Part of my job now involves watching and reading an irresponsible amount of sports commentary, most of it recently having to do with the New Orleans Saints or LeBron James. Everyone agrees that LeBron James plays wonderful basketball until a certain point. To use a cross-sport analogy, LeBron basically refuses to be his own closer. Deadspin’s Sean Newell exhaustively listed the reasons that this is okay, but he wrote one thing that will be, at some point, proven demonstrably false: “If Lebron took the shot and made it, LeBron and the Heat would have done exactly what is expected: beat the Jazz in March.” No. The sports-watching world is waiting for LeBron to shoot. If he takes a last-second shot and he makes it, it will not hesitate to congratulate itself for remaking James in its own image, even if it’s only one game and one shot, and one he’s taken before, albeit under different circumstances.
While Newell and even Jon Barry, whose argument Newell briskly escorts to the woodshed, both say that LeBron’s pass to Udonis Haslem against the Jazz was the “right basketball play,” I think they’re overstating what they know. I love statistics and I pray at their altar, but what we don’t know far outstrips that which we do. Is a surprise Udonis Haslem 15-foot open shot a better percentage play than a LeBron isolation play after LeBron has drilled miraculous shot after miraculous shot? I have no way of knowing. I don’t like that people think they know the answer. I think the source of my confusion is: context.
Context is why the same meal on fine china tastes better than on paper plates, and why better-looking people get paid better than worse-paid ones to provide exactly the same service. It is powerful and deceiving, and it is real. To go back to the baseball analogy, the Red Sox’ closer-by-committee didn’t work because the pitchers were crappy, but the generally accepted theory is that it didn’t work because pitchers wanted to know their roles. If you’re willing to admit that that sort of uncertainly had at least some effect on their performance—and I encourage you to imagine yourself at work, battling uncertainty, and compare that to your most productive times—then you’re granting that context provides an unknown. If Michael Wilbon was to be believed on PTI today, Magic Johnson told him that other players on the Heat are likely looking to James to take that shot, and that they see his passing it up as something akin to Josh Beckett removing himself to let Dice-K face the last batter when Beckett has 18 strikeouts. If context has some effect, then it’s almost certainly playing a role here, both in the short term and long term.
If you grant all that, and you believe in the numbers… well, if you’re willing to discount a regular season game as just a regular season game, isn’t it in LeBron’s best interests to kill this storyline? Process is important, as the Sloan Conference hammered at last weekend. So is realism. You can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The potential shitshow of this continuing nonsense is not worth one regular-season loss, even if it’s nonsense. I’m confident enough in my math to say that. We’re at that point. We don’t often get there. If LeBron takes the last shot the next time he has the chance, he will feed the monkey enough to shift the ball enough toward his amazing play that, if the stress is wearing on him at all, it’ll free him up to be even better.
Shoot the ball, buddy. It’s like sushi. You might love it if you try it.