2011 NBA Playoffs

The Psychology of Lebron James

So let’s get this straight. Just 2 weeks ago, LeBron James was coming off a dominant playoff run, crushing the Bulls and the Celtics, and had established a clear roadmap to be the GOAT (win this year plus 3 or 4 more, win a few more MVPs, blah, blah, blah). Today, he has become the basketball equivalent of Michael Jackson, with the Internet becoming a breeding ground for at sorts of Lebron jokes.

“Did you hear that their celebrating National LeBron James Observance Day in Cleveland? Everyone gets to leave 12 minutes early.”

“Lebron is thinking of starting his own cell phone company. Rumor has it the roaming charges will be liberal but the phones will have no rings.”

“Why didn’t LeBron James go to college? He didn’t want to show up for finals.”

And my personal favorite…

“Did you hear Lebron is changing his nickname from ‘The King’ to ‘The LeBron Stopper’?”

Lebron’s has not only fallen out of the GOAT discussion, he all of a sudden finds himself mingling with the unseemly likes of Barkley and Malone. Is this really fair?

At first glimpse, the answer is no.

Taking a step back, I believe that this 2010-2011 Miami Heat season met or exceeded most folks’ preseason expectations. They won 58 games, finished with the 3rd best record in the NBA, put the Celtics to bed, and made it to the NBA Finals. In the process, Lebron established himself as the team’s alpha dog, had another MVP caliber season, and had a fantastically clutch playoffs leading up to the Finals. There is no doubt in my mind that he is a significant notch above players like Barkley and Malone (and even Nowitzki for that matter). Also, despite our love of ring counting, I’d put him ahead of Wade too (just don’t ask me to make that call in Game 4 of the Finals).

Which leads us to the fascinating question:

How can a player that is so brilliant in the regular season, has shown himself clutch time and time again (let’s please not turn this into a “Lebron is not clutch” argument), and has had equally amazing playoff performances, be so capable of turning in those Lebominations that we have seen over the past 2 years?

Let’s analyze…

First of all, this is not about whether Lebron is clutch or not clutch.

Before we begin the discussion, I want to reiterate, even as a Kobe fan, that I don’t really think Lebron’s perceived lack of “clutchness” has much to do with this. If anything, he has shown many times (even during the playoffs) that he is able to come through in some of the biggest moments. Are you really telling me that his victory in a pivotal Game 5  of the 2007 playoffs vs. the Pistons, or the 45/5/6 he put up against a much better Celtics team in Game 7 of 2008, was not pressure filled? Or that somehow his performance against this year’s Chicago Bulls team was a fluke? Or, as 82games.com validates, he has not been one of the top 4 clutch players in the NBA during the regular season each of the last 4 years?

In my book, Lebron has always been a generally clutch player, which is why I dismiss any argument here that begins with “he’s just not clutch…”. So this makes it all the more mysterious. If it wasn’t about clutchness, then what was the underlying psychology of Lebron James that caused him to perform so poorly?

The “Wayne Arnold” theory

Wayne Arnold was the elder brother of Kevin Arnold, the lead character of a late 80s/early 90s sitcom called “The Wonder Years”. Wayne’s character was built around bossing and bullying Kevin and his friends around, just for the simple reason that he knew he could. Deep down though, he was a fake. Wayne Arnold would back down quickly to kids bigger than him, and often to Kevin himself in the rare instances that he stood up for himself.

This is the most common theory regarding Lebron and his failures in the big moments. James has often been equated to Wayne Arnold, able to beat up on the weaklings in the playground (hello Wizards and Kings), while falling to those willing to stand up to him. We have seen this manifested by the great regular seasons that Lebron’s teams have had (when weak teams are weak, and good teams are going through the motions), only to shrink the first time another team hits him in the mouth. The facts are fairly straightforward here. In his career, Lebron has only won 1 playoff series where his team was behind (Detroit in 2007) and his performance in elimination games has been significantly worse than his overall playoff averages.

The “Dazed and Confused” theory

I know what you’re thinking – and no, I’m not implying that Lebron hits the Humboldt before Finals games (I’ll leave that for a pre-Kardashian Odom, Sheed, and Cliff “Spliffy” Robinson). Rather, this theory holds that Lebron isn’t sure of who he is supposed to be, and so when he doesn’t have clear direction, he tends to “drift” during games. In Cleveland, this rarely happened because Lebron was the clear alpha dog and his role was to be the team’s #1 primary option. However, in Miami, this became evident on a frequent basis. Pass or shoot? Force or Facilitate? Or most direct: Be Magic or Michael (or, as Steve Kerr suggested, Scottie)? These questions seemed to turn in Lebron’s mind often during the last few games of the Finals. He alternated plays where he seemed to never look at the basket while passing the ball, to jacking up ill-advised threes.

