The Gray Area Of Clutch Performance

Darius Soriano —  March 19, 2012

I’m not a big fan of the meme surrounding clutch play. I’ve found that too often people who toil in the territory of claiming or refuting who is and who is not clutch do so at the expense of at looking at the entire game. That possessions that happen outside of the accepted construct (5 minutes or less in the game with a margin of 5 points or less) don’t meet the definition of clutch, that what matters most is scoring or shot making and the efficiency in doing so, that positional confines or players’ roles aren’t front line variables to consider, etc, etc.

Said another way, there’s too much gray area surrounding the arguments of clutch play for me to get worked up about it either way.

I’m more than happy to admit that as a game winds down and the score is close, the contest is more exciting. I’m also happy to admit that it’s thrilling to see someone hit a game winner and that misses in those instances don’t carry the nearly the negative connotation that a made shot carries a positive one.

This surely influences how I view Kobe Bryant. But as a Lakers’ fan, and someone that’s appreciative of having him spend his entire career helping the team I root for achieve more success than any other team during his era of play, I’ll also admit I’m a bit biased here. I mean, I’m objective about how Kobe’s late game play can both help and hinder the Lakers (last night is just the latest example of the latter) but over the years I’ve learned to accept Kobe for what he is: a fantastic basketball player who has had a bunch of success playing the game the way that he sees best while also being far from perfect. If you want to focus on the “far from perfect” part, that’s fine. If you want to focus on the “fantastic basketball player” part, I’m good with that too. After all, he’s both.

Again, I accept this.

I don’t care much about his place in history because those are of often mythical match ups that spur on hypothetical arguments that will never be solved. I don’t care how he stacks up against present day players because he’s 16 seasons into a career whereas his “peers” that carry the elite tag have had careers half as long (or less) to this point. I don’t need to argue who is better. I’m quite comfortable knowing that Kobe’s still quite excellent at this game and has been so for so long that he’s viewed this way both as a present day participant and through a historical lens. The fact that he’s in this discussion means more to me than if someone proves to me he’s better than another all time great.

Let’s get back on track though, shall we?

I don’t much care for arguing if Kobe’s clutch or not but I do know that the way we’ve come to define what is or isn’t clutch is too limited for my taste. For example LeBron gets gunned down by many fans for passing up shots to instead hit an open teammate in the closing moments of a close game. Some extrapolate this to mean he’s scared or deficient in the clutch. That he’d rather not miss than take and make the shot. I’ve no clue if any part of that last sentence is true but I can tell you I’ve read it about a thousand times in the last few seasons. Meanwhile, Kobe’s discussed and critiqued ad nauseam for the exact opposite reason.

Again, though, all we’re really discussing here is taking the shot. Is that all that matters? I’d argue no. And, while this topic has been covered some at this site before, there are others that would probably agree with me. Like Jared Dubin from Hardwood Paroxysm who covered this ground well in this fantastic read about what Kobe does and does not do in what’s become known as crunch time. He looks at Kobe’s stats from all angles and comes to this conclusion:

Kobe is such a lightning rod in the clutch discussion because his ardent supporters usually maintain that he IS clutch because of the game-winners and the championship rings, while statheads maintain that he ISN’T clutch because he usually doesn’t hit those game-winners and “count teh ringzzz isn’t an argument.” The track record on game-winners is indisputable. He doesn’t have a very good one. But he’s still an excellent shot creator – one of the best in the league at getting himself an open look – who routinely draws double and triple teams down the stretch of games, gets to the free throw line at an elite rate, steps up his rebounding and passing and usually wins. In other words, he’s a really, really good clutch time player, just not for the reasons his biggest supporters seem to think he is.

I suggest you go read the entire thing to better understand all the data that drove his conclusions. It’s a smart and well written piece that tries to get at more than just the shot that is or isn’t taken; that goes in or misses. And bringing some color to this gray area can only help us understand this part of the game better. Even if we’re not that fond of even discussing it in the first place.

Darius Soriano

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