Does “Clutchness” exist in the NBA? Yes, No, Maybe So.

Does “Clutch” Exist? Is LeBron or Kobe clutch? It’s Complicated.

On Wednesday, LeBron James and the Heat suffered their second straight overtime loss; James’ missed free throws, especially in crunch time, proved fatal. This, of course, reminded analysts and fans everywhere of LeBron’s no-show in the the fourth quarters of the 2011 NBA Finals. Writers exploited the easy storyline questioning LeBron’s mettle and clutchness, but Rob Mahoney, master wordsmith and basketball mind of the New York Times’ Off The Dribble NBA Blog, questioned something even more near and dear to our hearts than LeBron’s success or failures: whether the quality of “clutch” even exists in the NBA.

This piece is a must-read, as much for the quality of the article as for the importance of the subject matter. He questions conventional wisdom, and by doing so, offers a new lens through which to evaluate “clutch” performance.

In short, Mahoney puts forth the notion that there isn’t such thing as a “clutch” gene and that “clutch” is best understood from a more context-driven (rather than character-driven) perspective. As Mahoney puts it:

“LeBron James is not ‘clutch.’ That much is a statement of fact; it is absolutely, 100 percent true. But Kobe Bryant isn’t clutch, either. Neither are Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Jerry West, or any other player you could possibly name…No player can be; the word itself describes but a tiny slice of past performance, and indicates the timing and importance of a particular play rather than a fundamental attribute of any one player.”

He continues by explaining that what we see as “clutch” performances are actually just good players playing good basketball, as they normally do. Mahoney wrote, “Jordan wasn’t a winner in crunch time. He was just a winner.” Observed failures occur because a) strategy or execution is improper but correctable and b) no one is perfect. To understand Mahoney’s line of reasoning, he deserves to be heard in full via his article. I will attempt to add to this discussion with evidence both affirming and countering his assessment of clutchness in the NBA–no agenda, all discussion.

Before I get into the meat of it, I will offer a quick thought experiment: Is there such thing as “choking,” such as Nick Anderson’s missed free throws in Game 1 of the ’95 Finals? What about how his FT% significantly declined in all subsequent seasons? If choking under pressure actually exists (and there is loads of evidence in the field of sports psychology), might clutchness also exist? Let’s dive in.

Part I: The false narrative of “clutch” and why Mahoney is so damn right

Mahoney writes, “There was–and is–no innate quality that makes a player prime for the late-game spotlight or doomed to be an afterthought.” He’s right, of course. No innate quality or personality trait ensures a player’s success or failure under pressure. Even those who many consider to be clutch “by blood,” such as Black Mamba Kobe Bryant and Mr. Big Shot Chauncey Billups, historically perform worse than the average player does with respect to game-winning shot situations.

Many writers, foremost among them TrueHoop’s Henry Abbott, have discussed at length why we attach and maintain the narrative of “clutch” for certain players despite the litany of evidence refuting their very clutchness. Among other reasons, viewers’ memories and ensuing attitudes are colored by triumphant memories and highlight reels–memories and videos that omit less memorable failures. Attributing game-winners to context isn’t as fun as holding onto the story of stoic heroism.

The individual failures of Kobe and others make sense: tough defense and waning game-clocks cause players to take more difficult shots than they are accustomed to. This is why, as Abbott and John Hollinger have argued, Chris Paul is a master of the clutch. By running plays and being his normal, badass facilitating self, Paul helps his offense hum in crunch time when most other teams’ offenses (including the Lakers) stall.

Paul’s mastery of late-game offense falls in line with Mahoney’s argument; Mahoney merely argued that there is no fundamental, God-given attribute that makes one player more clutch than the other and he made it clear that sound decision making is part of what it should mean to be clutch. Regarding James and the Heat’s failures, Mahoney says: “[I]t is a letdown in strategic competence. That can be corrected. It’s a flaw, sure, but not one hard-wired into James’ genome with the concrete certainty that debates over his clutchness often suggest.”

The fact that Chris Paul employs a superior, and employable, strategy (i.e. running an offense) makes him clutch–not some mystical quality that separates the “Killer Kobes” from the “LeChokes.” Likewise, The Heat and the Lakers’ crunch-time disappointment can (and should) be corrected.

This point is better understood by looking at clutch hitting in baseball, where there are no “plays” being called and little coaching being done. When a game boils down to a player’s mind and ability at home plate, almost no evidence points to clutch hitting in baseball. This helps the claim that clutch performance in basketball can be attributed to teachable decision-making skills rather than innate clutch ability.

I am on board with all of the above–as a social and cognitive psychologist I am well-aware of the human tendency to mistakenly ignore “states in favor of traits.” We overrate the consistency of character and underestimate the power of context and our ability to learn. We close our minds by subscribing to basketball dogmas and reject studies done by “stat geeks” who have “never played the game.” And while I appreciate and agree with Mahoney’s questioning of the status quo, I think the truth about clutchness is a bit more complicated.

