Last night’s Celtics-Heat game thankfully did not come down to any “clutch” moments as Miami proceeded to shellac Boston to force Game 7 in which should be the most exciting game of these 2012 playoffs. Now, I don’t say “thankfully” because I am some closet Heat fan or have some tremendous ill-will towards the Celtics (it’s more of a general Boston hatred, not Celtics specific). I say thankfully because now I won’t have to read articles about whether or not LeBron James is a great or terrible clutch player, whether his willingness to pass the ball to the wide open teammate while he is double-teamed makes him a coward or not. I don’t know if LeBron is clutch and honestly I don’t care.
I cannot go further without paying homage to one of the great interpreter of clutch statistics, SI.com’s Zach Lowe. Anything you want to know about the minutia of how these statistics are compiled is referred to from there, but I wanted to speak to a broader point. Simply put, isolation plays are the least efficient plays in all of basketball and yet teams with superstars continue to choose this option when the game is on the line. According to Synergy statistics, isolation plays are worth 0.78 points per possession by far the lowest compared to transition plays (1.12 ppp), off-the-ball cuts (1.18 ppp), etc.
Kobe Bryant is often touted as the ultimate clutch shooter. The idea is that you want the ball in his hands at the end of the game, no matter what. No matter what why? Because it is the best call or because the coach doesn’t want to be criticized for not having the ball in his hands? In 2011, Henry Abbott compiled stats that showed that in the “final 24 seconds of a game in which the Lakers were tied or trailed by two or fewer points,” Bryant connected on 36 of 115 attempts throughout his career. That comes out to 31%, incredibly low for a player of his caliber. Now of course there are mitigating factors like the pressure of the situation, the intensity of the opposing defense, etc. But the issue here is that when compared to other players in the same situation this number is just… average. When the ball always goes to the same star in the same moments it is easy for the defense to defend. Whatever greatness that Bryant has is negated by the fact that he is double or even triple teamed in “clutch” moments.
Even the Western Conference champion Thunder had major crunch time issues, defined as either the last 3 or 5 minutes of the game when the margin is 3 or 5 points, depending on which definition you used. According the NBA.com’s clutch statistics, the Thunder had a +/- this past season of 24 (just above average) in crunch time situations, which would put them behind the liked of the Indiana Pacers, Atlanta Hawks, Houston Rockets, and even Memphis Grizzlies. In fact, it sandwiches them between Miami and Boston, the two other teams remaining in the playoffs. However, it should be noted that last season Oklahoma City ranked second in the NBA while Miami and Boston were steady. In the Thunder’s case this was the result of a far more stifling defense in the final 5 minutes, raising questions of whether it is a question of effort in the first 43 minutes. On the other hand their offense took a step back as Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant took 103 out of 120 shots in which the scoring margin was less than 3 over the last 3 minutes of a game. Once they started to work James Harden into their offense more in crunch time in the playoffs their offense took to another level.
The teams that are leading the way this season are not doing so because they are good in the last few minutes, though that helps. They are doing well because over the course of the game they are better than their opponents. I don’t care what player has the most comebacks, I want to know who wins the game. 20 points scored in the first quarter is the same as 20 points scored in the fourth, the only thing that changes is the audience’s perception. Whether LeBron is tentative at the end of the game doesn’t mean much to me, not that there is much evidence to support it. Never mind that LeBron is making the smart basketball play by passing out of an iso (.93 ppp compared to the aforementioned .78 ppp), he is doing what needs to be done to win from tipoff to the final buzzer. Stop talking about clutch, start talking about making the right play to win.
Sorry my posting has been so sporadic (that is, absent) these past few weeks. I recently took a new position that requires a bit more of my time, especially since it’s in addition to my current job. Between now and August 11 I may not get something up every week but know that I have not forgotten about the good people of this wonderful site.