The corollary to this theory is that Lebron’s confusion is due to his lack of a “go to” move. Critics will point to Kobe and MJ – two players that refined their footwork and game at the elbow until they could count on these moves when they most needed it. Lebron has never established his move (unless doing a crab dribble followed by a layup, dunk or shooting foul can be considered a “move”). As a result, we saw when the Mavs defense effectively closed off the lane from Lebron (or more likely, he just chose not to force the issue), he had nowhere else to go.

A second corollary here is that Lebron needs to be fully in control of the ball in order to be truly effective.  He has the inability to turn it “on and off” like Wade and Kobe, and therefore must work himself into a rhythm during the game.

From a psychological perspective, it is important for Lebron to spend some part of this offseason understanding what his 4th quarter role is on this team and how he can develop the skills to best play this role.


The Gloria James Theory

This has been well-documented by the likes of The NBA Realist here at Chasing 23, so I won’t belabor it here, but the general premise is that LeBron James has been victim to some disturbing events surrounding the women in his life: his girlfriend (allegedly sleeping with Rashard Lewis), and mother (allegedly sleeping with his former teammate and ex-felon, Delonte West), and while it is plausible that this happened once (last year), to happen twice seems far fetched (even with Gloria James’ illustrious history). And even if it did, Lebron needs to have the mental fortitude to move beyond it.

The Lack of Competitive Fire Theory

Another common and well-documented theory – Lebron simply does not have the will to win that MJ and Kobe before him had. I give a lot of credence to this one. How many times in the last few games did you see Lebron legitimately upset about the events that were transpiring? How many times did he pull a teammate aside and attempt to fire them up? It seemed like Lebron was sleepwalking for much of this past series as well as the series vs. the Celtics last year. At the end of the day, this side of Lebron is probably the least changeable, and may cost him dearest with respect to his legacy.

The Immaturity/Lack of Mental Stability Theory

Primary proponents of this theory include Dirk Nowitzki and Erik Spoelstra. This theory holds that (perhaps) from Lebron’s AAU days, he has not been required to develop the mental strength required to survive under the most pressurized situations. As a result, his coach needs to call him out prior to the 4th quarter of Game 6, saying that the team needed more “mental stability”. Signs of immaturity are everywhere for Lebron. From reports that he introduces himself to potential NBA players as “The King” to his coughing fit at Dirk Nowitzki’s expense (which of course, as always, was overblown by the media).

Most glaring of all, there is a lack of humility with Lebron. For most players, the script after the game should have read “I’m really upset that we lost. I’ll take ownership. I’m going to work my tail off during the offseason and come back to win this thing!” For Lebron, he took the opportunity to kick an America, that is already setting historical records for unemployment, while it was already down. Nice work, King.

My guess is, to some extent, all of these theories come into play when explaining the psychology behind what will most likely go down as the most disappointing performance in NBA Finals history.

Which theory do you subscribe to?


14 Responses to “The Psychology of Lebron James”

  1. As talented as this guy is, he has so many weaknesses in his game, and if the opposing team takes away his driving ability, he is greatly limited. At times, he is hitting from outside, but he is very inconsistent and streaky, not a good sign for a supposed elite player. His FT shooting, midrange game, 3 pt. shooting, and post game are all liablities for him, and these are similar liabilities for wade. Both cannot play off the ball well, but need the ball in their hands most of the time. They don’t compliment each other very well.

    He had some excuses as to why he quit on cleveland last year, but this year he didn’t really have these same excuses, but quit nonetheless, once faced with adversity and another team willing to stand up to him. He fears failure, and this is what drives him or doesn’t drive him.

    But, many pundits were claiming the heat would win as many as 75 wins, so this is a huge disappointment for the heat, according to these guys, but they’re still sugarcoating and sucking up to lebron, enough is enough. Lebron had the deepest team in the league in 09 and 10, with the best reg. season record each year, and now he had the most talented team in the league in 11. Enough with the excuses, and mj vs. lebron comparisons or kobe vs. lebron comparisons, he is nowhere in their league right now, and most likely never will be. Mentally, he just can’t get it done.

