in order to provide his team with a spark (similar to the role Jason Terry has taken on in Dallas), Shaq is a joke, Delonte West is a gremlin, and Antwan Jamison never really settled in with Cleveland; c) LeBron’s injured elbow definitely had an effect on his play. His Game 5 performance was so abysmal that rumors have swirled that the medication for the pain in his elbow had a negative effect on his state of mind. Whether or not this is true, it is undeniable that something was wrong with him — you could see it in his jump shot and tentative drives; d) While LeBron was the best player on the court, the Celtics had the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th best players; and e) even with all that, the series went to 6 games and the Cavaliers were competitive.

All that being said, LeBron had a bad series, yes, but the blame doesn’t all fall on him for losing to the Celtics. The bigger issue is that the anti-LeBron crowd has put this loss as evidence of a pattern, a history of “choking.” I think a large part of this stems from the fact that a large portion of the anti-LeBron crowd are Lakers fans, or more specifically fans of Kobe Bryant. Over the last few years, the same argument has been waged over and over again about who is better, Kobe or LeBron. While I find this argument nonsensical, it seems to come up in almost every single NBA-centered discussion I have had over the last few years. Laker fans obviously say its Kobe Bryant. They cite his reputation as a closer — Mr. Clutch — as the reason for him being the better player, and they add in how LeBron always chokes as reason for him being the lesser player.

This brings us to another question: where did Kobe’s reputation as Mr. Clutch come from, and where is the empirical evidence showing that LeBron has a history of choking in crunch time? I began to do some research and found some pretty interesting statistics. The website 82games.com keeps track of what they like to call “clutch” statistics. These statistics look at a players’ numbers in situations in which there is less then 5 minutes to go in the fourth quarter or overtime, and neither team is leading by more then five. The statistics are based on per 48 minutes of “clutch” time. According to their numbers, for this past season LeBron James was the most “clutch” player in the NBA, scoring 66 points per 48 minutes of “clutch time.” He shot 49 percent from the field during the “clutch” time, as well as averaging 16 rebounds, 8 assists, 4 turnovers, 3 blocks and 3 steals per 48 minutes. These numbers indicate that when the game is close in the 4th quarter, LeBron is a force to be reckoned with.

Number 2 on the same list is Kobe Bryant. Kobe averages 51 points per 48 minutes of “clutch” time. While shooting 44% from the field with averages of 7 rebounds 4 assists, 3 turnovers, 0 blocks, and 2 steals. These numbers would suggest that in “clutch” situations, LeBron is leading Kobe in every single statistical category except turnovers, in which Kobe has him beat by one. These are only the stats for the last season, but numbers are also available for the preceding two seasons. The numbers are almost identical, with LeBron beating Kobe in every major statistical category for all three years (except in 08-09, in which Kobe averaged 2 points more per 48 minutes, while all the other relevant statistical categories had roughly the same margins.)

Perhaps even more interesting is a statistical analysis of the 2007-2008 season, in which 82Games did a similar analysis showing only what they refer to as “super clutch” time, which they define as situations in which there is less then tnree minutes to go in either regulation or overtime where neither team leads by more then three. Per 48 minutes of “super clutch” time, Lebron scored 75 points, with Kobe scoring 64. LeBron averaged 48 percent, while Kobe averaged 47. LeBron averaged 8 rebounds, Kobe 12; LeBron averaged 7 assists to Kobe’s 5. But the most interesting of all these stats, is that per 48 minutes of “super clutch” time, LeBron averaged 4 turnovers while Kobe averaged 9. LeBron also averaged 4 blocks and 2 steals while Kobe averaged 0 blocks and 1 steal.

Perhaps even more telling is another analysis done by 82games on game-winning shots. They define this as when there are 24 seconds or less left in regulation or overtime, and the team with the ball is either tied, or down by 1 or 2 points. (This excluded 3 point margins because of the desire to exclude situations in which down three with the ball the opposing team would foul and turn the game into a free throw contest.) Unfortunately, this data runs from only the 2003-2004 season through February 4th of the 2008-2009 season. Therefore, last year’s playoffs and this whole season are not shown.

During that period, LeBron James led all players in made game-winning shots (17), shooting a respectable 34 percent. (League average in these situations was 30 percent.) He also had 6 assists to teammates for the game-winning shot and 4 turnovers. Kobe, on the other hand, is 4th on the list with 14 made game winners over the same stretch, shooting 25 percent. He had 1 assist to a teammate for the game winner and turned the ball over 5 times. While admittedly this data lacks the last year and a half of games, they would show that LeBron is not inept in crunch time situations.

If the statistics don’t prove it, history should. The 2006 NBA playoffs were LeBron’s first. In the first round, the Cavs played the Washington Wizards. LeBron hit game-winning shots in both game 3 and game 5(an overtime game), and helping his team to win a 1-point OT victory in the series clinching game 6. In the second round, the Cavs played the defending Eastern Conference champion Detroit Pistons and pushed the series to seven games. Mind you, the race for second-best player on the Cavs was between Drew Gooden and Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

In the 2007 playoffs, the Cavaliers made it to the Eastern Conference finals again, playing Detroit. In Game 5 in Detroit, with the series tied at 2-2, LeBron scored 48 points, including a game-winning drive and dunk with 2 seconds to go. The Cavs went on to the NBA Finals. where they were significantly overmatched and beat by the Spurs. The Cavs second option on that team was Daniel Gibson.

In 200,8 the Cavs took the eventual champion Celtics to seven games. In Game 6, LeBron had a triple-double to lead the Cavs to victory and, in the Game 7 loss, had 45 points. In 2009, the Cavs lost to the Magic in 6 games in the Eastern Conference finals. LeBron averaged 39 points and hit an epic game winner in Game 2 to keep the Cavs hopes alive. Unfortunately, the Cavaliers guards couldn’t guard anyone and, despite LeBron’s best efforts, they lost.

The point of all this isn’t to say that LeBron is better then Kobe, or even to say that in the last 10 seconds you want LeBron shooting instead of Kobe. That’s not the point. When it comes down to it, the most important thing is obviously rings — Kobe has them, LeBron does not. However, the point is that LeBron is simply not a “choke artist.” Did he have a bad series? Yes, but let’s not form a revisionist history.

Everyone is saying he never hits the big shot. He does, he has. Everyone is saying he’s a habitual choker. Statistically and historically, that is just not the case. Unfortunately, with the (almost certainly) coming media backlash, LeBron will be continually labeled as a choke artist and a quitter until he wins a championship.

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