The other day I found myself in a discussion about LeBron James. Game 4 had just ended and LeBron had just turned in a baffling performance. He’d scored only 8 points in an NBA Finals game and was routinely being skewered for his play in one of the most important games in his (relatively) young career. There was anger, mocking, but most of all there were questions. What the hell happened to LeBron, we thought.
When critiquing his game, I said that it wasn’t so much that LeBron played poorly; it was that he played passively. And as one of the truly great players, you don’t get a pass for playing that way. After I expressed my thoughts on twitter, an interesting comparison came up. First it was our friend Brian Kamenetzky from Land O’ Lakers and then it was another smart commentator on the Lakers, Gary Collard. But both said the same thing.
They said that this reminded them of Pau Gasol. And you know what, they were right. Instantly a multitude of thoughts ran through my mind as the comparison was too perfect.
Against this same Mavericks team, both Gasol and James had seemingly shrunk from the moment of the big game and not played nearly as well as expected. Gasol had been handled in both the post and the shallow wing and hadn’t impacted the game in any of the other ways that he normally would. Meanwhile, LeBron had become a spectator on the majority of the Heat’s 4th quarter possessions, standing idly in the corner as if he was James Jones, not LeBron James. Even when LeBron did touch the ball he was probing, not attacking.
But the question still looms. Why?
We may never know the real reasons, but my first guess is the cerebral nature of both players’ games. Both, throughout their careers, have been known as high IQ players that think the game. Gasol has thrived as an offensive initiator in the hub of the Triangle offense, making the right reads on whether he should pass or shoot. LeBron, on the other hand, has long been an offensive initiator and (rightfully) hailed as one of the best passing wings in the league. Both players are most effective when they’re able to survey the floor, pick out teammates, and make the right read on what to do with the ball.
However, it now seems that their best trait has become the root of their biggest critiques as both players have the dreaded passive label attached to their games. The fact that these performances have come in some of the biggest games only enhances the view that they’re failing their teams in trying to play a certain way.
Don’t get me wrong, when you’re one of the very best players in the world the expectation is that you’ll impact the game in some way that helps your team win. And the fact that neither Gasol or (to a lesser extent) LeBron (at least in these Finals) found a way to help their team win games that were there for the taking deserves critical discussion in the same way that their strong play would invite praise. But as the conversation shifts from criticism to damning, I wonder where we go from here.
The funny thing about being a fan is that we often use our judgment and our wants to critique a team, a coach, or a player. “Why didn’t we use a timeout?” we ask. “He should have passed! He had a teammate wide open!” we shout at our TV’s and type on twitter and in the comment sections of sites just like this one. It’s an every day occurrence and, in a lot of ways, it’s what makes being a fan an experience that we all enjoy. After all, watching the game also means that we are, some how, a part of the action. And with that inclusion comes a desire to see what we think is best; what we think will work.
We then take these critiques a step further and use comparisons to other great players (past or present) to hammer home our point. “LeBron needs to be more like Jordan (or Kobe) and attack!”. “Pau needs to demand the ball more, like Shaq would!”. The problem with this approach is that we lose the nuance of what makes the players we critique unique and excellent in their current form.
It also handcuffs players into a vision and path of progression that we think is best for them rather than letting their games evolve (or, for some, stagnate) the way that they’re meant to. We limit players and confine them into the narrative that we create because as fans we want what we want.
There is no easy answer here. We want the players we root for to achieve at the highest levels but each step of the way we want them doing it in the manner that we choose. When they do succeed by doing it a different way, we applaud. But if they fail that next time, we’re right back letting them know that their approach is wrong. It’s why Gasol will forever be the “white swan” to some and why LeBron will probably always struggle to escape the perception that he’s not “the man”.
Meanwhile, both will continue to have a lot of success as cerebral players that think the game and making the plays that they feel will help their teams win. Sometimes it will work, other times they’ll fail. And through it all we’ll be there to point out what they should have done. For better or for worse.