    Posted by boyer | June 15, 2011, 8:20 am
  2. I Lebron just wants to be liked. That when people kept throwing hate at him, instead of actually using it as fire to compete – he got defensive. Bill Simmons explained it perfectly in one of his recent articles and I agree with it. I think Lebron’s biggest motivations are have fun, make lots of money, be loved, then maybe if it’s ok with everyone – win a title.

    Posted by Adam | June 15, 2011, 10:44 am
  3. I don’t want to completely repeat the last comment, but Lebron absolutely must make changes in his game in order to take that next step. Will he? That’s for him to decide. At this point he’s too thin-skinned at his criticism and too joyful at his successes. Tell me if I’m wrong, but didn’t it seem like a different Lebron after Wade stuck that 3 right in front of the Mavs bench in Game 2 and Lebron came and started shadow boxing Wade? I think he became a little complacent. So I think there’s some credence to the lack of competitive fire theory which is closely tied to the Wayne Arnold theory (I loved the Wonder Years).

    In the pivotal moments of these Finals, he seemed confused and unsure of what to do, and he wasn’t alone. Wade had his great moments, but he had some moments where his mind betrayed him as well (fumbling inbounds passes, dribbling off his foot). It seemed as though they hadn’t practiced any of this or had any strategy they were comfortable with.

    He does have some fire, as demonstrated in the 1st game against Cleveland this year. Lebron went off and left no doubt that he didn’t appreciate the bad blood, even though he started it. Nonetheless he was trash-talking to the bench and led his team to a 30 point lead after 3 quarters.

    He’s going to have to take the criticism he’s been getting and use that for his competitive juices and prove to everyone night-in and night-out that he not does he deserves his level of entitlement, he deserves more.

    In order for the Heat to win 60+ games and even get close to 70, they need Lebron to have to will to crush each opponent each and every night. I honestly think they’re capable especially if they can get into a groove, but then again that can be said about a few teams. I hate dealing in what ifs, especially when it comes to demeanor. There are a few guys that could benefit from a little bit of a mean streak like Pau Gasol, Joe Johnson, Ray Allen, etc.

    The thing about guys like Jordan, Magic, Bird and Kobe, they want to win all the time, it didn’t matter who the opponent was. They didn’t care. Lebron is going to have to learn it’s not about taking team pictures before the game or living in the moment after every series win or pretty looking 3pt shot. “The RING” has to be the “THING” and until he reaches the point of where all of that competitive fire comes out of his eyes as determination for 82 regular season games, 16 playoff wins, and finally comes pouring out of his eyes after he’s closed the deal, he’ll continue to be distracted by all of of the wrong things.

    Posted by J.T. | June 15, 2011, 10:51 am
  4. Elementary school, junior high, and high school were all very easy for me. I could get straight A’s effortlessly using my raw, natural intellect and without studying. When I got to college each quarter became progressively more difficult and my grades began to slump. I’d start each quarter with enthusiasm and do alright until each of the topics got rich enough to be too difficult for me. I was not equipped with either study skills or the emotional toughness to endure and so I often shrank away.

    This is what is happening to Lebron James. He has spent too much of his formative years never failing, always winning, and never working hard to do it. He doesn’t know how to win (or even have the competitive fire to win), because he always just has.

    These years with the perceived underachievement may serve to coax him to work harder to win, because he’ll use the shame to motivate him. If he is too far gone and is incapable of ever placing blame on himself or experiencing shame, perhaps he’ll need the right coaching (Cus D’mato comes to mind).

    Or perhaps time will pass and he’ll cruise through his career with a B- GPA, find a cushy state job with great benefits and underachieve the rest of his life.

    Posted by Alvin | June 15, 2011, 10:55 am
  5. Sorry Mamba, best joke…
    “Lebron will likely get a ring someday, but until he does he can always buy one from his buddy Terrelle Pryor”


    Is it safe to assume Pryor is looking for a new mentor?

    Posted by Anti Bill Simmons | June 15, 2011, 12:35 pm
  6. Anyone who cites themselves as a source can not be taken seriously.

    Posted by slash475 | June 15, 2011, 1:23 pm
    • If you’re referring to the fact that he linked to his own “Lebron MVP article” then that’s just ridiculous.

