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Kobe isn’t as clutch as you think, but he’s not as bad as some think

Jan 28, 2011, 2:35 PM EDT

Los Angeles Lakers v Denver Nuggets Getty Images

There is no middle ground when it comes to Kobe Bryant — you either worship him or you hate him. The shades of gray have been washed away and he exists only as the guy in the white hat or the black hat.

Of course, reality is never that clean and simple.

One think Kobe has the reputation for is being clutch — maybe the most clutch player in the NBA. For years running polls of players and league executives, they say Kobe is they guy they would want taking the last shot of the game.

Henry Abbott and the research team over at ESPN dug through the numbers — the numbers as they chose to define them, but we’ll get to that — and found Kobe really isn’t all that clutch.

ESPN Stats and Information’s Alok Pattani dug through 15 years of NBA data (see table below) — Bryant’s entire career, regular season and playoffs — and found that Bryant has attempted 115 shots in the final 24 seconds of a game in which the Lakers were tied or trailed by two or fewer points. He connected on 36, and missed 79 times.

That’s 31 percent — which is the league average for shots in that situation Abbott points out. In fact, defenses on the whole get better — or shooters tighten up, or the refs swallow their whistles, or some combination of it all — in the clutch and offenses struggle.

Over Bryant’s 15-year career, the Lakers have had the NBA’s best offense, and second-best won-loss record. No other team can match their mighty 109 points per 100 possessions over the entire period…. In the final 24 seconds of close games the Laker offense regresses horribly, managing just 82 points per 100 possessions. And it’s not a simple case of every team having a hard time scoring in crunch time. Over Bryant’s career, 11 teams have had better crunch time offenses, led by the Hornets with a shocking 107 points per 100 possessions in crunch time, a huge credit to Chris Paul

The Lakers are not among the league leaders in crunch time offense — instead they’re just about average, scoring 82.35 points per 100 possessions in a league that averages 80.03.

This is a great and well-researched story for which Abbott will get hammered by those convinced Kobe can walk on water. Comes with the territory but those people are wrong.

The numbers don’t lie — when faced with being tied or behind with 24 second or less left in the game, the Lakers and Kobe are pretty much average. And Abbott makes a good point in that the Lakers end-of-game offense is almost always isolation Kobe, which leads to contested jumpers. I’ve said for years that they need to run different sets (or the triangle) to make teams defend other players more.

My one issue with the report — you can choose to define clutch in a lot of ways.

How a player shoots in this very intense situation — tied or behind with 24 seconds remaining — which Abbott has chosen is one way to define clutch. But a big three with less than 24 seconds on the clock and your team up one is also clutch. Coming into a tie game with five minutes remaining and taking over so it becomes a 10-point win is clutch. Getting a key defensive steal or stop with your team up two and 10 seconds left is clutch. Having a great Game 5 of a playoff series is clutch.

We can define clutch any number of ways, from certain times and situations in games to entire games in certain situations. Kobe’s reputation as clutch certainly has some overlooking his flaws in that setting, but the fact that all those basketball minds in the polls of general managers and players keep coming back to Kobe as the guy they want in the crunch has me thinking that in the broader definition of clutch, you still want Kobe on your team.

  1. loungefly74 - Jan 28, 2011 at 3:00 PM

    nice way to end that article (kobe fan BTW). Agree, love him or hate him, when players and gm/owners are both saying kobe is the man you want at clutch time, he is doing something right. Very smart to discuss the definition of clutch…as an intangible, so many formulas can be used to spin it. i think because kobe plays in a bigger spotlight and generally more meaningful games, his “clutch” performances are magnified…unlike someone from say…sacramento or memphis, etc…

    • gainesweaver - Jan 28, 2011 at 4:30 PM

      The points made about the shortcomings of the study are valid. Additional study of other “clutch” situations would provide a much better picture. However, pointing to players and gms is actually a pretty weak basis of evidence for this type of thing. It has been demonstrated time and again throughout sports that the “conventional wisdom” held by the players, coaches and management is often very, VERY wrong once you look at the statistics. Two examples, management in baseball thought it had pretty good ideas about how to analyze players and find diamonds in the rough. “Moneyball” proved that in fact management was pretty mediocre at it and provided a much more unbiased way of finding real value. In football, it used to be a rarity to go for it on 4th down or to go for a 2 point conversion, even in college where the 2 point conversion has been around for decades. But, once stat-geeks started looking at the actual results of 4th down attempts and 2 point conversion attempts, while accounting for distance to gain and score and time, the number of attempts at both shot through the roof in the last 6-8 years (btw, making for a much more exciting game).

      So, personally, I’d like to see the guys over at ESPN look at addition types of “clutch” situations. I don’t have a beef with Kobe one way or another. But the first unbiased (by human emotion) study (the study mentioned in the article) seems to indicate that maybe the players and gms are simply mistaken. I’d still take Reggie Miller in a business suit and wingtips coming out of the stands over anybody else in the league.

