LeBron Fails Again in Crunch Time

As with the previous post, anybody that reads my blog knows I think it is ludicrous to compare LeBron James and Michael Jordan. LeBron might be king among men in basketball, but MJ sits alone atop Mount Olympus hurling thunderbolts and imprisoning lesser gods for even thinking they can challenge him. It seems as if every time someone wants to bring up the debate something happens that solidifies once again the difference between the two players; when it comes to crunch time, LeBron fails while Jordan reigns supreme.

I have stated many times this Warriors team is the best basketball team ever in terms of how they play versus what era they play in. That is not to say this Warriors team is better than the ’96 Bulls, the ’01 Lakers, or the ’86 Celtics, but it is to say, if you drew up the perfect team for the pace and space basketball of 2017, you probably cannot do better than this Warriors team. Knowing this, and with my prediction the Cavs would get swept and demoralized in this series, I did not think LeBron falling in yet another finals would taint his legacy, but I was wrong.

Where LeBron fails yet again is in his crunch time production both on the offensive AND defensive end. I understand LeBron has been asked to do so much for the Cavs in this series and that is why he was exhausted at both the end of Game Two and Game Three, but considering he essentially put the Cavs roster together, he does not get a pass for that (and remember, this era of super teams is ALL HIS FAULT). While LeBron was tremendous offensively in Game Three and even pulled down some contested boards (through two games, just two of his 29 rebounds were contested), LeBron’s inability to rise to the occasion at the end of Game Three on both ends of the floor is most telling when discussing the difference between the two players.

The Five Part Breakdown

With all the LeBron apologizing out of the way, let us breakdown where MJ soars highest and LeBron fails more times than not; the final minutes of Finals games. There is no better microcosm to discuss the differences between MJ and LeBron than LeBron’s final 1:45 of Game Three in the 2017 Finals and MJ’s final minute of Game Six in 1998.

(Skip to 42 seconds in for LeBron with the ball)

Part One: The Free Throw Line Mentality

A) In the top video we have LeBron James with the ball quarterbacking from half court to get everybody in the perfect position. This is Good LeBron. We will not have to wait to long for Bad LeBron. Kyle Korver sets a screen for LeBron hoping to get Stephen Curry to switch, but Andre Iguodala fights like a banshee to get around a decent screen and stay on LeBron. LeBron had an angle to the right block, but instead of driving to the rim with his right hand (his best offensive move and one that would almost certainly end with him at the line in the worst case scenario) he decides either Iguodala might have the angle or he is afraid of going at Kevin Durant (who blocked him a couple of times in Game Two). This forces LeBron to stop roughly four feet from the block and instead of using his overpowering strength on Iguodala, he goes fadeaway and the shot was never close. A couple of things to notice:

  • LeBron refusing to take it to the rim might be because he is tired
  • LeBron had the look he wanted (a right-handed drive to the rim), but LeBron fails to take advantage
    • It is either because he misreads the play and thinks Iguodala has the angle (false), or
    • He is afraid of Kevin Durant lurking, which shows how good Durant’s defense has been this series, or
    • LeBron does not want to take it to the rim because his free throws have been awful all season

B) In the bottom video we see Michael Jordan and the Bulls coming out of a 20 second timeout. We are informed of a couple of things. Jordan is 13-of-33 from the floor in the game (2-of-8 in the fourth quarter), but 10-of-13 from the line (and 6-of-6 in the fourth quarter). When the pressure is on, Jordan wants the ball, especially at the line. So if course Jordan hits bot free throws.

Part Two: Who Wants to be in Charge

A) After Kevin Durant gets fouled in transition we skip ahead to the 2:18 mark of the top video. We get told Tristan Thompson is now in the game for defensive purposes. The Warriors have ball side out. The Warriors get it into Durant  who is guarded by James. For those in the “LeBron is great defensively” camp, that is only true as a help defender. In this series Durant is 13-of-21 for 31 points when guarded by James, which happens to the most points Durant has scored against any defender in these playoffs. So the Warriors get the ball into Durant, Draymond Green goes to set a screen on LeBron’s left, then recorrects to LeBron’s right. LeBron switches IMMEDIATELY, as if the Cavs wanted Thompson to guard Durant, which is one heck of a mismatch. LeBron does not fight through the screen, does not even pretend to do anything except get walled off and let Thompson guard Durant while he guards Green. Durant proceeds to school Thompson in about half a second, boom, two point gae. Jeff Van Gundy rightfully says, “that’s just too easy after the switch.” Yup, there was no reason for the switch. ABC plays the clip again and from the back court view you see LeBron fails to put even an ounce of work to get around the screen. LeBron wanted nothing to do with guarding Durant in that situation… remember that.

