Ever since "The Decision," the basketball cognoscenti have argued over who should take over in crunch time for the Miami Heat. Dwyane Wade has proven his mettle in the closing moments of games many times, as has LeBron James, even if people don't always like to admit it. However, there are expectations for LeBron as a once-in-a-generation talent, and any situation in which he doesn't take over down the stretch reflects poorly on him for much of the basketball-watching public.
Still, James and Wade are on the same team, and the decision over who should be the main guy at the end of games can't be defined by the expectations we've placed on one of those players since he was 16 years old. In fact, the third member of Miami's trio of stars thinks the decision is pretty easy. Here's what Chris Bosh had to say in an interview with Mark Anthony Green in this month's GQ (via TBJ):
GQ: Quick hypothetical, toes aside: Let's say the game was tied. 10 seconds left. You had 30 points, LeBron's got 30, and Wade's got 30. You got the same amount of rebounds, same amount of assists—having the same great game. Who takes the shot at the end to either win or lose the game.
Chris Bosh: [immediately] Dwyane.
Chris Bosh: Because of his success in the past, given what he's done. He's a champ. He's an MVP, and he's hit a bunch of last-second shots. That's the time you have to put pride aside a little bit, and do what's best for the team. He's quickest, and he's gonna get a shot off. He relishes those moments.
On the other hand, Bosh also says that Wade has the best style on the team, not counting him, so maybe he just wants to get on his good side. I hear that guy throws the best parties.
More seriously, though, Bosh's comments speak to the challenge at hand for James as he tries to change opinions about his late-game failures. As Bosh notes, Wade is extremely well-suited to be the offensive focal point at the ends of games: He's done it before, he's a great player, and he also has a more varied scoring arsenal than LeBron. The bad news for James, in that situation, is that scoring tends to correlate to opinions about clutch performance — a player who doesn't make jumpers to win games isn't clutch, at least not in a way that makes him worthy of being talked about in the same breath as the greatest players of all time. Even if the Heat win a championship, it might not matter to LeBron's reputation as long as Wade is the one scoring at the end of games.
What LeBron has to do to win hearts and minds, then, is recast the concept of late-game heroics. While he's a great scorer, his strength has always been in versatility. If Wade does the bulk of the scoring, then LeBron can help out on the boards, or with assists, or generally by playing lockdown defense when it matters most, as he did in the Eastern Conference finals against Derrick Rose last season. More than anything, he needs to be LeBron James, not hew to the standard for star play in crunch time laid out by Michael Jordan.
In something of a positive, LeBron seemed to realize that Wednesday night against the Clippers. While he didn't convert the vast majority of his opportunities, both from the field and the line (which might be a case of bad luck), James played with an aggressiveness that's been missing from his recent late-game failures. He drove to the basket in a manner reminiscent of his early career game-winners against the Washington Wizards, generally looking like he had a plan for scoring. He wasn't entirely successful, but he wasn't a massive failure, either: The free throws he did make sent the game into overtime at a time when the Heat were having trouble creating anything on offense. He was rushed at times, and not altogether impressive, but he wasn't embarrassing.
It might seem odd to talk about a player of LeBron's talents in such qualified terms, but at this point in his career it's worth talking about continual progress rather than either-or cases of failure and greatness. Improvement takes time. And even if Bosh is right that Wade should take the shots with games on the line, that doesn't mean LeBron can't dominate when it counts by being the best version of himself he can be. It'll just require everyone who watches him to recalibrate their expectations and assess him for what he is.