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Posts Tagged ‘Clutch’

When I was growing up, a “closer” was a term reserved for baseball pitchers. Specialists with strange facial hair who were only used when their teams protected narrow leads and needed three outs to finish the game.* Then a closer became someone with enough machismo to finish real estate deals. Kyra Sedgwick turned out to be The Closer. And finally, it devolved into a basketball term.

*I never understood the decision not to use closers when teams were behind by a run. Why opt for a lesser pitcher simply because a save opportunity wasn’t available?

In the NBA, a “closer” refers to star players who play well down the stretch of close games. Give them the ball, and they will guide a team to victory. Simplify the game and ride the best player to victory.

In other words, the best closers are the best offensive anchors at the end of tight games. So naturally, unless there is a drastic difference between normal performance and late-game performance, the best closers will be the best overall offensive players in the game.

Some people believe that clutch performance varies wildly in professional sports. That pro athletes are wired differently, some live for big moments and others shrink in them. And there is quality reasoning behind that thinking. So, when something like this starts rolling, it’s hard to stop its momentum:

It didn’t stop there. Mark Jackson kept calling Kobe Bryant the best closer during game coverage. Skip Bayless has echoed it. This informal 2009 poll of players agreed that Kobe was the King of Clutch.

Kobe’s shortcomings in such situations have been extensively documented. The meme floating around that he’s the de facto best closer/clutch player in the league is actually less erroneous than its evil twin, the Un-Clutch meme. That has been slapped on undeserving players like Karl Malone and Kevin Garnett before, and now it follows LeBron James.

Only LeBron James is plenty clutch. Actually, he’s the best closer in basketball. And it’s not even really close.

In the first batch of clutch numbers I crunched from 82 games, looking at the final 5 minutes of 5-point games or closer, LeBron practically lapped the field. In 477 minutes of closer duty from 2008 to 2010, LeBron’s Cavs were +27.2 per 36 minutes. That is mind-boggling, given that the best NBA teams in history are about +9 per 36 minutes. It’s even more superhuman when one considers how they’ve completely crumbled as a team without James.

He managed to score, rebound and distribute down the stretch of close games while shooting 10% better than league average in eFG%. Holy Superman, Batman! Frankly, he looks like the best player in NBA history based on his closer line.

The next set of numbers looked at playoff performances in such situations. Again, James showed the same pattern: his scoring, shooting and assist numbers spiked. Of the players examined in that post, only one other (Carmelo Anthony) improved his playoff shooting in the clutch, and only Steve Nash averaged more assists. Of course, LeBron scored at nearly double Nash’s rate.

It’s almost as if most of LeBron’s value is disproportionately unleashed at the end of close games. He is, in many ways, the ultimate closer.

Yet the indestructible meme following LeBron is that he’s not a closer.

Some argue that he’s too unselfish at the end of games. But he actually shot the ball more frequently than anyone from 2008-2010, including Kobe Bryant. He has attempted 69 attempts in the final 24 seconds of close games according to this ESPN study, which is about 10 per year. Again, more than anyone on the list.

Even his free throw shooting is refined when he’s closing. 81% on 187 free throw attempts from 2008-2010, up 6.3% from all other situations. He made 20 consecutive late-game free throws this year before missing one two weeks ago. The last time 82games ran “super clutch” numbers (final 2 minutes of a 3-point game), LeBron was in video-game land.

Last week, Kevin McHale opined on NBATV that Miami should have LeBron be a distrbutor down the stretch and let Wade be the team’s closer. Skip Bayless loves to slam his ESPN desk and note how Wade is a great closer and LBJ isn’t.*

I don’t know what it will take to kill those ideas. I suspect the way to destroy the Un-Clutch meme is to win a championship. Hopefully, In the meantime, this is a start.

