Evaluating Clutch Ability

If I asked you who has been the most “clutch” NBA player over the last five to ten years, who would say? Kobe? LeBron? D-Wade? All are great players. All three take a lot of late game shots, but, statistically, you would wrong. Statistically, Brandon Roy has been the most clutch player in the NBA (Rudy Gay and Deron Williams are also acceptable answers as Roy is now retired). You see, we get so caught up in what we see on TV that we don’t see the whole picture. We, typically, only get to see what players and teams will provide the best ratings. To put it in perspective, the most “clutch” golfer on the PGA tour is not likely to be seen near the top of the leaderboard. If Tiger misses a putt to win, he is going to be mad but he will only be affected temporarily. No, the most clutch golfer is the one who just scathes past the cut line week to week trying to provide for his family just hoping that he can make enough money to not be relegated to the Nationwide Tour the following year. He is fighting for his life every week. Tiger, on the other hand, is able to enter tournaments knowing what lies ahead. He doesnt have to live constantly in the moment. Unfortunately, our views become clouded because we only get the big names.

We are Caught up in the Sheer Number of Attempts

Using the stats compiled by Jordan Sams and the further statistical analysis by Devin Dignam we can see flaws in our judgment. For the most part, in highlights, we are only shown what happens at the end of games and not always how we got there. So, naturally, we think that the most clutch players are the ones that shoot the most at the end of games to which LeBron, Kobe, and Wade are all in the top four. Of these last second opportunities we, mostly, remember the shots they make. Misses are temporary. It’s the made attempts that build in our mind, and create the façade of a clutch shooter. However, if you look at the stats, this way of thinking doesn’t always prove to be true.

For instance, since 2006, if we look at shots within the last 24 seconds in close games, Kobe Bryant has taken 63 attempts. This figure is tied atop the league leaders. Of these 63 attempts he has made a leading 22 baskets for a percentage of 34.9%. However, this percentage is far below his career average of 45.4% and yet he is generally noted as one of the league’s most clutch shooters. Why is this? It’s because his team is on TV all the time so we see most of these shots. To add to our beliefs, if he makes a shot it will be featured on Sportcenter for the next few days because he is what people want to see. People don’t care about the Trailblazers (Roy’s team) or the Grizzlies (Gay’s Team). The viewers want to see the Lakers, Heat, and Thunder, so that’s what they get. The question we need to ask is, how can we fix how we evaluate clutch players?

How we Should Look at Clutch Players

First off, we need to look at more than just the end result. If we compare a player that brings their team back from 15 points down, but misses a contested shot to win to a player who can’t make a shot for minutes on end and their team’s lead is squandered away, but makes a wide open shot to win. Not only did the first player bring their team back, but they made more shots with time winding down. Overall, they are the least affected by the intense situation rendering them to have greater level of mental toughness by definition.

Next, we need to look at what kind of shot is taken. If a player is wide open, we have the right to expect them to make the shot. No exceptions. They are professionals. But, if a shot is heavily contested, we need to look at two things. First, did they make it? Second, could they have made a better decision? If they make it, great, they deserve any attention they get. If they miss, however, we need to look at the rest of play. You see, clutch ability is about making the best decision no matter the situation. Who is mentally tough enough to make the best decision at any given time even if that means passing to the open man.

In order to analyze this, we need to compile each situation and determine the player’s total impact on the end result. That should be our defining line for clutch players. How do we do this? I say we create a new stat. One designed to calculate clutch ability. We take the last five minutes of the game and look at four things; points, shooting percentage, assists, and their plus-minus. If we incorporated this into one stat, we could show if they started ahead or behind and the number of points they had an immediate impact on. The only thing that we haven’t taken into account is the type of shot taken. This can be done by using the players “effective” shooting percentage which is a more accurate calculation of the stat. This newly created stat would give us a deeper understanding of late game heroics. Now, this is only my purposed solution. There will be flaws, and short comings, but as Jim Cavan
states we “have the rarest of all gems, the very reason science was invented: an issue about which nobody is definitely correct”.

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