Part II: Crunch-time stats and evidence for “clutch” performance

Remember when I claimed that Kobe and Chauncey shoot worse than the average player does on game-winning shots? This remains true, but all players experience a dip in efficiency because these situations are tough (and Billups and Bryant make them tougher than they have to be). This decline doesn’t speak to a lack of clutchness, but to situational confines. Luckily for the “clutch” reputations of LeBron, Kobe, and others, there is more to clutch basketball than game-winning shots, and I feel compelled to bring some memorable crunch-time data back into the discussion.

As many readers might know, 82games.com tracks “clutch” stats–data recorded from 4th quarter or overtime when there’s less than 5 minutes left and neither team ahead by more than 5 points. Look at the top players’ stats from ’07-08, ’08-’09, ’09-’10 and ’10-’11, and you’ll see their numbers are insanely good. Furthermore, LeBron is at the top all four of those years posting unheard of production and a positive plus-minus (indicating that his stats aren’t vacuous). While some of these stats are opportunity based (see FGA and FTA per 48min of crunch time), the fact remains that LeBron generally produces excellent crunch-time stats of all types (points, assists, rebounds, blocks, steals) without a drop-off in efficiency (shooting % and TOs).

It’s not surprising that LeBron and Kobe have insane scoring stats in “clutch” situations; as Mahoney said, scoring can be influenced by coachable strategies and as scorers they reap these benefits. But their ability to efficiently pour it in and rack up assists? Their ability to rebound and defend better than before? Their ability to limit turnovers despite dominating the ball each and every pressure-filled possession? To do this year after year? This indicates players rising to the occasion–that is, being clutch.

Before you point out that the numbers are inflated because they are per-48-minute stats, know that they aren’t possession-based, which matters because the data is coming from the last 5 minutes of basketball games, a part of the game that is typically the slower than the previous 43 minutes. In some ways, the numbers are actually underselling the performance of clutch players.

LeBron’s near triple double averages in the clutch–stats that span many categories and skills–are no doubt due to the same qualities that make him great in the first 43 minutes, as Mahoney argues. But it’s more than that–if it were that simple, his crunch time stats would mirror his normal stats. And it’s not due to coaching alone–Mike Brown wasn’t giving LeBron specific instructions on how to get crunch-time rebounds and blocks. It’s the interaction between a) LeBron’s superior skills and mentality and b) his ability to handle pressure that produces these incredible results.

Players evaluate pressure differently, and how they do so isn’t always consistent or perfect. Poor appraisal might cause choking, like with Nick Anderson. The greats aren’t immune either; LeBron occasionally loses will and withdraws and Kobe’s excessive will blinds him from winning strategies in crunch time. But for clutch players, this pressure will usually elicit an elevated level of production that is unseen in the first 43 minutes of a game. If this isn’t clutch, I don’t know what is.

Part III: Kobe as King and LeBron as Loser: How personality affects “clutch” performance and biases our perceptions

For the record, LeBron and Kobe are both clutch in my book–the numbers speak for themselves. The last step in this mystery is explaining their disparate clutch statuses. The answer is complex, and has much to do with how we’ve built up simplistic narratives throughout their radically different careers. But the answer to this disparate perception in clutchness is also about people being adept at picking up on consequential personality differences between the two players: Kobe’s “killer instinct” and LeBron’s habit of withdrawal. These differences can indeed affect performance, but are not a determinant by any means. Unfortunately, our keen person-perception as social animals will determine the legacies of LeBron and Kobe and blind us from the truth about their actual clutch abilities.

First off, I will add that genes are relevant to this discussion. Mahoney denied an innate clutchness that defines the character and play of Michael Jordan-types. “[B]asketball gods didn’t reach down to give Jordan his fire, and yet we of the N.B.A. world continue to kneel before the altar of clutch.”

Mahoney is totally right. There isn’t some magic formula that separates the “clutch” from everyone else–performance is the result of many more complex factors. But plenty of research demonstrates individual differences in performance under pressure are attributable to both nature and nurture, and there is no reason to think these effects disappear on a basketball court.

Slate Magazine once published an article entitled “Tiger Blood: What it takes to keep cool under pressure.”  It’s a great article, and unsurprisingly, they attribute successful performance under pressure to a variety of factors, some innate (i.e., genes) and some learned (e.g., training). Here are some quotes from the article that suggest individual differences vis-à-vis the influence of genes:

“According to modern research by survival psychologist John Leach, when a random group of people finds itself in a sudden emergency like a fire or a natural disaster, 10 to 15 percent will consistently freak out, 10 to 20 percent will stay cool, and the rest will become dazed and hesitant sheep.”