*If pressed, here are my late-game offensive player rankings since 2003. Note Wade’s absence:

  1. LeBron James
  2. Steve Nash
  3. Kobe Bryant
  4. Manu Ginobili
  5. Chris Paul
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As a follow up to this post, I’ve compiled the numbers from 82games clutch statistics in the postseason. They define “clutch” as the last five minutes of a 5-point game or closer. Unfortunately, the samples are much smaller and they don’t include 2010 playoff figures. The ten most notable players from that period:

Again, LeBron James comes out looking like Kal-El from Krypton. He and Carmelo Anthony are the only players to increase their shooting percentages down the stretch of close playoff games. Apparently, it’s impossible to shoot well in the playoffs. So much so that Kobe Bryant’s drop in eFG% of 5.6% over these six years is actually better than most of contemporaries.

LeBron somehow also ups his assists, which means from this group, only Steve Nash is setting the table as much at then end of close games. Nash bodes quite well, with per 36 minute averages of 22 points, 10 assists and 4 rebounds with an eFG% of 47% (second only to James). No surprises coming from perhaps the two best offensive players of the decade.

Garnett vs. Duncan

It’s worth revisiting how the two best “power forwards” of the era did here, since KG is so often criticized for shrinking down the stretch of games. In the regular season study, Garnett held his own again Timmy. Here, Duncan has a clear advantage:

Give Duncan some credit, although nothing overly spectacular. In Minnesota in 2004, Garnett averaged about 22 points per 36 minutes on 44% eFG% in these situations. He darn near disappeared in 2008 in Boston. In both cases, the rebounding and passing suffered. Garnett did shoot 80% from the line to Duncan’s 61% , but that’s about his only advantage. Although an extremely small sample — just 74 minutes — it’s a modicum of evidence supporting KG as a choker and validating Duncan’s endgame over Garnett’s.

EDIT: Thanks to drza’s contributions, it should be noted that if we include 2003, Garnett’s per36 numbers change to: 22.7 points 8.1 rebounds 0.9 assists 1.7 turnovers 55.7 TS% 48.6 eFG% in 84 minutes.

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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?

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.

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After the previous post examining Karl Malone and Kobe Bryant’s statistics in elimination games, I thought it might be worth it to run the same analysis on Malone’s sidekick, John Stockton. Bryant’s won five championships next to Shaq and Gasol. Malone ran up against Jordan and Olajuwon (four times in five years) and he certainly never had a running mate like The Diesel or the Spaniard.

Malone’s No. 2 was John Stockton, and the more I place his career under a microscope, the more I think that Stock might be one of the most overrated players of my lifetime. First, it was the Jazz assist-inflation issue. Second, Stockton’s inability or unwillingness to take over games by using his scoring. And now, the revelation that, *gulp* John Stockton’s performance plummeted when the Jazz faced elimination.

Is it possible that Stockton’s failures created the perception that Karl Malone was a choker? Look at Stockton’s performance in 16 elimination games from 1991 to 1998, with the same criteria that was used in the last post:

Now that is a precipitous drop off. We’re talking Jean Van de Velde levels of misfiring. Stock boosts his rebounding, but otherwise he was dreadful in those 16 games. He’s known for his steals, assists and efficiency…and that’s exactly what disappears in this sample.

His best game of the lot is a 21 point 11 assist performance (7-11 shooting) against Portland in 1992. Fittingly, Utah won that game. In the eight losses, Stockton averaged 15.5 points and 8.4 assists with 2.7 turnovers (all per 75 possessions) while posting a 51.9 TS%.

And yet, somehow, this is hardly ever mentioned with Stockton and beaten to death with Malone. In his recent “Book of Basketball,” ESPN’s Bill Simmons ranked Malone 18th and Stockton 25th, all-time. He wrote:

Fatal flaw: The deer-in-the-headlights routine in big games. Time and time again, he came up short when it mattered.

Only he wrote it about Karl Malone. Maybe it’s not Malone whom history should chastise for failing to produce in big games. Maybe it’s John Stockton.

