The flaw that LeBron James and Messi have in common

LeBron James and Leo Messi share the same level of success and longevity, but they also share a flaw that has defined them for their entire careers

Messi and LeBron at Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper in 2012

Most geniuses have a flaw that reminds us that they’re still human. Huge flaws also turn them into misunderstood geniuses, a distinction that is linked to special individuals and gives them a perspective of the world they live in by making hard things look easy and easy things look challenging.

For Leo Messi and LeBron James, two stars whose careers mirror each other in more than one way for over 20 years, their biggest flaw is their complicated relationship with penalty kicks and free throws, respectively. Maybe it’s the silence, maybe it’s the pause, they’re used to the noise and high-speed game, but for some reason, that’s an area of their game that makes them seem almost human.

Although he remains on the pedestal for all of his fans, especially after winning the World Cup, Messi averages 80% from the penalty box in his career, while LeBron averages 73,5% from the free throw line, so he actually envies Messi’s average despite being fairly mediocre. In 2017, LeBron even pledged to raise his free-throw percentage to 80%.

The NBA star and the football legend have a lot in common, starting from the fact that they both accomplished what was expected of them for this season. Messi won the World Cup and LeBron broke the all-time scoring record that had been set by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar nearly 40 years ago, but they’ve even seen improvements in their biggest weaknesses.

Messi got rid of his “clumsiness” at penalty kicks when his team needed him the most. He scored a penalty against the Netherlands in the quarterfinals and against France in the final to give Argentina its third World Cup. Leo’s penalty average in Qatar was the same as in the rest of his career, 80%, which is insignificant, but it did enough to put the curse to rest at the right time. The bad memories of Messi from the penalty spot were a thing of the past, especially the one he missed in the Copa America final in 2016 at a time when Argentina did nothing but lose finals.

On his part, and although it’s still low, LeBron is having his best free throw average in the last 10 years at 76.4%, which helped him get closer to Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring record, which now belongs to LeBron and stands at 38.390 points. His most efficient season from the line was with the Cavaliers at 78% in 08-09, while his worst was 67.4% with the Lakers in 18-19.

Comparing Messi’s numbers is a bit more complicated when it comes to his worst and best season -at club level- because penalty kicks are much less common in football than free throws in basketball. Messi has had seasons where he averages 100% like in 15/16 when he shot 4/4, and the 3/3 he scored in 17/18. He also shot 0% in 08/09 by shooting 0-2. However, if we look at seasons where he had more attempts, his best season was in 11/12 with 82%, and the worst was in 14/15 with only 57%.

In Messi’s case, winning the World Cup placed him at the top of the list for best player ever now that he’s won the only trophy that Maradona had over him, but the kid from Rosario managed to bring Argentina the trophy they hadn’t won since Mexico 1986.

Even LeBron surrendered to Messi as the greatest of all time, tweeting his name next to the GOAT emoji when Leo won the World Cup. In LeBron’s case, his recent record has sparked the debate once again on whether he’s better than Michael Jordan, but others think that LeBron is simply the most complete player they’ve ever seen.

And that’s the secret. The gift that allows LeBron (38 years old) and Messi (36 years old) to continue to dominate thanks to their precociousness and their longevity: They can do it all. It’s hard to put the Lakers star and the PSG idol in a box. Doing it would be to take them for granted and even undervalue what they do and how they influence the game. They play in the way their teams need, making adjustments to exploit their rivals’ weaknesses, and they can fill any void.

Both stars have also been some of the best passers in their sports for years. In addition to winning the NBA scoring title in 2008, LeBron also became the league’s assist leader in 2020, the same year he brought the Lakers another championship. While Messi has won six Golden Boots (2010, 2012, 2013, 2017, 2018, and 2019), and he was the assist leader in the 2015 Champions League. Besides all these accomplishments, Messi has also scored 13 goals and given 8 assists for a total of 21 goals he’s been responsible for, more than Pelé, Gerd Müller, Ronaldo Nazario, and Miroslav Klose, all with 19.

We find other parallels in their trophy cases, especially the ones that matter the most. LeBron has won 4 NBA rings (2012, 2013, 2016, and 2020), and Leo Messi has won four Champions Leagues (2006, 2009, 2011, and 2015), both players won four major titles in the span of ten years and they’re desperately chasing their fifth trophy in their respective competitions, and they’ve both spoken about this fact repeatedly.

However, it’s also common knowledge that they don’t care about individual accolades as they choose to focus on team accomplishments because they know that’s what defines great players. They both made their debut in 2003, although Messi didn’t officially debut until 2004, and the end of their careers isn’t in sight yet. They’ve struggled with free throws and penalty kicks throughout their legendary careers, but instead of a flaw, it’s only a way to remind us that they are just as human as the rest of us, which does nothing but elevate their legend.

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