      • loungefly74 - Jan 28, 2011 at 7:39 PM

        good stuff gainesweaver. I have read Moneyball and can’t wait for the movie to come out. Not to get too off-topic but it seems like the formula for success (in MLB) was using sabermetrics AND spending $ (i.e red sox, angels, etc..). if i remember right, beane swung and missed on quite a few guys too and that he targeted players who were not heavily targeted by other teams using sabermetrics. If he was willing to spend some real money, the A’s coulda had a couple rings. anyway…
        well, i gotta say the guys who play the game and the gm/owners who work the game know a lot and just have insight to things stats and fans just don’t have. if 9 out of 10 dentist recommend Crest, Crest is doing something right! alright, that was a cheesy analogy but it serves the point. so i give value to what the players.
        Agree…as i mentioned earlier, “clutch” is an intangible…kinda like “momentum”…it’s just about impossible to come up with a single formula for it…if it even exist!
        Ha! Reggie was the man…like Kobe, he was fearless at crunch time.

  2. musilly - Jan 28, 2011 at 3:13 PM

    I liked this post but about this use of “you”…it’s kinda off-putting. Don’t put words in others’ mouths.

    Why don’t you just say “I?” “I want Kobe on my team” instead of “you want Kobe on your team?”

  3. thestudiokida - Jan 28, 2011 at 4:21 PM

    Kobe is a clutch player mainly because he loves putting the team on his back and taking the biggest shot of a game. Even at the professional stage there aren’t many players with that combination of confidence/toughness.

    I am the “anchor” bowler of my bowling team and I love an opportunity to win a game or series for my team. I lament all the times I’ve failed and we lost as a result but sometimes I throw 3 perfect strikes and bury the other team. Greatest feeling in the world… even if it is only a recreational sport. So I respect Kobe for putting himself in the spotlight time and time again… even if he doesn’t always come through.

    PS Who’s the most clutch free throw shooter? That would be a lot of pressure with the game stopped and all eyes on you? Ray Allen comes to mind.

  4. arbornicer - Jan 28, 2011 at 5:20 PM

    This is proof that Helin is a sever Kobe hater. Why would anyone try to quantify clutch? the numbers of points scored in the 4th just show that. how many times does it even lead to a win? Clutch is something that happens in a certain type of moment and there is no algorithm that can figure out all the situations clutch occurs in. The things that we see are what bolster these kinds of feelings and I have never seen a player in any sport rise up in huge moments the way Kobe does where we almost expect them to happen.

    • mytthor - Jan 28, 2011 at 7:11 PM

      Did you even read the article? He’s criticizing another writer for trying to quantify clutch. Also, Kurt RAN a Lakers blog before he started writing here. You are a fool.

      • arbornicer - Jan 31, 2011 at 5:48 PM

        lmao you know i went with what i thought it was about and i didn’t even care anymore

  5. lafiredog - Jan 28, 2011 at 6:23 PM

    We shouldn’t forget the fact that Kobe’s career started when he was just barely 18 years old…Remember the two airball free throws Dunlevy had him shoot early in his career? He really started to shine as a clutch player about 4 or 5 years in to his career. It would be interesting to see statistics not counting his first few years in the NBA…

  6. wvan10 - Jan 28, 2011 at 6:33 PM

    Kobe is the clutchest player in the NBA, not because of his Field Goal Percentage in these such situations, (After all some players are in the position to get wide open looks in these situations because of players like Kobe) but because of all the players actually good enough to create his own shot in crunch time (there are only a handful – Lebron, Wade, Dirk, Melo….anybody else?) he makes the clutchest play (either with the shot or the pass). He also is known for ice water in his veins with less than 6 seconds on the clock. There is a reason most GM’s and players would only take Kobe in these situations.

  7. davidly - Jan 28, 2011 at 7:16 PM

    Who leads the NBA in all-time scoring average in the fourth quarter when his team wins? I’ll give you three guesses.

    • loungefly74 - Jan 28, 2011 at 7:49 PM

      My guesses…Lebron…Jordan…or Kobe. Don’t know who it is so I’ll just pick 3 biggest “gamers” the past 20 years…:)

  8. therookie773 - Jan 29, 2011 at 2:32 AM

    You can’t really take this research one hundred percent as well and it’s not just because how each person “defines” clutch. Most of those kobes missed shots and I’m making an assumption here (I would like to think a fair one) that most of his supposed clutch shots came from earlier in his career when he isn’t super clutch as he is right now. Because if you ask me, the last few years kobes been more clutch more times than he hasn’t, so I believe this research is irrelevant. Kobe is fucking clutch

    • Kurt Helin - Jan 29, 2011 at 11:01 AM

      Just for the record, I am a Lakers fan (born in LA) and used to run a Lakers blog before this. And one thing I consistently said at that blog is that at the end of games the Lakers need to run less isolation for Kobe and either use specific sets or just run the triangle. The end-of-game is too predictable, and the result is contested jumpers. Kobe makes some of those, but I still think there are sets that could get better looks.

    • borderline1988 - Feb 2, 2011 at 10:35 AM

      There’s no doubt he had an unbelievable clutch shooting season last year (what did he have, like 6 game-winners or something?).
      But I’ve always felt that over his career, he’s been over-rated in the clutch. And Kurt Helin is completely right about why….he often takes stupid shots.
      For example, last year, The Lakers played my Raptors twice, and both times, it came down to the final seconds. Kobe hit a game winner in the first one. But in the second game, he took a ridiculous fadeaway 30 foot shot. Everyone ooed and awed over how close that shot came to going in, but why the hell would you not use what could be the greatest decoy in NBA history in last second situations?
      I admit that giving Ron Artest 3 point looks can be frustrating, but supposing Gasol sets a pick for Kobe, then sets up at the post – give him the ball, let him make one move and go to the basket.

  9. brady2welker - Jan 31, 2011 at 12:34 AM


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