B) After Karl Malone finds John Stockton for a massive three pointer (yes, Malone to Stockton, not Stockton to Malone) to put the Jazz up three, we skip to the 2:30 mark of the bottom video. The Bulls need points and they need them in a hurry so they can get the two for one. What happens? Oh, Just MJ being MJ. Jordan fights his way through a pair of good hand checks (remember, those would be fouls now) from Byron Russell, muscles his way to the hoop, evades a swipe by Russell, and goes high of the glass away from the swat attempt of Antoine Carr to make it a one point game. Even with everyone aware MJ was going to take the shot, he made it look like he could do that in his sleep.

Part Three: When is the Right Time to Pass on the Pivotal Shot

A) Skip ahead to the 3:30 mark of the top video. We have the LeBron at half court with the ball and the Cavs up by two. LeBron guarded by Draymond Green. Green has five fouls (his ability to play great defense in games Two and Three in severe foul trouble has been amazing). Green is attacking LeBron like a spider monkey, darting in and out to try to strip him. At the 3:34 mark James crosses from left to right and has the angle on Green with Durant maybe a step too far away. James can drive to the right here. Green is one of the best defenders at the rim. But if you want to say you even belong in the best ever discussion, it must not matter who is guarding you. So LeBron crosses back to his left, drives, and with the defense collapsed, finds Korver who misses the semi-contested three (Korver was something like 58% from the corner three this year). Yes, that was a good look by LeBron. No, he should not have passed it. LeBron lovers always trot this out in situations comparing passing LeBron and passing Jordan.

B) The main difference between these two plays is simple. One was a designed play for the LeBron. The other was a designed play for Jordan to get it to Kerr. Jordan understood exactly what was going to happen, learned from his mistake the prior game, and got it to Kerr who buried it. If you are the best player on the court, you take the shot if you have the lane. If you have the lane, but find a way to pass on it, you are failing your team. LeBron has routinely let other people take the last shot, and while it has actually worked out for him a couple of times (Ray Allen against the Spurs, and Kyrie Irving last year in Game Seven), LeBron fails to understand when to take the pivotal shot and when to pass it.

Part Four: Can You Come Up with the Stop

A) After Durant comes up with the defensive rebound off of the Korver miss (because of course he does), he gallops his way up the court. LeBron is supposed to be guarding Durant. However, as mentioned above, Durant has schooled James all series. LeBron is sitting about a step and a half inside the three point line while Durant is measuring his steps as he comes across half court. Durant takes the pull up three and buries it right in James’ eye. James was so flat footed he barely got to Durant after the shot was taken. This was just awful defense by LeBron. LeBron fails to exert event he slightest amount of defensive effort during the two most pivotal defensive possessions of the game. If James is the off-ball defender? Much better defender and turns into superman (ask Iguodala). If he is the on ball defender against an elite scorer? Much different story.

B)  Skipping ahead to the 2:53 mark of the bottom video, the Jazz get the ball into the hands of Karl Malone. Malone is only one of the best low-post scorers of all time. So good in fact the Bulls had Dennis Rodman guarding him for most of the series and still sent double teams his way. Well this time the Jazz get it to Malone, and Jordan, sensing the Mailman’s attention is over his left shoulder with Rodman, swoops in to his right side, swats the ball away and comes up with the steal. In the most pivotal moment of Game Six, on the road, Jordan’s defense is what momentarily saves the day for the Bulls…

Part Five: Down by One, Series on the Line, Who Has the Ball?

A) Game Seven of the 2016 Finals for the Cavs, it was Kyrie Irving. James stands in the corner never asking for the ball. In that game at least he had the excuse Curry was guarding Irving. In Game Three of the 2017 Finals. LeBron James stands at half court and at no point wants anything to do with taking the shot. This time it was elite defender Klay Thompson on Irving. LeBron should want that ball. LeBron should feel the need for that ball. Instead one of the worst possessions of the playoffs for the Cavs

B) Psh… Michael Jordan Basketball God

So as a public service announcement to everyone thinking LeBron has come close to being near the pantheon of Michael Jordan, just stop it. There is no argument. LeBron fails. MJ Wins. Just like always.