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What does it mean to be clutch?

Five seconds left. Down by one. You’re getting the ball. And everyone knows it. As the ref hands the ball to your teammate, you make your cut. You catch the ball cleanly. Four. The crowd starts to yell as you begin your assault. “Three!”. You make one more move to gain some space from your defender. “Two!” You jump and fire the ball towards the rim. “One!” There’s an eerie silence as the ball floats toward the rim. The buzzer sounds as the ball takes one hop on the rim before it falls through the hoop. The crowd explodes in applause. As you trot into the house, you are on top of the world.
As young athletes, this is what we aspire to be. The quintessential clutch shooter. The go-to-guy. When your team is down late, the ball is in your hands. Unfortunately, as we know, not everyone can be this player, so, there is always a battle for the position. If you manage to capture this spot, you must face the criticism when you lose in exchange for the praise when you win. But, in order to fully understand the situation, we must ask ourselves, what does it mean to be clutch?
Fans Perspective
As a fan, you are one of the most polarizing figures in the world of sports. When a clutch player makes their shot, you rave about how amazing it was. However, when they miss, you criticize and curse them until you swear they know what you’re saying. At times we will ponder: have they lost their edge? Will they ever be the same? We don’t look deeper than what just happened. So, in the fan’s eyes, the most clutch player is whoever gets the most attention for their makes and is able to minimize the attention for their misses.
Psychological Perspective
When looking at the subject from a psychological prospective, you hear the words “mental toughness” thrown around, and, as VCU’s guard Darius Theus said in an interview with Cliff Kirkpatrick, “mental toughness wins games”. But what is mental toughness? In a personal interview with Dr. Nicole LaVoi, mental toughness was defined as “performing at the top range of previous performance standards on command, regardless of the situation”. This definition opens up a whole new world to the clutch player. Who is the least affected? That is the question we must ask. Now, I’m not saying the player inbounding the ball is the most clutch player on the court, but we need to look at more than just the shooter to get the full picture. Was the shooter assisted? Was it one on one? Were they wide open or was the shot contested? We must look at each situation and the associated stats to understand the true meaning of the word clutch from a psychological perspective.
Where does that leave us?
With these two definitions in hand, we need to find the point where they meet. An equilibrium. You see, there are positives and negatives to both perspectives. From the fans perspective, you get to see each game in its entirety but, on the downside, you tend only remember the end result. From the psychologists point of view, you get hard data which can be decisive in proving a methodology. The problem that arises from this is, as Jeff Wise says, “excellence pitted against excellence might yield something that looks a lot, in the crunching of numbers, like mediocrity.” So the question we have to ask is where do they meet? I would argue that a clutch player is the athlete who remains consistent in tight situations over a long period of time. Most NBA players shoot under fifty percent. So, the notion that we should only look at clutch one game at a time is absurd. Being clutch is an ability. This means that we need to look at an entire body of work and not just the recent trends. So, in the end, the most clutch player is whoever remains the most statistically sound over the course of their career.

Analyzing Clutch

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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