LeBron James isn’t clutch.
Of all the criticisms that have shadowed the Kid from Akron — and they are legion — the tropes that he isn’t a killer, that he isn't a closer, that he, in fact, needs a closer riding shotgun have been the most persistent. I’m not sure when this first became a thing, but I do know when it most recently became a thing again.
Earlier this week former Cleveland teammate Kyrie Irving reignited this flat-earth-level conversation when he went on the podcast "Boardroom" and, in reference to his anticipated partnership with Kevin Durant, told Durant, the host: “I felt like I was the best option on every team I’ve played for down the stretch. This is the first time in my career where I can be like that motherf— can make that shot too.”
A healthy Irving is a top-20 player, and he can live forever off his status as the motherf— who clutch-gened the three-pointer in 2016 that helped deliver Cleveland its first championship in more than half a century. But empirical proof has never been Irving's thing. As ESPN’s Kirk Goldsberry pointed out, James hit 42% of clutch shots — defined as the last five minutes of a game, with a score margin of five points or fewer— when he was teamed with Irving, whereas the Mouthy One shot 37% in clutch situations alongside James, including 27% from three as opposed to James' 37% from downtown.
Imagine struggling to lead a team to a .400 record and still being comfortable taking a shot at a man, a former teammate, who has led a team to the NBA Finals in all but one of the years you’ve been in the league. Shall we continue?
James has the most postseason buzzer-beaters in NBA history, he is 38-10 in closeout games, including the 16-point fourth-quarter masterpiece against the Nuggets last week that has brought the Lakers to the brink of Championship 17. When James considers leaving a team, fans and executives beg him to stay. When Irving left Boston two summers ago, the state of Massachusetts threw a party.
James’ perceived shortcomings are, of course, a moving target. His decision to partner up with other established stars in Miami was deemed cowardly; now it’s embraced as empowerment. His success in the historically weaker East meant he couldn’t do it in the West. Well, that clearly isn’t true. Kevin Garnett likes to say that Boston “broke” him, which is why James went to Miami in 2010 in the first place. Never mind that Garnett waived his no-trade clause to form a superteam with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, or that Garnett's teams lost in first rounds (8) nearly as often as James has led a team to the Finals (10).
A few of my friends think I just like to argue; after all, I am a sports talk radio host. But the truth is I prefer facts, and when fiction is being presented as facts, I get irritated. The Michael Jordan versus James versus Kobe barbershop talk is mostly subjective and fun. What isn’t subjective and fun is supporting lazy story lines to mask jealousy. James may or may not be the G.O.A.T., but he certainly is the most scrutinized great in recent memory. Maybe the King moniker is a bit much and he's spending too much time on Instagram, but he doesn’t deserve to constantly have his career second-guessed or his basketball mettle questioned.
Also, he has the clutch gene.
If the Lakers finish off the Heat, he will have led his third franchise to a title. He has help, but guess what? They all do — Russ, Magic, Kobe, Steph. Yes, the Heat are badly injured, but that’s part of the game, lest we forget the 2015 NBA Finals in which Kevin Love and Irving both were unavailable after Game 1 because of injuries and the Cavaliers still pushed the Warriors to six games. And, yes, they will have done it without facing the Los Angeles Clippers — which, you know, is the Clippers' fault, not James'.
None of this matters to haters, though, because they are just going to hate. All I know is with 10 seconds left on the clock and my team in need of a bucket, I want the ball in James’ hands. Maybe he’ll score. Maybe he’ll draw the double and pass to an open man. All I know is the team will likely win. With 38 playoff series wins and counting, James established long ago that he comes up big in the game’s biggest moments. Hard to see him as lacking a killer instinct when he’s still killing the league after nearly two decades.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.