LeBron James has been criticized for his play in the fourth quarter of games, and Mike DeCourcy thinks he knows why: LeBron James was never tested in the crucible of the NCAA tournament. He didn’t face the pressure of a one-and-done format that required him to learn how to win under pressure.
DeCourcy starts his argument by pointing out that James’ previous run to the Finals in 2007 didn’t have as much pressure (“about the same degree of pressure as VCU met at the 2011 Final Four”) because just getting there was the accomplishment. It starts to fall apart right there. I mean, you can’t create exceptions. Does the NCAA tournament create the needed pressure or not? If we carve every exception where a team went farther than expected, and say they didn’t face the degree of pressure, then we start lopping off other names. Then, a player only faces the necessary pressure based on what we need to fit the necessary pressure years later.
James was a 22 year old fourth year player, in the NBA Finals, when 30 years earlier he might have been playing in the NCAA tournament. I don’t see how one (actually playing in the NBA Finals) was less pressure than playing in the Midwest Regional.
Chamberlain, Russell, Bird, Jordan, Johnson, Robertson, Baylor, West, Jabbar, Walton, Thomas—every one of them played in the Final Four. Isiah and Michael and Magic won; Larry and Oscar and Wilt lost. They all felt the experience of playing on that grand stage, with such extraordinary rewards and consequences. One can argue this was coincidental, but the experience is nearly universal for the game’s greats. It was part of what formed them as players.
Great players won in college, when they were far superior than most of their talent. I don’t think we have the correlation and causation correct here. These players didn’t magically become better because they participated in the Final Four, suddenly able to handle it all. They were the best players, and the best players usually win in basketball. This is not to say individual experiences didn’t vary, because they did. I am sure that getting coached by John Wooden or Dean Smith provided valuable learning, but this was independent of actually reaching the Final Four. Plenty of college players, though, don’t get the same level of college coaching.
We also have a very small control group, because almost everyone went to college before Kevin Garnett. Almost. Of course, Moses Malone, tested in the crucible of the ABA, wasn’t mentioned in the piece. DeCourcy would have likely dismissed his NBA title with Philadelphia (he piggybacked with Julius Erving, oh wait, he didn’t play in the Final Four either) and ignored his dominant run carrying a bad Houston team to the Finals in 1981, just like he does with the troublesome Kobe Bryant counter-example:
Bryant is the exception, having gained extraordinary assistance in learning how to be a champion from his early titles won with Shaquille O’Neal as the central figure, and then from his experience as the key figure in USA Basketball’s run to the 2008 Olympics gold medal. Playing for, that’s right, a college coach.
Oh, brother. Yes, that experience playing with Coach K is what finally turned Kobe into a winner. Ignore playing with Shaq, who yet again, never really felt the pressure that even VCU faced in the Final Four. I mean, the examples are all over the place and lack any consistency. They are all based on a pre-existing premise, which is that DeCourcy would like a 20 year old age limit for the NBA so more stars go to play college basketball.
That’s an age limit, by the way, that would have been violated by the guy who is getting all the accolades in these Finals while LeBron is being cast as the choker. But then again, I’m sure Dirk faced plenty of pressure at DJK Wurzburg in Germany as a teenager. Clearly, playing in the German second division is even better prep than the NCAA tournament.
[photo via Getty]