Last month, ESPN The Magazine and True Hoop writer Henry Abbott put together an article vilifying “hero ball,” the late-game heroics of Kobe Bryant and other closers of his ilk. “If hero ball is tangentially about winning basketball games,” Abbott writes, “it’s about winning them only through the least efficient, most predictable means of doing so.”
Abbott backs up the inefficiency of those means (isolation sets for superstars) with advanced statistics produced by Synergy Sports Technology, revealing that isolation plays are actually the least effective method of scoring (0.78 points per possession).
After comparing that to the more prolific “off-the-ball cuts” (1.18 ppp) and transition plays (1.12), it would seem that Abbott (along with whoever coined the phrase “there is no ‘I’ in team”) certainly has a case against the oft-praised closer.
And while it’s true that team play will (almost) always prevail over a tanking ball-hog, what Abbott and Synergy’s statistics fail to account for is the mental tenacity needed in order for players to perform well during crunch time—a stat that cannot be quantified.
Take LeBron James’ recent end-of-game collapses as an example. He is constantly criticized for “making the right basketball play” and passing off the potential game-winner precisely because he forgoes his uncanny ability to score in order to rely on a role player whose role probably doesn’t include hitting game-winners.
As the No. 1 scoring option on his team, he should be the one looking to hammer the proverbial nail in the coffin.
(It should be noted that, according to these stats from 82games.com, James has actually been a pretty decent closer historically. So where his sudden aversion to clutch-time came from remains a mystery.)
The question, then, can be simplified thusly: Who’s better suited to take the shot, James or Udonis Haslem?
Now this isn’t to say hero ball is always a better option. Indeed, Synergy’s statistics confirm that playing as a cohesive unit is essential to long-term success. And that isn’t to say Haslem is a complete dud in the final seconds. But in those moments when the clock seems like a more formidable opponent than the five defenders on the hardwood, it takes more than just an open look to knock down a shot. It takes nerves that don’t shrink under the weight of precious seconds slipping away, a focus that tightens but doesn’t crack under pressure.
This is why James should be taking the shot, not Haslem—he’s proven, more than once, that he can play the closer role.
But let’s consider the numbers Bleacher Report writer Kelly Scaletta crunched in an article back in February. According to Scaletta’s well-researched statistics, Kobe Bryant has shot a respectable percentage in crunch-time scenarios over the past five years, hitting 16 of 40 shots (.475). Travis Outlaw, on the other hand, has a no-effing-way percentage of .700, hitting seven of 10.
So, forgetting the fact that Bryant is clearly far more seasoned in besting Outlaw's crunch-time attempts by 30 and relying on stats alone, you’d want Outlaw gunning for that game-winner instead of Bryant every time, right?
The point—which has been made over and over in varying degrees regarding numerous topics—is that though the numbers (usually) don't lie, they often fail to tell the entire story. Even though Brook Lopez shoots roughly the same percentage as Bryant in the clutch (.467), it doesn’t mean he’s a legitimate closer.
Similarly, even though team play is generally more efficient, it doesn’t mean you run your final play for a choker.
However, whether you support hero ball or not, I think the crux of the debate lies in our perception of the closer’s decision-making. Abbott suggests in his article that Steve Kerr’s jumper to clinch the ’97 title for the Chicago Bulls “is perhaps the signature anti-hero-ball moment.” There’s truth in this. Michael Jordan’s pass is the perfect example of team play prevailing in the clutch.
But let’s say Kerr misses that shot. Does Jordan get criticized, like LeBron James, for electing to “make the right basketball play” instead of taking the shot himself like he’s done, with success, on so many other occasions? Say Jordan doesn’t pass it to the wide-open Kerr and forces up a brick. Does he instead get criticized, like Kobe Bryant, for chucking up a heavily contested stinker?
When provided with the other potential outcomes, the difference between hero ball’s necessity and its ineffectiveness become blurred. Hero ball is subjective, after all, so the difference between Bryant’s failed attempts and James’ failed passes becomes a question of our own prejudices, not of each player's apparent “clutch-ness.”
In both cases, the best player has possession, so it is our interpretation of their decisions that makes hero ball something to be loved or hated.
Big names make big plays. Hero Ballers would agree. But then again, subjectivity is probably at work there also and history chooses to remember the big plays made only by the big names.