Even better:

“When researchers have studied those who naturally stay composed in crisis, they’ve uncovered evidence that their poise has a biological underpinning. Yale psychiatrist Andy Morgan, for example, has studied elite Special Forces…When Morgan examined the poised trainees’ blood tests, he saw that they were producing significantly more of ‘a goofy little peptide called neuropeptide Y’ than other, more rattled recruits. The extra NPY was like a layer of stress-deflecting mental Kevlar; its effects are so pronounced that Morgan can tell whether a soldier has made it into the Special Forces or not just by looking at a blood test.”

People perceive this pressure-immune quality in Kobe. And we may be right, but while Kobe might not feel pressure, we mistakenly interpret this ability as evidence that he is a clutch performer. In reality, Kobe isn’t perfect, and if he adhered to winning strategy more often, the NPY running through his veins would make him lethal in the clutch.

The rest of us NPY-devoid chumps are susceptible to failure under pressure, but this failure is by no means inevitable. As Mahoney states, sometimes coachable X’s and O’s are the cure, as with Chris Paul’s sober ability to run real plays en route to crunch-time success. But at times (and for LeBron), late-game failure goes beyond coachable strategy and into deeply-ingrained thought processes and outlooks on fear. Keep LeBron in mind as you read the following quote from Slate’s article:

“Study after study has shown that people who function well under stress share several core beliefs: They tend to see times of change and uncertainty not as dangerous but as exciting opportunities; they focus on what they can do to improve a stressful situation, rather than growing helpless; and they maintain a sense of commitment to the world around them, instead of withdrawing. Some people are simply born with these attitudes, but psychologists have demonstrated that they can be learned as well.”

Much of LeBron’s personality can be seen there–both good and bad–and what we pick up on, and how we compare him to Jordan and Kobe, unfairly clouds our judgment of LeBron’s clutch performance.

Some of us understand that LeBron saw the change to Miami as an “exciting opportunity” and he “improved his stressful situation” by employing a strategy to avoid “growing helpless” in Cleveland (read: joining Wade and Bosh). That said, LeBron, more than Kobe (with the exception of 2006), withdraws from pressure rather than “committing to the world around him.” I don’t have many qualms with “The Decision,” but whether it’s the Celtics in 2010, the Mavericks in 2011, or leaving the challenge of Cleveland, LeBron exhibits an occasional tendency to withdraw.

But, as Kobe’s killer instinct doesn’t guarantee success, LeBron’s tendency to withdraw doesn’t preclude clutch performance–his stats from 82games.com speak for themselves. In fact, LeBron’s ability to defer can be beneficial, even if we don’t perceive it to be. I maintain LeBron chose wisely when he dished to an open Donyell Marshall instead of shooting on a final possession in the 2007 playoffs. Marshall missed, and with that the story was written. We correctly perceived that LeBron isn’t Kobe, but we were wrong and continue to be so in allowing this fleeting personality trait to get in the way of sober analysis of his clutch performance.

The reality is that LBJ and Kobe have different personalities, both of which serve as primarily positive (and at times negative) influences on their clutch performance. Unfortuantely, the truth is filtered through our previous narratives and desire to simplify the world around us.

Conclusion

In Part I, I supported Mahoney’s case that “clutch” is misunderstood and unfairly thought of as an innate, enduring quality. In Part II, I furthered the discussion beyond the mere “clutch doesn’t exist” and “X’s and O’s.” Crunch time stats show that while LeBron is generally dominant, he elevates his game in crunch time in ways that strategy doesn’t explain. In Part III, I explained how biology and training influence personality traits, which in turn affect clutchness. More importantly, though, people pick up on these traits and myopically use them as a heuristic to distill a player’s clutchness, rather than letting his play speak for itself.

Like many judgements in life, evaluating a player’s clutchness, or the mere existence of the concept of “clutch” itself, is much greyer than the black-and-white judgements that our brains desire. Mahoney did the right thing by muddling the traditional black-and-white outlook on “clutch.” In a quest for the truth behind basketball, and human psychology in general, I made the picture even fuzzier.  For now, consider the mystery of “clutch” hidden in Plato’s cave. But, as they say, it’s always darkest before the dawn.

I’d like to give a shout-out to one of my role models, Rob Mahoney, one of the most brilliant and accomplished basketball minds/writers in the game. You can find his top-notch analysis at The Two Man Game, Hardwood Paroxysm, ProBasketballTalk, NYT’s Off the Dribble Blog, and Voice on the Floor.

Questions? Comments? Beefs? Let us know in the comment section, or feel free to email us at AGRBasketball (at) gmail.com. Don’t forget to follow @AGRBasketball on Twitter and “Like” us on Facebook!

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One Response to Does “Clutchness” exist in the NBA? Yes, No, Maybe So.

  1. Pingback: Pressure Performance: Do You Have the X Factor? « The Talent Code

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