A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

The Mental LeBron James

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Image via Baltimore Sun

While I’ll readily admit that people go overboard when throwing players under the bus as chokers, cowards, etc, the fact remains that the mental side of sports is huge. Any fan who claims to not think about the psychological strengths and weaknesses of athletes is lying either to others or themselves.

The urge to play armchair shrink is irresistible, and really why does it need to be resisted? Yes you want to keep perspective and not go overboard, but when a player has had the kind of strange play LeBron James has, it’s simply unreasonable to insist only Xs and Os can be the cause.

Without further ado, my take on LeBron’s NBA Finals and his mentality in general.

It all started innocently enough

LeBron’s a reasonable basketball player. If you double team him, and he can get the ball to an open teammate in a position to score, he’ll do it. More than that, in Miami, with fellow Heatles Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, double team him and he’ll pass it even if they aren’t in immediate position to score. Why wouldn’t he? That’s the benefit of playing with other stars after all.

And when fellow star Wade goes nuclear, and your team is a slip up away from going up 3-0 in the series, it’s easy to feel like there’s still nothing wrong with this continued action.

When Dallas made some adjustments though, Miami needed more from LeBron and he couldn’t give it. Had he been able to give something akin to what he does in a normal basketball game, it’s reasonable to think that Miami takes this series. Instead, they went home losers.

Now, I don’t want to overlook the physical side of things. Part of what we’re seeing here is Wade seeming to be unfazed by a defense that stifled LeBron, and to the extent that that is true, it has to be noted that Wade is smaller and quicker than LeBron. He can maneuver out of double teams easier than LeBron can.

Beyond that, there’s the possibility that LeBron was hurt or just plain tired. Dude led the playoffs in minutes per game as nearly 44. That would certainly take a toll on many players, maybe it did with LeBron as well.

When I watched LeBron though I, like many others, saw someone who seemed unsure of himself. He not only didn’t attack in questionable circumstances, but passed up open shots, stood around when he didn’t have the ball, and faded into the background on defense.

This puts thoughts in my head about the situation and about how LeBron’s brain works.

Organizational Uncertainty leads to Passivity

It’s not easy begin an aggressive #2 guy. When you’re clearly the person who needs to make the tough decisions, perform the actions, and lead others, there’s a clarity that comes from simply knowing the situation is yours to make with it what you will. There is pressure yes, but if you’ve been the Man before, that pressure is nothing new.

I’ve watched Lamar Odom struggle for years in the shadow of Kobe Bryant. The Lakers acquired him hoping he’d play Scottie Pippen to Kobe’s Michael Jordan act. However what they found time and again was that he thrived when Kobe was on the bench, when he could take on a leadership role most similar to what he had played when he’d been successful in the past. Eventually the team moved him to a 6th man role based on this recognition, and it’s proven a smart move.

I’d suggest LeBron had similar issues once it became clear that Wade got in his NBA Finals zone. I’d further suggest that Wade might be even more prone to doing this to teammates than Kobe because of Wade’s all-over-the-place-ness. Be it offense or defense, Wade flew all around the court seemingly doing everything. When that’s your teammate, it’s easy to feel like you just don’t want to get in his way.

More frustrating still: If you’re a role player, not getting in Wade’s way and simply following in his wake is probably the best thing you can do. The problem for LeBron is that it’s not okay for him to do this, so he needs to find a way to work where he is both aggressive and not slowing Wade down. It’s a tough situation to be in.

To put it another way: I don’t that any kind of defense can put LeBron into this kind of passivity on its own. If he knows from Game 1 it’s all on him, he will attack from start to finish.

Now though, this is not enough to explain him getting passive to the point that he seems disengaged. Here is where I would identify a mental weakness on LeBron’s part.

When everybody loves you…

Being the one that everyone looks to make something happen not only gives clarity of purpose, it can also build confidence. That Robin Williams guy at the part who becomes more funny and charismatic with every joke is feeding off the laughter and attention of others, something analogous can happen in sports that gets called being a good front runner. I believe LeBron has that.

