I think this is a popular narrative that's more than a little overblown and is mostly discarded by NBA analysts worth following (that doesn't include most popular columnists or sideline reporters). It's used to justify a lot of things that don't hold up when examined closely. For example, the San Antonio Spurs won the title, then didn't win it, then won it again, then didn't win it again - all within a condensed time frame and with basically the same core players. So I don't get it, did Tim Duncan have the killer thing or didn't he? Dirk Nowitski's Mavs lost to the Heat in 2006 in what is described by most knowledgeable fans as a "robbery," and then got punked by the Warriors in the first round in 2007, his MVP year. And then were just very good for a couple years before winning it all, then being just very good again. So does he have it? I don't get it.
Let's look at the founding father of this phenomenon (as if no titles were won before this): Michael Jordan. Jordan was, by most accounts, competitive to the extreme point of being a difficult teammate, a bitter person, and compulsive gambling addict. Michael Jordan got his ass kicked in the playoffs year after year and then won one. Then he won two more, at which point he retired, came back, won three more, then retired, came back, and didn't win anymore. So we have three periods: the first seven years where he was at the peak of his performance but didn't win anything, the second eight years where he was statistically not quite as good but won six championships, and the last phase of his career where he didn't win anything and didn't have a great amount of influence over his team.
So, given that Jordan's career spanned eighteen years, and he was winning for only eight of them, are we sure that we can attribute his championships to that competitive drive and not other factors, like the assembly of a great supporting cast, the ascension of the winningest coach in history, the retirement of two of the NBA's greatest players and the retooling of their franchises, and the inevitable decline of talent that comes with an aggressive league expansion and a new CBA?
As far as Kobe goes, I wouldn't attribute any of Kobe's championships to his killer instinct. It's that killer instinct that made Phil Jackson try to trade him before quitting. It's that killer instinct that has NBA statheads calling Kobe a less than average player last season (and on the Olympics this year). It's worth noting that Black Mamba put up a 6/24 in game seven of his last championship season, and with mostly the same crew, laid an egg in the playoffs during the last two seasons. Ironically, championships won by teams led by Dirk and LeBron, two guys who were supposedly not competitive enough to win. I love Kobe Bryant. He's one of my favorite players. But let's not kid ourselves, Kobe was never better than the night he scored eighty one points against Toronto. He owned that year. That was the epitome of Kobe Bryant-ness. That's when he started calling himself Black Mamba and right before he demanded a trade from the Lakers, and right before they got Pau Gasol and won two championships. But in 2006, when Kobe was at his absolute best, he ended the season by getting spanked by the Phoenix Suns, and pouting his way through the second half of a game seven in Phoenix, taking just three shots and scoring one point. So are we saying he was killer when he won three championships with Shaq, then wasn't a killer, then was a killer again when Phil Jackson came back, Pau got to the team and won two more? Or maybe it's just that Phil Jackson + a big man + a great second guard + the triangle offense is a very good combination.
There's no question that LeBron James had an epiphany and changed between his first and second season with Miami. This is well documented, and James has been very forthcoming about it himself. But it doesn't fit the narrative that he got more competitive. I think it's hard to claim LeBron has ever been more competitive than his closeout Game five against the Pistons in 2007, his ridiculous and historic series against the Magic in 2009, or his game seven against Boston in 2008. Also, he won a couple MVPs, owned an all star game, and was considered by many (including me) to be the best player in the NBA. What happened in the last year is that LeBron became more mature, his team added some much needed components, and he and his coach agreed on a scheme that allowed him to use his size to play with his back to the basket. It's true that he was horrible against Dallas in the 2011 Finals, but it's much more plausible to believe that both LeBron and Miami made the necessary tweaks to both his skill set and their roster and game plan to get around that than any kind of existential bullshit.
To sum it up: I think some players take their game far more seriously than others, and that the extra kick they can get in clutch situations is indicative of more practice time, more focus, and more respect for the game in general, but I wouldn't call that a phenomenon. Coincidentally, the mark we'd put on all three players happened right about the same age, late twenties, when I think most young men agree they became somewhat self aware and started buckling down and focusing on what's important. The "killer" narrative may really be about maturity, and probably isn't as important as sports media thinks it is.
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