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Winning can do wonders for an individual’s reputation in a team sport. I have long contested, with great resistance, that the conflation between individual results and team results plays tricks on even the most objective minds. Kobe Bryant has a history of falling short the bigger the situation (playoffs, Finals, game 7’s, GW shot attempts), yet has garnered a reputation as one of the best clutch players ever. Conversely, Karl Malone is seen by many as not just a failure, but a true choker. People often describe their perceptions of facial expressions in these situations:

Kobe looks like he wants it. Look at his face!

Malone looks scared. Look at his face!

It’s not exactly a scientific approach. And it’s one that preys on our cognitive biases. Bryant won early in his career with a great overtime performance, in a game everyone was watching (game 4 of the 2000 Finals). Malone was labeled as a failure early on. We then sought out to affirm those opinions, and selectively remembered what supported them and ignored what didn’t. Winning creates the perception of “clutchness” and alleviates the appearance of choking, regardless of how the individual plays. Peyton Manning was labeled a choker, but then lost that moniker after winning a Super Bowl…in arguably his worst postseason performance.

But back to Malone. One thing that stood out to me when combing back through his career was just how many big games he had in the playoffs and just how little help he had. Indeed, he even tormented some teams in the West. Our lasting memory of him is disappearing in the final minutes of Game 6 in 1998 and MJ stripping him on the penultimate play. But no one remembers the absolute gem he had to force that game in the first place…

Curious, I thought it would be interesting to compare Malone’s performances in elimination games from his highest profile period to Bryant’s elimination game performances. After all, what game is bigger than the one you can’t lose?

Before I present all the data, let’s just look at the true shooting percentage numbers:

Reg Season TS% Elimination Game TS%
Player A 55.6% 50.5%
Player B 58.7% 55.3%

Stop and think about those numbers telescopically. Player A drops over 5% in TS% – a catastrophic dip – from above average to well below average. Player B drops 3.4%, but still maintains a figure comparable to Player A’s regular seasons figure, and is still well above average. Which of those players would you say is a choker? Which of those players would you say shoots poorly when his team is facing elimination?

Player A, of course, is Kobe Bryant. Player B, Malone. Below are their full statistics in elimination games, for Malone 91-98 (Basketball-Reference doesn’t have playoff logs before 91) and for Bryant 00-10 (essentially Bryant’s prime). Statistics are normalized per 75 possessions played. Regular season averages are weighted based on the percentage of elimination games from that season. (eg 4 of Malone’s 16 elimination games are from 1998, so 25% of his regular season averages come from 1998.)

Wow. Kobe’s scoring, shooting and assists drop heavily. He has a slight increase in rebounding. If that’s not surprising enough, Malone actually increases his scoring in elimination games while significantly reducing his turnovers. His rebounding goes up as well.

Bryant certainly faced tougher defenses, but the Jazz also met plenty of stingy defenses. For an idea of the difference between a 101.6 DRtg and a 103.6 DRtg, that’s about the disparity between this year’s 6th-ranked Bulls defense (101.8 DRtg) and this year’s 10th-ranked 76ers defense (104.0 DRtg). Those Bulls teams allow an opponent’s TS% of 52.0% while the Sixers is 52.4%. So the difference in defensive quality explains little of the difference in performance.

Of course, there’s also the fact that Malone was the primary focus of every defense he faced throughout those years while Bryant had Shaq by his side for six of 13 games and Pau Gasol in another five. Malone’s secondary option was feeble by comparison: John Stockton’s high-scoring playoff game from 1991-1998 was 28 points! (An interesting follow up might be Stockton’s performances in these 16 games.) Indeed only three times did a Jazz player other than the Mailman go over 30 in that 8-year playoff period: Hornacek twice in 1996 (30 each time) and Jeff Malone in 1992 (33).

Yet Malone is heavily docked in all-time comparisons because of some perceived inability to play well at big times. And Bryant seems to get a boost because of it. While statistics certainly do not tell the entire story – ironically, I’d say Malone’s defense was better than Bryant’s as well, but that’s not a statistical debate – they certainly do fly in the face of conventional wisdom in this case.

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