He’s been so much better than everyone his whole career that it was easy to look at him as someone who was simply naturally confident.  But when he became faced with a superior teammate and began deferring to him, that along with him simply missing some shots, tripped him up.

LeBron recognized what was happening to some degree and tried to take on a confident persona not simply because of he knew that’s what he was supposed to do, but to try to get himself back into his comfort zone where he could do his superstar things.

People scratched their heads at his “Now or Never” tweets wondering why he’d put even more pressure on himself, but really it’s about LeBron doing a fake-it-til-you-make it thing.

When LeBron gave his pre-game pep talk to his teammates before Game 4, it struck me that while a normal pep talk is done by a secure leader to help build the confidence of his followers, this seemed to be an alternate scenario:


As LeBron said:

I still feel like our back is against the wall.

A strange statement considering the Heat were up 2-1, could have easily been up 3-0, and had just beaten Dallas in Dallas. While it’s perfectly understandable to look at this simply as a driven leader not wanting to give an inch of daylight to his opponents, when you remember that as LeBron had said this he was coming off a game where his teammates were praised and he was singled out for criticism, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where it he would be as inspirational to teammates as Wade would have been.

The followers were humoring the leader to try to help the leader get back on his game. And unfortunately, it didn’t work.

With my mind on my money and my money on my mind

Now psychoanalysis of LeBron would be complete without trying to connect this walkabout performance to what happened against the Celtics last year, so here’s my attempt:

I don’t think LeBron quit, in either situation. You could call both choking, it wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate, however the choking did not come simply because he was deep in the playoffs. I’d like everyone to recall how ungodly good he was in the ’08-09 playoffs. Right up to the bitter end, he was unstoppable there.

Against Boston in Game 5, I think what happened was an epiphany that the Celtics had another gear that they had just reached that his Cavaliers did not have, and as a result his team was probably going to lose.

This in an of itself would not have slowed him down. As we saw in Game 6, the man played with great aggression. Say what you will about how impressive the performance was, but you don’t get 19 rebounds in a game by being hesitant.

How the moment of the epiphany sent him reeling specifically because he knew he’d have to make his choice about whether to re-sign with Cleveland in the off-season. He had been thinking that he’d either win a title or lose deep in the playoffs – that his team was championship worthy – and now here they were in the 2nd round of the playoffs, losing to a 50 win team.

It was a jumble of thoughts in LeBron’s head that took him out of the game then, and it was a jumble of thoughts that got in LeBron’s head in the Finals this year. LeBron’s mental weakness is a tendency to overthink things. Whereas teammate Wade simply attacks the game, LeBron’s been nursing delusions of becoming a global icon. Wade plays in the moment, LeBron’s got one foot in the future.

Obviously, presuming this is true to any degree, this is bad news for LeBron and those wanting him to succeed. It is not however, as bad as many think it is. LeBron is not a anxiety-ridden panic attack waiting to happen. Essentially no one capable of thriving with millions of eyes on them is. He’s simply a guy with a bit too much on his mind.

I expect he’ll get better at this with age, and especially, I expect he’ll get much better at this once he gets the monkey off his back.

Written by Matt Johnson

June 15, 2011 at 7:58 pm

8 Responses

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  1. “Against Boston in Game 5, I think what happened was an epiphany that the Celtics had another gear that they had just reached that his Cavaliers did not have, and as a result his team was probably going to lose.”

    That was my take, too. Lebron’s a fatalist. Compare that to other greats who (Doctor Doom-like) are never in any doubt that they can prevail, regardless of the agreement of that view with reality.

    The other question, I suppose is whether or not it would have made a HUGE difference in the series. It really seemed like a zero-sum game for the Heat in the playoffs. Bosh came and went, but it was EITHER Wade OR Lebron who seemed to be hot on the perimeter. If they actually work out who’s got the offensive primacy or manage to change these two swiss-army-knife players into more specialised players (Earl the Pearl may be a guide) then the heat may develop that “extra gear”.


    June 15, 2011 at 10:53 pm

    • Love the Doom reference Raven.

