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%
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.
Read Full Post »