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Posts Tagged ‘Cognitive Bias’

82games just updated its numbers for the 2011 season, and of particular interest is Miami’s performance in clutch situations (5 point game or closer in the final 5 minutes). As far as I know, no one publishes team stats for these situations.

In lieu of that, we can ballpark a team’s clutch performance by looking at the team leaders in clutch minutes. Included is the percentage of clutch minutes that player has played for his team, and the player’s overall plus-minus for the season for comparison.

From 82games.com through 3/05/11

So it’s not like Miami is crumbling or lost down the stretch of these games. They are actually about 15 points better than opponents over the course of a game using this criteria. More surprisingly, Miami’s offense with James on the court (95% of its clutch minutes) boasts an Offensive Rating of over 120. By comparison, the Lakers ORtg with Bryant is just under 109. Boston’s with Pierce is 108.5. Chicago’s with Rose 108.

Hmm. Maybe Miami’s clutch problem is against elite teams only? The Heat have played 12 competitive games against the eight best teams this year (with a 2-10 record in those games). In the final two minutes of those games, Miami’s average point differential is -0.2. Basically dead even.

In the final five minutes of these games their average point differential is -2.4. That’s -29 over 60 minutes of play; Finally some evidence of close-game failures. But even 79% of that difference comes from two games against Orlando in which the Magic bombarded Miami down the stretch (in the November 24 and February 3 games). Here’s the Heat’s complete breakdown against the top-8 by section of the game:

It’s fair to say that Miami’s struggles down the stretch are overblown. With the exception of one incredibly specific, small-sampled criteria: The final 10 seconds of games when trailing by three or less. According to an ESPN graphic posted after the game, Miami is just 1-18 shooting in such scenarios.

Is it plausible that the Heat will continue to shoot 6% in these situations for the remainder of the season and the playoffs? Unlikely. Right now, they’re on the (extreme) wrong side of variance in a small sample size (18 shots).

That doesn’t mean there aren’t legitimate problems in South Beach. Only, they have a lot less to do with close games and a lot more to do with size and depth. Which, of course, were the original problems in the first place when they cleaned house in the offseason.

The Heatles aren’t losing these games in the final seconds. They are losing them in the 3rd quarter (and into parts of the 4th). And there’s no reason to believe that isn’t a direct result of playing three on five most of the time.

Miami was thin enough heading into the season before Udonis Haslem’s injury. It has now logged over 1000 minutes at center from Juwan Howard and Erick Dampier. Combined age: 73. (Yes, they still play basketball.) Mike Miller has played 500 disappointing minutes returning from injury.

Miami’s biggest problem heading into the playoffs this year isn’t the end of close games – that issue has been greatly exaggerated, and it will improve with experience and, statistically, by default. The Heat’s biggest problem is the same one they’ve had all season: size and depth.

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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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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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People have been conflating team success with individual success in sports forever –81% in this decidedly unscientific poll. And it’s most frequently seen in basketball because one player can have such a large impact on a game. But even if it were once a decent correlative measure of a player back in the 50s and 60s, in a larger league with a larger talent pool, there are problems with it:

  • There are fewer and fewer opportunities for individuals to even play on a legitimate championship contender.
  • If they do, a dynasty can completely muck up the situation because the 2nd, 3rd, 4th…nth best player basically never wins. (See: Barkley, Malone, Ewing, Chamberlain, West, Robertson and so on.)
  • Even elite teams vary in strength

At the heart of individual player analysis is how much a player impacts the game and raises the probability his team will win. Again, that’s probabalistic, not dichotomous. Good players increase the chance of winning, just like good shooters increase the chance the shot goes in. It’s not black and white. No one shoots 100%.

Figuring out who is the best is a “bottom-up” process. We examine all the factors involved and conclude a result. But using championships is top-down. It starts with an individual winning and assigns credit from that result, all the while ignoring the massive confounds of teammates, competition, coaching and injuries.

There shouldn’t be some magical rankings boost given to a player because he was traded to a team with Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. You had to be living under a rock if you couldn’t see that pairing Kevin Garnett with good players wouldn’t instantly create a championship-level team. Yet KG was labeled as a choker and loser during his best years in Minnesota, despite strong evidence to the contrary.

In our minds, which are constantly subject to cognitive biases, winning maximizes strengths and losing exposes weaknesses. And we shine a light on both.

When a player develops a reputation, we remember it and actually look to affirm it in the future. Kobe misses more late-game shots than anyone, but he’s made a boatload too by virtue of taking so many, so people remember the ones he made. And they just ignore the ones he misses. Skip Bayless still seems to be under the impression that LeBron James isn’t good at the end of the games. Probably because of one or two readily accessible memories from the past. Similarly, most people were shocked by these results.

The media sells stories. Winners and loser. Good and bad. Make a key play at the end of the game, and you’re the hero — nothing else matters. Mess up at the end of the game, you’re the goat, nothing else matters. (That’s goat, the animal not the acronym.)

In the big picture, I have no problem saying Player A might “add 15-20 wins” to his team, or even any team on average. That’s kind of the Rosetta Stone of player value estimations. But to look at the extremely small sample size of the playoffs, ignore matchups, injuries and other circumstance and use the single championship every year in player analysis is just so far removed from the relationship to how good a player is, it seems, quite literally, useless.

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