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Debunking the Myth of Clutch in the NBA Once and for All

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Debunking the Myth of Clutch in the NBA Once and for All
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

We NBA fans have all been there. 

Our team is down by one point with the final seconds of a crucial game ticking away slowly as the shot clock continues its maddening march to zero. We stare intently at the television and hope that the ball somehow finds its way into the awaiting arms of our team's star player (for me, unfortunately, that just happens to be Joe Johnson). 

As soon as he gets it, we just know that he's going to turn to face the basket, loft up a pretty-looking jump shot and inevitably make the final shot of the game as the buzzer sounds and single-handedly produces more decibels than the mass of fans at the stadium, all watching the arc of the ball in silence. 

The game ends and our hero has added one more clutch shot to the lengthy list of heroic moments in his career. 

But what if I told you that there was no such thing as clutch? 

Surely, this is where half of you are going to click through to the next article and dismiss me as some idiot who just happened to stumble onto a writing gig. But hear me out before you make up your mind.

Chances are, you've never questioned the existence of clutch, but rather assumed that it exists because people talk about it. 

I was one of those people until a few years back when my friend Shashank Bharadwaj dropped a bombshell and told me that clutch didn't actually exist.

If you recognize Shashank's name, it might be from a recent article I published where 11 other NBA fans and I drafted 12-man rosters of every player ever to play the game (he finished second). 

Of all the people I've ever come across in my life, both in person and through other mediums than simple discussions, Shashank possesses the best mind when it comes to the relationship between numbers and sports. So when he told me something like that, well, I listened.

Of course, I did have to go and look at the numbers myself. Before I move any further though, it's important to understand exactly what we're defining "clutch" as. To me, the concept involves either elevating your performance or maintaining it when the game is on the line. In the context of the NBA, that means performance in the last few minutes of a tight game. 

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Now, I'm going to undertake the difficult task of convincing everyone that Jerry West's 60-foot shot in the 1970 NBA Finals, Michael Jordan's final shot as a Chicago Bull, Robert Horry's countless heroics, Derek Fisher's 0.4-second play and the many other great moments in NBA history were simply great moments, not clutch ones. 

With those moments, and others, they're memorable because the ball ended up going through the rim for two or three points. We don't remember the countless number of times that it clanged off the rim and the player who shot it had to hang his head and walk off the court with a dejected expression.

Just as with everything else, it's important to remember the sample size of what you're looking at. If a team wins its first game of the season and the star player scores 50 points, we don't automatically assume that the team is going to go undefeated and the star player is going to average 50 points per game for the entire season.

Why is it different in this situation? 

Why do we assume that a player who makes one crucial (note: crucial, not clutch) shot is infallible when the game is on the line, thus overlooking the many other shots they've missed in similarly important situations?

It's because we want these men who play the game to be heroes. We want them to do things that we can't do, like drilling game-winners every single time they attempt one, even though that's by no means possible.

But despite our desires, our heroes don't always come through. The following stats come from an ESPN article about Kobe Bryant not being clutch ("trailing by one or two points, or tied, in the final 24 seconds of regular-season and playoff games since 1996-97, with a minimum of 30 shots") and a database from 82games.com ("4th quarter or overtime, less than 5 minutes left, neither team ahead by more than 5 points" for the 2010-2011 season):  

Player Name ESPN Clutch FG% 82games.com Clutch FG% Normal FG%
Carmelo Anthony           47.7                  45.8         45.9        
Chris Paul           45.2                  39.0         47.1
Shawn Marion           40.0                  50.0         48.5
Brandon Roy           40.0                  31.3         46.0
Hedo Turkoglu           40.0                  38.1         42.8
Rashard Lewis           39.1                  41.9         45.5
Glenn Robinson           38.9                  DNP         45.9
Deron Williams           38.9                  42.9         46.3
Mike Bibby           38.5                  46.7         43.7
Dirk Nowitzki           38.5                  45.8         47.6
Jalen Rose           37.5                  DNP         44.3
Tim Duncan           37.1                  47.1         50.8
Eddie Jones           36.1                  DNP         43.7
Karl Malone           35.5                  DNP         51.6
Ben Gordon           34.7                  39.5         43.5
Chris Webber           34.6                  DNP         47.9
LeBron James           33.3                  43.6         47.9
Raymond Felton           33.3                  32.4         41.2
Ray Allen           32.9                  36.2         45.2
Vince Carter           32.5                  38.6         44.5
Steve Francis           31.8                  DNP         42.9
Damon Stoudamire           31.6                  DNP         40.6
Nick Van Exel           31.4                  DNP         40.5
Kobe Bryant           31.3                  40.2         45.4
Jason Terry           31.1                  50.6         44.9
Allen Iverson           30.9                  DNP         42.5
Kevin Garnett           30.6                  46.4         49.8
Ron Artest           30.0                  30.8         41.9
Allan Houston           29.3                  DNP         44.4

 

Now if you look at all of that data closely, you'll notice that there are only four numbers in the middle two columns that are higher than the one in the respective row of the far-right column. Jason Terry's 50.6 percentage from the last year is one that I'm comfortable calling a statistical aberration since it's so far off from his 31.1 percent in the second column.

