Henry Abbot had a fairly provocative and rich post at True Hoop the other day about Kobe Bryant’s clutch play. Yet more evidence that Kobe’s play drops off in the “clutch,” despite what many in the sport proclaim. Since there’s never been a clutch criterion that has revealed Bryant to be the best — here nor here, for instance — that’s not really a new claim.
What’s interesting is how different Bryant looks down the stretch of close games versus the final seconds of a game in which LA trails (Abbot’s study). In the former situation, Bryant’s one of the best offensive players in the NBA. Using ESPN’s criteria, Bryant is a shade above average, and his shooting percentage is well below many contemporaries. LA’s Offensive Rating in such clutch situations takes a precipitous drop down to just 82 points per 100 possessions, 27 fewer points per 100 possessions than their ORtg in Bryant’s career. That’s not as bad as it sounds — league average is 80 in that clutch study — but it’s still just 11th according to ESPN. In other words, LA is getting much worse down the stretch in these situations.
So does something change in Bryant and/or the Lakers? I think so.
Consider last year’s NBA Finals, in which LA was outscored by 11 points in the 4th quarter. In the first three quarters during that series, LA was +35. The correlation with Bryant’s drop in play is strong:
Kobe’s numbers in the last three NBA Finals have plummeted in the 4th quarter. Per 36 minutes, he averaged 23.6 points 3.2 rebounds and just 2.3 assists in those three Championship Series.
It’s the assist numbers that are particularly telling. Kobe had one assist in 82games game-winning shot study with over 60 true shooting attempts. That’s a stark change from the nearly 4 assists/36 he dished out during the last 5 minutes of close games since 2003. More shots — and difficult shots at that — combined with less passing make for a weaker offense.
So Bryant’s “closer” performances are actually quite good, but his tendency, and predictability, to shoot in lieu of making passes to wide open players is eroding his impact at the very end of games. Some recent notable examples:
- In 2006, Nash takes a free run at him on this series winning attempt (an air ball).
- In 2009 against Orlando, Bryant shoots here despite half his team standing uncovered
- In 2010 against Phoenix, Bryant launches here with Fisher wide open in the corner (another air ball).
Clearly, Kobe’s decision-making down the stretch leaves a lot to be desired.
But people are clinging to the notion that Kobe is The Clutch King. Some of this is affirmation, as proponents point to all the game-winning shots and excellent numbers in the last 5 minutes.
Perhaps the most ironic piece of data in Abbot’s column: Kevin Garnett residing right next to Bryant. KG is often labeled as a choker, particularly by Bryant backers. Bryant does what it takes to win. KG doesn’t. Or so they say. Yet he is 22-72 in such spots. They have nearly opposite reputations about “closing” and “clutch” play, yet nearly identical shooting percentages in such situations.
One of the more fascinating aspects of cognitive biases is that they often don’t go away when people are told about them. “Other people might do that, but I don’t,” is a common answer from people when told about human reasoning errors. Not surprisingly, that leads to reactions like these after reading Abbot’s piece. But why?
- Humans are bad at judging probability
- Humans are bad at dealing with large sample statistics
- Humans are bad at remembering percentages when some events are just more memorable than others
And there are more reasons, of course. Matt Johnson over at A Susbtitute for War delves more into this pretty nicely, explaining why in-field experts like coaches can still be wrong when it comes to judging the frequency of repeated actions. The take-home here is, yet again, cognitive bias is at play when evaluating athletes. Stats aren’t a be-all-end-all, but they are a tool. And as Johnson says, we should use all the tools we have at our disposal, regardless of our expertise in a field.