      I’d say it’s a good question whether LeBron’s struggles even made that big of a difference given the overbearing redundancy issue. If and when they work out the redundancy, I don’t think we’ll see issues like this again.

      Matt Johnson

      June 18, 2011 at 7:53 pm

  2. Best article I’ve read so far about LeBron’s meltdown.


    June 16, 2011 at 7:36 am

  3. “Wade plays in the moment, LeBron’s got one foot in the future.”

    Now that’s a good diagnosis from the Doctor. The issue that plagues this type of psychological insight from a distance is that most people are clueless about human behavior. And most people need simple black-and-white answers. So you’re left with “Quitter.” “Chocker.” “Loser.” There’s really a spectrum of ways to falter mentally — human error and idiosyncrasies are always in play — and I think you’ve nailed this one with James.

    I expect in the future he’ll be better. But I do think he was overthinking it. He’s an athlete so used to swagger that maybe, quite literally, we’ve seen the first 2 times in his life that he lost it (G5 Bos, this year’s Finals). Most people learn to handle those mental swoons and growing pains coming up the ladder. James probably never has. That’s why I expect it will be different in the future. (There’s the off chance it breaks him as we’ve seen with other athletes, but this seems unlikely given his other performances.)

    The one thing I would have liked mentioned here is his jump shot. LBJ has a history of shooting less when he’s off, and he just looked like he lost confidence in it to me. Go back and just watch one game from the Bulls or Celtics or series, and he’s probing, hoping, faking, jab-stepping and then shooting into deep jumpers. He totally lost that in the Finals after G1.

    And for good reason: Dude was 21-46 (45.6%) from downtown in May. 4-23 in June (17.3% last 5 games of Finals)


    June 16, 2011 at 11:54 am

    • Good point on LeBron’s shooting affecting his confidence.

      It’s funny we more often here about players getting intoxicated by a few lucky shots and getting driven to perform ridiculous feats of ball hogging, but of course a player with a bit less narcissism and/or inherent resilience getting timid is quite believable.

      Matt Johnson

      June 18, 2011 at 7:59 pm

  4. In general fellas, appreciate the kind words. Had a hard time really putting all this together into a coherent picture, glad to know it connected with our basketball cognoscenti.


    Matt Johnson

    June 18, 2011 at 8:03 pm

  5. My best guess for the Lebron meltdown is once he lost confidence in his jumper (he stated he never felt in rhythm), he truly felt like it’d be worse for his team for him to take a shot than to pass it to an open teammate. Dallas’ d compounded this by playing zone and by putting small players like Kidd and Stevenson on him. All of their defense was orientated towards open jumpers for Lebron – as have most defenses all year. And most of the year he’s hit them until they played him close or with bigger, slower defenders again. In the Finals, from the end of the Game 2 on when he took the most shots during the Mavs comeback, he never took those shots and never changed the way the Mavericks defense was set up. That was his failure. You can’t change your game on the basis of missed shots and a bad game. When Dirk kept missing in Game 6, he kept shooting. Ditto Kobe last year. Lebron let a spoiled batch stop him from cooking.


    June 19, 2011 at 9:42 pm

  6. Perhaps it’s somewhat of a generational thing, something that happens when you listen to too much Drake leading up to big games. I agree with the one foot in the future idea. Lebron often seems like he’s playing his career backwards trying to inscribe into history what he already has written in his mind & then becoming discombobulated when there are discrepancies. I think his relationship with the media feeds into it too & there is a bit of a (to continue with the comic book metaphors) Burton’s Batman Joker thing going on “i made you, you made me first”…nobody gets more press than him & imho nobody lets that influence their perceptions of self more. Who else would admit to staying up late reading his bad press before a finals game? I’m almost surprised he didn’t break out another what should I do commercial towards the end of the series. Should I not defer to my teammates? They’re my teammates. Anyway, it’s fun to speculate but I don’t know if we can really get into the head of someone who grew up living in the third person with conventional psychology. We may need some combination of a sociologist & a Jungian explorer of the collective unconscious to crack this nut.

    febreze brother

    June 23, 2011 at 9:15 pm

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