By now I’m sure if you’re reading this you’ve read my fellow NBAMate contributor Sam “SP” Patching’s article on why he thinks the Heat are the team to beat this year. Sam is an excellent writer who I have mad respect for and he does a great job articulating his reasons as to why he thinks the Heat are the front-runners for a title. However, I do have to respectfully disagree with him.

Why? One reason – the mentality of LeBron James.

Ever since he came into the NBA, LeBron has continually improved his game. His outside jumper has gone from mediocre to solid, and over the past season he worked with Hakeem Olajuwon to finally develop the post game everyone’s been wishing he would. When you combine these skills with his sheer power and athleticism, his basketball IQ, his generally unselfish style of play and his defensive skill, there’s really no question that he’s the most dominant player in the NBA when he wants to be.

And that’s the problem; LeBron is only the most dominant when he wants to be. And sadly there’s too much evidence that in crunch time situations, he doesn’t want to be the most dominant player in the league.

The “Is LeBron clutch” debate is one that will not end until he wins a title. I’ll acknowledge that there have been games throughout his career – even this season – when he has stepped up in end of game situations and put the game away. However, it remains that in the pivotal regular season games this year, he hasn’t. There were the missed FTs against Chicago, and the last second pass to an open Udonis Haslem against Boston, to name just two examples.

Let’s also not forget his playoff performances the last two years. In 2009 the Cavs choked against Orlando in the Eastern Conference Finals, and we made excuses for him by claiming that the Magic matchups confused the Cavs, although there’s really no reason why LeBron couldn’t defend Hedo Fucking Turkoglu. Then in 2010 he got his phantom elbow injury and checked out of Games 5 and 6 against Boston. By now we’re beginning to see the signs that he maybe wasn’t built for the big moment – but still we blamed his elbow and that he wasn’t “mentally in Cleveland any more” as if that was a fair excuse. Last year, however, there were no excuses for his melting in the Finals. It was time for everyone to stand up and accept that LeBron James simply isn’t clutch.

Will this kill the Heat? Probably not. They still have Dwayne Wade and it’s hard to argue with Wade’s clutch bona fides. However, as great as D-Wade is he simply doesn’t have as many ways he can get his, as LeBron goes. Plus, he’s now on the wrong side of 30 and beginning to lose a step. As good as Wade’s game is, it’s his ability to get to the rim that makes him special as a player. He hasn’t lost it yet but he’s one major injury away from doing so. Then there’s Bosh…but do you trust a guy who earned the @EmoChrisBosh twitter account with the big shot in the clutch? No? Thought as much.

Point is, the Heat need LeBron to be able to step up in crunch time if they’re gonna win a title. So far, he hasn’t shown an ability to do so. And nine seasons into his career, it’s fair to question whether he ever will.

Now that he has a post-up game and doesn’t have to rely solely on his athletic ability, LeBron could easily play at a high level for another 10-12 years. And it’s fair to assume that he could improve the skill aspects of his game over the coming seasons. However, being clutch isn’t skill. It’s a mental aspect that doesn’t tend to magically turn around in the middle of your career. Everyone likes to cite Kobe airballing shots in 1999 – but he was in his third year and became the most clutch player in the league within a couple of seasons after that.

There’s very little chance LeBron will do the same in his ninth year. Which is why he stands between the Heat and a title.

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