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Monday, June 3, 2013
The myth of big-game players

By Henry Abbott

LeBron James and Paul George
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images
Will we learn anything tonight about Paul George and LeBron James that we don't already know?

Monday night, we are blessed with an Eastern Conference finals Game 7. This thriller of a moment is the product of years of hard work. Roy Hibbert remade his body in a suburban strip mall. LeBron James took an MVP-type game and put in the time to become a 40 percent 3-point shooter with a go-to post game. Paul George wrestled with the increased expectations that came with Danny Granger's injury, and by Game 6 wasn't just checking James, but was also dropping pull-up 3s and fluid dunks over the Heat, too.

You can go right down the rosters. If either team had one more slacker where there's now a hard worker, the other team would have already won four games by now and would be spending the evening watching film of the Spurs.

Hard work is real. Production is real. Talent is real.

But Game 7 brings another question: What about the ability to rise to the occasion, whatever that means? A lot of the game talk is along these lines:
No doubt somebody will "step up" tonight. Some Bosh, Hill, West, Allen or Chalmers will score buckets that echo in eternity. That guy will feature prominently in tomorrow's sports pages.

Once that has happened, do we know that guy has "it" too?

Here's my radical thought: No.

No one owns every big moment

There is no "it."

By the time we get to the conference finals, there are just good professional basketball players and great ones, all of whom have to cope with an assortment of good and great performances that probably can't be summoned with greater poise, focus or intensity. Great nights and off nights are part of the deal for every player, even for great players in Game 7s.

"It" is either imaginary or so rare that it's not worth worrying about.

We head into Game 7 knowing being the best all season is not the same as being the best tonight. In that difference, we have long believed, is a window into the soul of sports.

Or not.

'Cause here's the thing: Basketball is fluid, ever-changing and -- as a sport built on shooting, which the best in the world succeed at around half the time -- more than a little random. Think about that: shoot the ball essentially perfectly, and walk away with a miss half the time. And that's before we get to rebounds, turnovers, and all these other things with doses of randomness. How could one player play predictably well in a sport like that? How could someone have a character trait to never fail, when everybody fails often?

I remember Phil Jackson saying once that the way to evaluate a player was based on how often that player had a good game. Nobody did it every game. Three out of five, he said, was excellent. That sounds about right. One game might mean a lot, or nothing. Sometimes the bounce of the ball goes somebody else's way. Tough luck.

Sometimes you have a good game, sometimes you don't. How many times have we heard Jeff Van Gundy say it's a "make-or-miss league." That version of reality is simpler than we want it to be, maybe, and less romantic, perhaps.

Look past reputation

But what if it's true anyway? I say this as someone who has seen years of statistical digs into who succeeds in crunch time, or Game 7s. Any way you measure performance -- shooting statistics, PER, what have you -- if you're sampling a tiny chunk of the season, you'll find more or less the same thing: Great players generally show up pretty well, but behind a surprising collection of role players in whatever ranking you're looking at.

That cast of role players topping those lists, though, changes from one search to the next. The guy who kills crunch time in 2009 is nowhere among the leaders in Game 7s, or even crunch-time rankings in 2011. From my point of view, the only trend of value I can see in those stats is that teamwork seems to matter, and the guys who shoot wide-open shots (think elite shooters playing alongside superstars) tend to do well in the shooting stats.

But otherwise, it looks like killer reputation is way more common than killer instinct. Chauncey Billups, "Mr. Big Shot," has long been considered a clutch shooter. But he has horrible career crunch-time shooting percentages, and perhaps the biggest make of his career was a 3-pointer that banked in off the backboard -- intentionally?

Even in a world where Robert Horry exists, I really do wonder if there are players who have some consistent ability to "raise their game" in big moments. Is Horry magic, or was it likely that over a decade and a half, in a league with 300 or more role players, one of them would hit a half-dozen huge shots?

What if all you can do is work your butt off -- not to guarantee the victory, but instead just nudge the odds a little toward "good game" and a little away from "bad game" in this coin flip of a Game 7? What if the poise it takes to make an NBA playoff rotation is enough poise to play well in Game 7? What if poise isn't the precious resource?

A roll of the weighted dice

Let's pretend for a second that basketball works like a dice game. You roll your dice, I roll mine, we add 'em up and figure out the winner. And every die represents a player.

Only there's one catch: We don't have the same dice. Instead of one through six, some of our dice are different and better, with higher numbers on the sides. Maybe one representing a good player like David West has the numbers two through seven. Or a Hibbert die has three through eight.

LeBron James, in this analogy, might be the kind of die that has numbers five through 10 -- where his best game is something most on the court will never touch, his worst something lots of NBA players can pull off sometimes.

In any one game, LeBron + Wade + Bosh + the rest of the Heat would be expected to add up to a bigger number than George + Hibbert + West + the rest of the Pacers. The numbers are generally a little bigger on the NBA's most lauded roster.

Roll them just once, though, and heck yeah Indiana might just get the higher total. But heck no that doesn't have to mean they have some big-game magic. If you have to pick your dice for the next game, you'd pick the Heat dice, with the bigger numbers, again. That's Gambling 101.

Even Game 7 can be the kind of game where a poor performance can tell you next to nothing about who's the better player in the big picture.

James has been pretty clearly the NBA's best player, even in crunch time, over the past few years.  He is both the author of some of the best big-moment performances in league history, and some of the most disappointing, for instance in his final game as a Cavalier, and in the 2011 NBA Finals against the Mavericks. He, like every player, is capable of a wonderful or terrible performance. Knowing that, it's strange to search his soul for some essential essence of success. The success comes with hard work over time, and with a bit of luck.

One game can mean everything, and still not be all-telling. The best teams often don't win the single-elimination NCAA tournament. There has never been an NBA player who is always good in big games; there have been lots of big games where star players have been quiet, or worse. It's hard to remember but, yes, this is even true of Michael Jordan and everybody else in the modern era.

There is no tiger blood. There is no magic. There is no divine intervention.

There's just basketball, with its skills and hard work, which players can control -- and the bounce of the ball, which they cannot.