As for Mike Bibby and Shawn Marion, those exceptions are simply cases of a secondary player on a team receiving good looks and capitalizing on small sample size. Once more, their numbers in the second column are far worse.

Then there's Carmelo Anthony, who doesn't appear to be fazed by pressure at all. But then again, his "clutch" field goal percentage is not that statistically different than his career field-goal percentage and it's only based on 44 shots.

On top of those observations, it's important to note that there is no consistency whatsoever between the numbers in the three columns. If players maintain their "clutch" abilities, they should have roughly the same numbers year in and year out. That simply doesn't happen in the above table. 

Nick Laham/Getty Images

So if these players, the ones who are being trusted to take shots "trailing by one or two points, or tied, in the final 24 seconds of regular-season and playoff games since 1996-97" more often than any other players in the NBA, aren't performing at a high level consistently, how can they possibly be viewed as clutch? 

Despite all this, the big shots that are made are then glamorized and firmly etched in our memories more than the ones that miss. That's what creates the false sense of clutch in our minds.

That said, the stars should still be the ones taking the shots at the end of the game, simply because they're better shooters than the other players on the floor. Coaches recognize that, give them the ball in crucial situations and thus give them more opportunities for proving themselves to be "clutch," regardless of whether they succeed on a consistent basis.

Here's where I have to address Robert Horry, or "Big Shot Bob." Horry was by no means a star, yet he has multiple supposedly clutch shots. If you go back and watch the tape though, all of his game-winning three-pointers were of the catch-and-shoot variety.

He would stand in the corner, receive the ball without a defender in sight and drain the shot. What goes overlooked is that those were shots he could have hit in his sleep thanks to the lack of hands in his face. 

We remember Horry for the handful of game-winners he hit. Why don't we remember that he shot 227-for-634 from downtown in his playoff career, good for just 35.8 percent? It wasn't like Horry knocked down every big shot he took. 

But if you don't want to believe me, believe Horry himself. Here's what he said after making a game-winner against the Sacramento Kings back in 2002: "If I hit it, we win; if I miss, y'all are going to blame the stars for losing the game anyway. There's no pressure on me."

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

So, would I give the ball to Kobe or LeBron in a critical situation? Yes, absolutely. But I wouldn't be doing so because they're "clutch." I'd be doing so because they're great players and that greatness carries over into those crucial situations.

There's a quote from the book Scorecasting that really sticks out in my mind:

"Over the last two decades in the NBA, including more than 23,000 games, the free-throw percentage of visiting teams is 75.9 percent and that of home teams is...75.9 percent--identical even to the right of the decimal point. Are these shooting percentages any different at different points in the game, say, during the fourth quarter or in overtime, when the score is tied? No.

Even in close games, when home fans are trying their hardest to distract the opponents and exhort the home team, the percentages are identical. Sure enough, as sluggishly as the Blazers played in San Antonio, they would make 15 of their 17 free throw attempts (88.2 percent) even with fans behind the basket shouting and waving.

The Spurs, by contrast, would make 75 percent of their attempts. Evidence of the crowd significantly affecting the performance of NBA players is hard to find."

The free throw is the most human of all events in a basketball game. It's just one man standing at the foul stripe and using his mind and skill to overcome all distractions and make a simple, uncontested shot. If there is neither a difference between home and away free-throw shooting nor at various points in the game, than that proves to me that as a whole, NBA players have learned to overcome nerves.

They're different than you and I, who may miss a last-second free throw during a pickup game because we have butterflies in our stomach. We don't spend hours a day in a gym honing our form, making repetition after repetition until we're perfectly confident in our abilities. Quite simply, we aren't professionals.

Does "clutch" exist?

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When it's all said and done, the only evidence for clutch play is what we see with our own eyes, eyes that often deceive us. People say, "Of course there's such a thing as clutch! Didn't you see Michael Jordan overcome all of his nerves and drain his last shot? You can't deny that he's clutch."

Well, yes, I can.  

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