Home > NBA > The Psychology Behind LeBron and Wade in Crunch Time

The Psychology Behind LeBron and Wade in Crunch Time

Last night, the Miami Heat lost another close game to an elite opponent, dropping an 87-86 decision to the surging Chicago Bulls.  The score itself shouldn’t be an enormous cause for concern for Miami.  They have only lost three games all year by a double-digit margin, indicating that they are one or two improved possessions on each side of the floor away from being frighteningly good most nights.  What should be closely monitored by general management in Miami is the psyche of its players, and whether they have the right toughness in place to make an extended playoff run.

Reports are floating around today that there was actual, no-joke, man-we-wish-our-coach-wouldn’t-advertise-this crying going on in the Miami locker room following the game (aka “Crygate”).  Cam Stewart of the Score had a great list today on his highly underrated show “24 in 30” that outlined the top six or seven reasons an athlete should be allowed to cry, and he was dead right in saying that it shouldn’t be allowed 63 games into the NBA regular season after a four game losing streak.

Cam and Gabe also brought up a statistic that was very interesting to me: the 2010-2011 Miami Heat are 1/18 from the field in game situations with ten seconds or less remaining with a chance to tie or move into the lead.  By contrast, the superstar-less Cleveland Cavaliers are shooting 5/11 in those same situations.

What could be the reason for a superior team executing among the worst in the league in tight situations?  I’m starting to believe that we’re seeing a classic case of the “Bystander Effect”, a psychological phenomenon first explored by the psychologists Darley and Latane in 1968.  

For those of you who haven’t taken an undergraduate psychology course, the phenomenon predicts that in situations where a person might need help (say, for example, a person being assaulted on the street) the more bystanders there are, the lower the likelihood of someone stepping in to assist the victim.  The theory correctly predicts that if only one person is watching the victim, he or she will be more motivated to help, because there are no other individuals available to solve the problem. 

In his book Freakonomics, economist Stephen Levitt provided the example of the murder of Kitty Genovese in New York in 1964.  Despite dozens of nearby citizens hearing her cries for help, she was killed without receiving assistance.  Even the police reported that nobody made a phone call to them reporting the crime in progress; every citizen assumed that someone else was going to rectify the problem.

This brings me to my main thought: that a variation on this effect is occurring on the Miami Heat.  Right now, there are two alpha dogs on the team, LeBron and Wade, and each of them is capable of converting game winning shots at an elite rate. The Bystander Effect would predict that as long as LBJ and Wade both know they are an option for the final play of a game, but aren’t guaranteed the shot, they aren’t going to be as focused as if they knew they would be required to take the final shot in advance of the final play.  Each player will subconsciously believe that the other party might be called on to take the shot, and as any basketball player knows, this subconscious lack of confidence will manifest itself in their shot attempt.

My solution is simple: declare Dwyane Wade the endgame weapon for the 2010-2011 Miami Heat.  Make this decision obvious, and ensure that everyone on Miami knows that when the game is on the line, the ball is in his hands.  Wade is better than LeBron at operating in a half-court offense, and he has a greater ability to get to the basket for (usually guaranteed) foul shots, as the 2006 NBA Finals proved.  Coach Erik Spoelstra should be telling LeBron to crash the basket with Chris Bosh, and have Mike Miller and James Jones floating around the three point line.  In this scenario it’s assumed that PG Mike Bibby is off the court for an increased deep-ball threat. 

By enacting this strategy, Wade will know that for the rest of the year he will have to make the big plays.  This will result in sharper mental focus and better shooting percentages in those final moments.  The only question is: will LeBron’s ego allow this?

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  1. March 7, 2011 at 7:15 pm

    Good call. I think this Bystander Effect is closely related to the Alpha-Dog Theory that Bill Simmons always talks about. With two pure alpha dogs on the team that have been the “go-to-guys” on their respective teams for the last 7 years, they are having a tough time figuring out who should take the last shot. Heck, despite what everyone may thing of Bosh and Mike Miller, those two were previously the Raptors and the Grizzlies best players and they took the shots at the end of the game. Don’t you think those two lesser players might be thinking that they could take the game winning shot as well?

  2. March 7, 2011 at 8:17 pm

    I don’t know, I’ve watched most Heat games and they almost always go to Lebron. Maybe they have it decided that he’s the go to guy and it’s just not working.

  3. David
    March 7, 2011 at 8:58 pm

    That’s the thing though…even if they mostly go to Lebron, that’s not enough to solidify the title of endgame specialist. In the back of his mind, Wade knows that he might occasionally get a shot.

    I think they need to adapt it to a Lakers style situation, where everyone from age 6 upwards knows that Kobe is getting the ball with the game on the line.

    And Matt, I think even Bosh forgets he plays on the Heat some nights. Good point with Miller too, hadn’t thought about that. I always forget that he had some very good years with the Grizz.

  4. March 7, 2011 at 11:14 pm

    Like when a coach announces his starting qb so there’s no debate. I hear ya, fair enough.

  5. March 7, 2011 at 11:29 pm

    But don’t you think that even if they do that, and Lebron misses some game winners, that Wade will be thinking that he should be taking the shots? This will happen whether it is Lebron or Wade who is given the last shot. One of them will have to make a major adjustment to be able to accept that the other player is better than them.

  6. David
    March 8, 2011 at 2:23 am

    Maybe the Heat can just sign Big Country Reeves to a veterans minimum contract for the rest of the year, and end this debate once and for all.

  1. March 7, 2012 at 7:07 pm

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