Jordan vs. LeBron: The Intersection of American Culture & NBA Clutch Performance


The unparalleled love for NBA superstars that perform in the clutch is unlike anything else in sports. Kobe Bryant’s one-on-one style in the closing moments of games was heir to Michael Jordan’s legendary finishing blows. Their emphatic fist pumps and rousing chest pounds are etched into our collective sports consciousness. We never forget grand finishes capped by an athlete's unwillingness to lose. Fans eat it up—and understandably so. Our romanticization of such impressive individual achievements is deeply ingrained into American culture. There is something so perfectly American in this easily digestible action of a single player "winning a game." We love things that are impressive and simple. I believe this provides insight into our reverence of NBA players that singlehandedly perform well in the clutch. That is, until LeBron James came along.

LeBron did not fit the mold. Here is a 6’8” 250-pound beast who can do virtually anything he wants on a basketball court. Unlike anyone else, he scores and plays defense while orchestrating and executing like a coach. His physical stature and play mirror everything that we traditionally admire. And yet, many find his game unsatisfying. He looks and feels like he should be a Jordan- or Kobe-type and yet he self-identifies and plays more like Magic Johnson. He “passes too much.” Somehow the future Hall-of-Famer, who has mastered the game on a level never seen before, is criticized for how he plays the game. The tension is palpable in how we idealize success through traditional masculinity and how many players (and coaches) in the newer generations approach a game's final moments. The undying love for the Jordan/Kobe-style singular determination is battling it out against a team-first LeBron-style strategy. Old school vs. new school.


Here's how I articulated my feelings in another one of those Kobe/Jordan/LeBron conversations recently with a couple friends: We need to identify and answer a few simple questions regarding the desired outcome of end-game situations. 1) What’s the goal at the end of the game? (Hit shots.) 2) What’s the best way to do that? (Get a high percentage shot.) 3 How do you get a high percentage shot? (Create one for yourself or someone else.)

A great closer wins games. The false equivalence of winning games as an individual to winning games as a team is mistaken. “Putting the ball in the hoop” is the goal—it doesn’t matter who does it. In fact, the goal of a leader in any field should be to achieve a desired outcome no matter who receives credit. A leader recognizes the strengths (and weaknesses) of all team members and puts the team in the best position to succeed. The pass that leads to the shot doesn’t lead to the same glory, chest pounding, or snarling face of victory that does a one-on-one buzzer beater. Kids don’t grow up on the driveways of America pretending to pass to teammates in the best position to hit a shot or layup. We chant “3…2…1…” and launch a fade-away shot as time expires to the invisible crowd going wild. It’s the American Dream in a moment.

The irony, which I am more than happy to acknowledge, is the imperfection in equating last second shots to team success. There are 48 minutes in a regulation basketball game, so for me to examine the final 24 seconds as the only important ones would be to oversimplify the complexity of the path to success. Nonetheless, I think there is something to be said for LeBron’s success in the recent decade and a half where specialization and NBA talent has made it harder for repeat champions to occur. In the past few years, the Golden State Warriors are another excellent example of optimizing the new-school approach to success (read: wins and championships). Despite relying strictly on one of two of the best shooters of all time, Curry and Klay, or two of the best scorers, Durant and Curry, the Steve Kerr offense always looks for the best shot. The team with the best individual talent somehow also leads the league in assists. Even in the Mark Jackson era, one of the shots that has stuck with me was a Jarrett Jack to Draymond Green layup to win the game vs. the LeBron Miami Heat. That shot featured Steph Curry and Klay Thompson on the floor.



Yes, Kyrie’s shot in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals will immortalize him in a moment. Yes, Michael and Kobe fans praise their end-game tenacity. But more recently, the evolution of basketball has trended toward a LeBron/Warriors-style approach to win. The slow turn towards using five players to win a game instead of one is gaining acceptance. Superstars know that they can win one-on-one battles, but when it becomes one-on-three or more… It’s time to acknowledge the goal is to win as a team not always as an individual. Appreciating grit and determination should be praised and yet not synonymous with the strategic pursuit of success.