Monday, June 13, 2011

Stuck in Neutral and Lacking a Clutch....

After watching a team dismantle a trio, can we now put to rest the idea that LeBron James is even fit to stoop and tie Michael Jordan's sneakers. The Dallas Mavericks put together a solid game plan and executed it flawlessly on their way to the organizations first championship.

On the biggest stage in his sport LeBron looked lost at best and incompetent at worst. He scored a mere 18 points in the fourth quarter of the six game series. So in effectively a game and a half worth of playtime he scraped together 18, Jordan's lowest point total in a finals game was 22. While I can't find the stats to back it up I am willing to bet he never went scoreless in a fourth quarter, probably of any game but certainly in the Finals. 

The self-anointed King disappeared when his team needed him most. Some people are "clutch" and some aren't. It is beginning to appear as if young LeBron is in the not category. Jordan was definitely in the "clutch" group. Who can forget his "Flu Game" in 1997 dropping 38 points in 44 minutes on the Utah Jazz while sick with a stomach virus. 

We had a similar moment in this year's Finals as it was Dirk Nowitzki finally shedding the soft label hung around his neck. Dirk had a 100 plus degree fever and managed a 21-point game, including several big shots in the fourth quarter, as the Mavs fought back to take the lead and win the game, tying the series.

Most damning of all in relation to the LBJ-MJ comparison might be that Jordan's spectacular career had a definitive arc to it. His early setbacks were truly learning experiences as he took in the lessons taught to him by watching the Pistons push his teams around. Once they were able to add Scottie Pippen and a few other pieces the greatness of Michael Jordan shone through. LeBron's career hasn't so much arced as traced a nearly straight line.

You could make the argument and I have and this past season seems to bear it out; LeBron took teams that shouldn't have done as much as they did to great heights. True, but he didn't help a team that was supposed to win ..."not five, not six, not seven..." titles to win one.

I am not sure if it solely a matter of clutch or if there is a deeper issue for LeBron, but you never saw Jordan pouting on court, We saw LeBron do it in this series and we saw him do it against Boston last year when he was still with the Cavs. It's telling as well that he treated the ball like it had a disease in most of the late game situations. As soon as he got the ball he was passing it away.

One of my favorite sports movies is The Replacements. There is a scene where Gene Hackman's coach Jimmy McGinty tells Keanu Reeves' Shane Falco in essence that winners always want the ball with the game in the balance. That was definitely true of Jordan, but seemingly less so of James.

Sports don't build character as much as they reveal it. There have been plenty of players in all sports that had the not clutch label tied around themselves, some have shaken it off, others see it still defining part of their legacy.

Phil Mickelson, couldn't win a major, but he broke through at the Masters a few years back. Steve Young couldn't win the big game, until three games in the 1994 season redefined his legacy, two wins over Dallas and a Super Bowl demolition of the Chargers. John Elway, the guy seemed to define clutch from September to December, but January was a different story, until he finished his career with back to back titles. Dan Marino, the most prolific passer in NFL history not named Favre (at least until Peyton Manning passes them both), one Super Bowl appearance, no victories.

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