After the Miami Heat lost the NBA championship, much of the postgame analysis centered on LeBron James' failures in the fourth quarter throughout the series, attributing his woes to ... well, words like mettle, fortitude, confidence, determination and heart were thrown out. Or, in a more brute usage of language, LeBron choked.
Now, I happen to think the real explanation is even simpler, something I didn't really hear get discussed. LeBron is a tremendous athlete; I don't need to recite his attributes here. You've seen him play. He's too big for smaller defenders, too quick for bigger ones. That is, when his long-range jump shot is falling, like it did earlier in the playoffs. When it's not, then LeBron isn't such an stoppable force.
Compare his game to Dirk Nowitzki's. When Dirk has the ball at the top of the key, he can shoot over you (he's 7 feet and a better shooter than LeBron); he can spin left with the dribble and drive to the basket with a left-handed scoop layup; he can dribble and hit a pull-up jumper; he can spin left and hit a fadeaway. Dirk has undoubtedly worked hours and hours developing this game. It takes a tremendous amount of footwork and athletic ability to do what he does. LeBron doesn't have that footwork or that developed set of skills. Bill Simmons -- who has watched a million more hours of basketball than I have -- intimated at this in a column last week when he wrote, "Is it possible that (LeBron) is so talented that he never ended up concentrating on one great thing? He never developed a go-to gimmick like Dirk's high-post game, Wade's one-on-one game, Kobe's one-one-one game, Duncan's low-post game."
Dirk might not have LeBron's speed or power, but he has more basketball skills. And in the playoffs, when opponents amp up their defensive pressure from the 80 percent level offered in the regular season, it takes more than brute force, speed and an inconsistent jump shot to be a great player.
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You often hear that basketball players are the best athletes in the world. I'm sure if we put a poll up on this page asking readers which sport had the best athletes, basketball would win in a landslide.
I have a major issue with that opinion. What's the most important trait required to make the NBA? The answer is obvious: Height. The NBA, of course, is disproportionately filled with tall players. The nature of the sport, the small size of the court, the height of the hoop -- all conspire to give tall people an advantage. Think about it: What if Shaquille O'Neal were a few inches shorter? He's one of the greatest players of all time, but his actual basketball skills were limited: he had a shooting range of about five feet, he couldn't pass, couldn't dribble or take the ball to the hole from the top of the key. He was big and stronger than a mountain and athletic for his size. In basketball, that's all he needed. There are thousands and thousands of basketball players who had far better skills than Shaq; they just weren't tall enough. Similarly, what if James were 6-foot-4 instead of 6-8? He couldn't so easily overpower smaller defenders; he'd have a more difficult time shooting over taller defenders. Without those four inches, would he be much more than another Mario Chalmers?
Another way to look at it. Why are there no (or few) tall soccer players? The soccer field is large. Big guys get too tired. It's game of speed, quickness and intricate footwork and delicate skills, all traits that favor shorter athletes. If a basketball court were 200 feet long instead of 94 feet, the size of the players would be dramatically different. The big guys wouldn't be able to keep up; they'd get fatigued racing up and down the court with the smaller speedsters.
Baseball is much more democratic this way. It offers no inherent advantage to being tall. Check out this height distribution chart over baseball's history. It's a perfectly shaped Bell Curve, just like any population sample. Athletic ability and baseball skills get you to the major leagues, not height.
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A guy like Dustin Pedroia is, in my book, one of the best athletes in the world today. Nobody actually thinks that because he's short and losing his hair and doesn't hit 50 home runs or steal 100 bases. What he does is a little of everything: He can turn on an inside pitch and hit it 400 feet over the Green Monster, surprising power for a guy his size; he's got some of the best hand-eye coordination in the sport, drawing plenty of walks; he can run; he has great range at second base and has mastered the complicated set of movements required to turn double plays without a getting a cleat in your nose.
A great athlete? Absolutely. There is more to athleticism than just bulging muscles and raw speed.
And this is where we get to the headline. LeBron is tall, not an advantage in baseball. His footwork is poor, whether because he hasn't worked at it or lacks the fluid athletic movements to make the plays the great players make. Baseball is full of footwork, from middle infielders turning double plays, to a third baseman diving for a ball down the line and rising to his feet make a throw, to an outfielder reacting with a quick first step to race after a line drive in the gap, to a first baseman adjusting his feet to catch a bad throw and so on. Hitting is a skill of hand-eye coordination, bat speed, pitch recognition and little adjustments. Maybe you don't consider any of those things as "athletic" traits. I say they are, honed -- like Dirk's high-post game -- with hours and hours of practice.
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Back in May, in honor of Willie Mays' 80th birthday, I wrote up a quick list of the 30 greatest players of all time. I put Barry Bonds ahead of Babe Ruth. A reader criticized me on Twitter, arguing that "Ruth faced the best athletes of his era, now the best ones play football and basketball."
Look, I'm not not saying baseball players are better athletes than basketball or football players. (It's difficult to defend a sport that Todd Coffey and Bartolo Colon are good at.) But the Babe Ruth "faced better athletes" argument? Ridiculous.
First off, there's the simple fact that baseball wasn't integrated when Ruth played. And there's this fact: During his years with the Yankees (1920 to 1934), there were 279 major league pitchers who threw at least 300 innings; only 58 (21 percent) were listed at 6-foot-2 or taller. Of the 519 pitchers to appear in the majors in 2011, 362 of 519 are 6-2 or taller (70 percent). From 1920 to 1934, 443 major league position players appeared in at least 200 games. Only 21 were listed at 6-2 or taller (5 percent); 134 were listed at 5-9 or under (30 percent). In 2011, 410 position players have appeared in a game; 161 are listed at 6-2 or taller (39 percent) and 28 are listed at 5-9 or under (7 percent).
Players today are bigger, faster and throw the ball harder and hit the ball further. The quality of the athlete in baseball today is better than ever; heck, just check old games from even 30 years ago. Nearly every team had two middle infielders who would hit three home runs a year between them. An 87-mph fastball was an average fastball. Babe Ruth was 6-2, a giant for his time. He was, in part, using his size advantage to overpower smaller opponents. (Sound familiar?)
Today's players are giants compared to the 1920s, but they aren't NBA-sized giants. Corey Hart, at 6-6, is the tallest position player. The NBA had 321 players this season 6-6 or taller.
In the NBA, height matters. In baseball, you need the skills.
And that's why LeBron would have been a lousy baseball player. Unless, of course, he has a 95-mph fastball.