      First of all, if he had linked an article he wrote that you were 100% in agreement with then you would never have made a comment like that. Just because YOU didn’t agree with him doesn’t mean it’s without merit regardless of who wrote it. I don’t agree with the reasons he gave in that article, but it’s obvious that Lebron had an MVP caliber season as anybody with a modicum of intelligence can see.

      Second of all I see columnists link their own work all the time…honestly they’d be pretty silly not to. And it’s not like it’s the only article he linked.

      Posted by Milhouse | June 15, 2011, 2:30 pm
    • Slash — I don’t understand your point. I’m not citing this as an official source, just another point of reference as to why I believe Lebron had an MVP caliber season.

      Thanks for the read anyway. .

      Posted by Brown Mamba | June 15, 2011, 4:37 pm
      • Sure, lebron had an MVP caliber season, as did several other players, but he has not yet done enough to ever be considered the best current player in the nba. It’s one thing to do in the reg. season, it’s another to do it in the postseason. When the going gets tough, lebron checks out. He is mentally not tough enough to be considered the current best, and we’ve seen this lots of times. The prime example is lebron company winning in 2 bronzes for Team USA, then kobe joins the team, and they immediately win gold. 4th qtr. of that gold medal, we all know who the man was, and it wasn’t lebron.

        It’s funny that Dirk and the mavs won this year, because the mavs are eerily similar to the 09 and 10 cavs’ teams that lebron left because of supposedly not enough help. I bet lebron could’ve convinced at least one near star to join that team, but really if he had outplayed howard in 09, the cavs move on, and if he didn’t quit in 10 against the c’s, the cavs move on, probably not win it, but at least move on in the playoffs.

        Lebron’s a high excuse player. Prime example is last year’s playoffs and his supposed right elbow, and he even shot a lefty FT in a game down the stretch. What a joke. I guess he’s never needed a wheelchair like wade and pierce.

        Posted by boyer | June 15, 2011, 5:16 pm
  7. Here’s another theory: The Front-Runner Theory.

    Lebron James is a front-runner! When things are good he’s saluting and chest bumping, but when things are not good he is lost! Many of the theories in this article and stated by others all imply a mental aspect to James’ woes. While growing up Lebron never had to overcome adversity; he simple showed up and things went his way. Now, when put in these situations the pressure is too great and he folds. Had he faced similar adversity on smaller stages he would have learned how to handle pressure and be better able to cope in the Playoffs where the pressure is magnified.

    The bottom line is that Lebron’s issues are not talent-related, but rather mental. Until his mind-set changes he will only win if someone else wins for him or allows him to win.

    If you’re reading this Lebron here are the steps IMO to winning a ring and ending the dislike that you have mostly brought upon yourself:

    1.) Stay out of the media!!! Stop tweeting; stop having press conferences, just shut up! This will starve the beast that is the Lebron haters. With this first step you relieve alot of the pressure that is on you.

    2.) Stop pointing fingers at others and point the finger at yourself! When others are at fault you have very little power. Take ownership of as much blame as possible. Only when the problem is acknowledge can it be addressed. Surprisingly this also relieves pressure as it empowers YOU.

    3.) Improve your game in areas where it is weak. Work on a post game. Work on moving and scoring off the ball. Work on your mid-range jumper. These are all things that The Greats possessed and you do not to a similar degree.

    4.) Humble yourself! Allow the coach to coach you. Allow the veteran player (Wade) to mentor you. Remove your self-given crown and walk amongst the people!

    Posted by S Hardeman | June 16, 2011, 12:04 pm
  8. In his post-mortem with the media last Tuesday, LeBron flat-out admitted to putting an inordinate amount of pressure on himself during the Finals, and pretty much admitted to letting it throw him off his game. What that tells me is that his issues are more mental than anything else. Sure, he could stand to improve his post game and improve his overall repertoire, but what has been lost in the whole “LeBron doesn’t care about getting better” rush to judgment is that he played the post a lot this past season, with pretty good results for the most part. It doesn’t matter how many tools he has in his box if he either lacks confidence in them or gets sidetracked from using them when it counts. He needs to figure out a way to keep the moment from overwhelming him and treat the Finals as just like any other game. The good news for LeBron is that he will be going back to the Finals many more times; he’ll use the sting of defeat as motivation to get better, and he can use the experience to get mentally tougher too.

    Posted by E-Dog | June 20, 2011, 4:34 pm


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