For those of you who don’t follow basketball, the Miami Heat beat the San Antonio Spurs last night for this year’s NBA championship. It was a classic series featuring seven future Hall of Famers and going the full seven games.
What made this series particularly fascinating (besides the unbelievable level of play throughout) was that it featured the best player on the planet, LeBron James.
James is a freak of nature. He’s built like a power forward, he moves with the speed and agility of a wing, he sees the floor like a point guard, and he defends all five positions. In human-speak, he is a transcendent basketball Swiss Army knife, not just versatile, but superiorly so.
He also happens to be polarizing for a variety of reasons. He was anointed the future king of basketball while still in junior high school. He decided to leave his hometown team for his current one (an entirely justified decision) in a less than graceful manner, which created a lot of animosity. (Beyond that one minor transgression, which has been completely overblown in a way that all things sports are, James has been a model citizen.) He is the classic Goliath, and we love rooting against Goliath.
Because of this, James is intensely scrutinized and unfairly judged. Now that he’s won back-to-back championships, that scrutiny is likely to fade. But what I find fascinating is why we so easily and incorrectly judged him in the first place.
This series was fraught with those moments. It largely centered around James’s performance (he would go from hero to goat back to hero in a single quarter of play), but no player or coach was spared. And in the end, all of it was wrong.
Zach Lowe wrote in Grantland:
We remember players for their work in big moments, and that is never going to change. But when we overvalue those big moments at the expense of everything else, we do both those players and the game itself something of a disservice. We ignore the role of randomness and luck, as Henry Abbott beautifully reminded us this week. We ignore defense on a possession-by-possession basis, mostly because defense is hard to see and understand.
And we pick and choose which big moments are really big in strange ways that don’t make a lot of sense. Why is Leonard’s missed free throw more important, and more memorable, than the fact that no other Spur made a field goal in overtime? Why is Parker’s missed free throw in overtime less important than Leonard’s miss and Ginobili’s miss in regulation? Why do we eviscerate Ginobili for his eight turnovers while passing over the fact that Miami turned the ball over on three consecutive possessions in the last 1:10 of regulation in an elimination NBA Finals game — including two turnovers by LeBron? The Bobcats might have done better on those three possessions than LeBron and the Miami Heat managed.
The result — the Heat won, the Spurs lost — too often informs our analysis of the process.
These aren’t just wise words about sports, they’re wise words about almost everything we do. The reason stories are so valuable is that we are particularly attuned to them, and we are more likely to learn and integrate knowledge in that form. The problem with stories is that we are so attuned to them, we confuse narratives for truth. It is so easy to assign credit and blame in simplistic and incorrect ways, and to frame it as “rigorous analysis.” Daniel Kahneman has written extensively about our proclivity for finding causality where causality does not exist.
The other thing I found fascinating about this series was how it embodied our collective mindset about leadership. James has consistently been criticized throughout his career for being too unselfish “in the clutch.” In basketball, there is a mythos that it’s the best player’s job to “take over the game” in the fourth quarter, that the laws of team basketball are suddenly rendered irrelevant with the game on the line. We reward players who buy into this mythos, the classic example being Kobe Bryant. And so the common wisdom is, when the game is on the line, there’s no player you’d rather have on your team than Kobe.
But when you look at the data, it turns out that the classic wisdom is wrong. In crunch time, Kobe makes it easier for the opposing team’s defense, because they know with almost utter certainty that he’s going to shoot the ball. And the numbers confirm that this is a poor strategy, as Kobe consistently shoots worse in the last few minutes of a game than he does on average.
For years, James was eviscerated for his crunch time unselfishness, even though he single-handedly made mediocre teams great with his superior team-oriented play. We loved him for his unselfishness, unless it was the final minutes of the fourth quarter, at which point we expected him to get selfish again.
It’s totally irrational, but it’s pervasive not just in sports, but in business and in life. Our classic notion of leadership is of the heroic kind, and even though that’s beginning to change in leadership circles, old mindsets are hard to break.