In the past week, the controversial topic of Kobe Bryant’s clutchness has exploded onto the blogosphere. Henry Abbott of ESPN’s TrueHoop started the debate (or restarted, as this debate started long ago at 82games.com), essentially debunking the myth that Kobe is the King of Clutch. At Sports Illustrated’s The Point Forward, Zach Lowe chimed in a sober defense and clarification explaining that Kobe isn’t un-clutch. Kelly Dwyer and Eric Freeman, the geniuses at Yahoo’s Ball Don’t Lie, had rational analyses (here and here), but had to vehemently defend them, as well as their credentials, because of the polarity that this topic inspires. Dave Berri, who has disputed Kobe’s supremacy in the past at his blog The Wages of Wins Journal, went ahead and did so again when the Lakers played the Jazz. Alone in the Green Room is taking a new angle; after watching tonight’s Celtics-Lakers game, we decided to give an analysis of the analysis. In other words, by examining Kobe’s actions tonight, and how Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy reacted to them as in-game announcers and analysts, we hope to elucidate Kobe’s clutch play and how in-game analysis of Kobe intersects with his legend.
Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy have announced together since 2007. I personally love the duo because of the great player-coach dynamic between the two, because of Van Gundy’s goofiness, and because of Jackson’s, ahem, unusual catchphrases. Despite my gripes with their analysis at times, I generally respect their opinions and often times agree with them. Why shouldn’t I? Jackson has played the 13th most NBA games of anybody, ever. Van Gundy is candid and had a more than respectable coaching career.
Today, the Celtics played the Lakers on network television. Host station ABC called the games today “The Sunday Showcase.” With half the world watching (or at least, half of my friends and my world), this was a prime time for the public and announcers alike to delude themselves into the “Kobe is King of Clutch” narrative. The chief culprit today: Mark Jackson. He embodied the rhetoric of the pro-Kobe camp and in the process unintentionally added to the “Kobe is King of Clutch” discussion. Jackson, like most other NBA players and GMs in polls, believes Kobe is clutch. Jackson’s commentary, however, is a little richer in content than statistics from polls and allows for other avenues of analysis regarding the discussion of Kobe’s clutchness.
With the Celtics leading the Lakers 89-80 with 7:20 minutes left and with 8 seconds left on the shot-clock, Pau Gasol took an ill-advised, and to quote Jackson and Van Gundy, “soft” fade-away jumper from the left-post. It wasn’t pretty, and their qualms with Pau’s shot-selection were well-warranted. But was Pau really “soft”? When Kobe takes contested fade-aways, which is all the time, it isn’t his softness, but rather his “strong will” and “courage” that causes him to attempt such saucy endeavors–things that are the opposite of soft. It’s tempting to say that racial stereotypes underlie this disparity in characterization (personally I think they do to a degree, but I will save that for another day), but at the least we can say that Pau’s reputation as “soft” and Kobe’s widespread reputation as a ruthless killer who defies age and injury both influenced Jackson and Van Gundy’s analysis. These reputations create biases which in turn cause people to look at the same events and offer totally different analyses. For Mark Jackson, this reputation even influenced his strategic preferences in a manner consistent with the pro-Kobe camp. Simultaneously, as an announcer and analyst on a high-profile game, he reinforced the very rhetoric of Kobe’s reputation and the generally poor strategies that stem from this reputation. What strategies am I referring to? The one I like to call, “Kobe should shoot over double-teams every time and ignore his ridiculously talented teammates.”
It’s not too difficult to see how a remark about Pau’s softness is relevant to the topic of Kobe’s clutchness, but Mark Jackson spelled it out for us. The next trip down the court for the Lakers, Mark Jackson asserted that Kobe should stop passing to his teammates because they had proven to be too soft, and instead he urged Kobe to take any and every shot to will his team back into the game. As if on cue, Kobe forcefully backed into the lane to make a difficult turn around jumper (and-one!) to cut the lead to 89-83 with 6:58 left. At this point, the average viewer is left thinking that Mark Jackson is a perceptive analyst, perhaps a fortune teller, while Kobe is a tough, clutch winner who isn’t afraid to body his way into the paint to make things happen. Memorable and pivotal moments like these, especially when paired with analysis that condones the actions in these moments, creates and reinforces myths such as the legend of Kobe’s success in the clutch.
Want to know what happened in the final 7 minutes with the Lakers down 83-89? The Lakers took 12 more shots the rest of the game. They made 6 of them, but the final two were meaningless baskets with under 45 second left (one by Shannon Brown, the other by Lamar Odom). Not counting those two shots, every single possession started (and almost ended) with Kobe Bryant. The Lakers shot 4-10 following Kobe’s and-one, with the sole other Laker to attempt a shot being Pau Gasol on a motherfreakin’ tip-in attempt off of a Kobe miss. Kobe himself was a respectable 4-9 in this time period, displaying uncharacteristically clutch shooting compared to his historical percentages in such situations. But, he had zero assists (they don’t track number of passes attempted, but he had very few of those) and committed a charge. He single-handedly stunted the Lakers offense, per Mark Jackson’s request. As a result, in the Lakers’ final 10 meaningful possessions of the game (the last being Kobe’s miss followed by Pau’s miss), the Lakers scored 8 points. That’s good for an Offensive Rating of 80 (80 points per 100 possessions), which is below their league leading 112.6 Offensive Rating. In the Celtics final 10 possessions, the Celts shot 6-9 with 1 turnover and scored 14 points (6 from Garnett, 5 from Allen, and 3 from Big Baby), good for a 140 Offensive Rating (a superb rating that would shatter the mark for best single-season ORtg of all-time). The Celtics shared the ball, spread the scoring load, and excelled in crunch time. But for the Lakers, as they implemented Mark Jackson’s strategic suggestion, history repeated itself–Kobe dominated each and every possession and the Lakers’ offense disappeared in crunch time. Kobe stopped the ball–he managed to squeeze out only 8 points out of his (and the Lakers’) final 10 meaningful possessions. This is a far from “clutch play.” Unfortunately, Mark Jackson, along with the GMs and fans, will salivate over the 11 points he scored in the final 7 minutes instead of looking at how the game actually played out.
In the end, Kobe played pretty well in the clutch. Counting his and-1 at 6:58, Kobe was 5-10 with 11 points in his final 11 possessions (as well as the final 11 meaningful possessions for the Lakers)–good for an ORtg of 100. On the whole today, he shot 16-29 on the night (3-5 3pts and 6-7 FTs) en route to a ridiculously efficient 41 points. But he also had zero assists. His final stat line mirrors his play in crunch time, where history repeated itself. Consistent with the trends of the past, Kobe hoisted up shots (making some) as the Lakers offense stagnated and faltered in crunch time. The drawn-out process of Kobe’s selfishness won’t make highlights, but maybe this time around, in light of the “Kobe is Clutch” hoopla, the world will learn and remember that the “Kobe should shoot over double-teams every time and ignore his ridiculously talented teammates” strategy is a losing strategy. Maybe it’s a little much to expect such a rational thought and paradigm-shift from the fans, but hopefully professional analysts, like say, Mark Jackson, are up to the task. Until I see some change, though (yes, I’m lookin’ at you Mark), I’m going to make sure the world knows you said this (see video below).
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