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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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