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Riding The Clutch

Clutch performance has been a hot topic the past week. Favoring efficiency over star power, Henry Abbott boldy proclaimed on The NBA Today podcast he’d choose Kevin Martin over Kobe Bryant for a crucial shot. Abbott followed that up with a well-reasoned argument for a multi-faceted approach to examining a player’s production in crucial situations. Kelly Dwyer, Eric Freeman, Jesse Blanchard, Royce Young and Zach Lowe all chipped in. Meanwhile, Arturo Galletti was working hard to use the clutch statistics from 82games to calculate several different efficiency metrics.

I don’t have much in the way of response to any of those excellent pieces but wanted to offer a slightly different angle. I’m of the opinion, shared by many, that a made basket in the 1st Quarter, being worth two points, is just as valuable as a made basket in the last minute of the 4th Quarter. Close games make for a more exciting viewing experience. But as a fan hoping for dominance by my chosen team, I’d rather see blowouts. I may not enjoy watching them as much, but they’re much more satistfying when the game is over.

Still, regardless of how good a team is there will always be games where the opponent is, if just for one night, an even match. These are the games where the winner is determined not just by better talent but by the allotment of exactly 48 minutes to determine the victor. In these situations you have to be able to make some plays to steal a win. If nothing else, performance in the clutch reveals something about a player’s character. A basket in the 1st Quarter is worth the same as a crunch time basket but the psychological pressure of each situation is very different.

My angle in this discussion is to look at how a player’s production changes in clutch situations. I took all of the clutch stat categories available on 82games.com and compared it to each player’s production over the rest of the season. The table below shows the change in each category during clutch situations. A few disclaimers:

  • All stats were calculated using per 48 minute averages.
  • 82games does not have these clutch stats available for all players. I included only the players they had listed in their sortable clutch stats database.
  • 82games defines clutch situations as being in the last 5 minutes of the 4th Quarter or Overtime with neither team ahead by more than 5 points.
  • Although I may argue otherwise later, these changes do not necessarily reflect on the player’s physical or psychological abilities. There are lots of factors which may dictate changes in a player’s clutch performance including offensive role, teammates, injuries, opponents, matchups, etc.
  • If you would prefer the actual spreadsheet to the embedded photo, here’s the link.

There are several things I’d like to point out. The first is to recognize the few players who actually increase their efficiency in clutch situations. Only 39 of the 121 players in this sample saw an increase in their FG% in clutch situations. Of those 39, only 10 increased their FG% with an increase in the number of shots they took.

  • Dirk Nowtizki/+3.0 FGA/+7.8 FG%
  • Amare Stoudemire/+5.4 FGA/+6.2 FG%
  • Russell Westbrook/+6.0 FGA/+3.1 FG%
  • Tyrus Thomas/+4.5 FGA/+12.2 FG%
  • Carmelo Anthony/+6.8 FGA/+2.1 FG%
  • Jason Terry/+3.0 FGA/+14.6 FG%
  • Manu Ginobili/+2.4 FGA/+3.8 FG%
  • Andray Blatche/+0.3 FGA/+11.4 FG%
  • Deron Williams/+0.9 FGA/+0.2 FG%
  • Gilbert Arenas/+2.8 FGA/+7.1 FG%

Nowitzki, Stoudemire, Westbrook, Terry, Ginobili and Williams have been terrific in the clutch this season and I was not at all surprised to see their reputations be proven accurate. I was a little surprised to see Carmelo Anthony and Gilbert Arenas on this list. I was horrified to find Andray Blatche’s name up here. I apologize in advance to Wizard fans if he somehow sees this post and uses it as an excuse to hoist more 20ft. jumpers.

There were also several players who, by shooting a higher percentage and getting to the free throw line at a greater rate, were able to increase their scoring averages while taking fewer shots in the clutch. Eric Gordon, Al Horford, Al Jefferson, Chris Bosh, Paul Millsap, Raymond Felton, DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Martin all fall into this category.

Bosh’s numbers are extremely bizarre. He takes 10.7 fewer shots per 48 in clutch situations than he does normally, the biggest decrease in our sample. Yet his per 48 scoring average in clutch situations increases by 3.2 points. Part of this is that his FTA/48 increase by 10.3 in the clutch. The biggest difference though is that his FG% increases by 21.4 points, from 50% to 71.4% in clutch situations. We are definitely looking at a small sample size in terms of his shot attempts in these scenarios but there is an ever expanding statistical case to be made that he is the most unappreciated and undervalued member of the Miami Heat.

In addition to shooting and scoring efficiency I think it’s interesting to look at some of the players whose production increases or declines in other ways. There are the players who step up to knock down pressure free throws:

  • Richard Jefferson, +27 FT%
  • O.J. Mayo, +25 FT%
  • Andrew Bogut, + 21 FT%
  • Rajon Rondo, +19 FT%
  • Jason Terry, +16 FT%
  • Blake Griffin, +15 FT%
  • LeBron James, +13 FT%

The players who fight a little bit harder for that crucial rebound:

  • Derrick Rose, +9.2 Reb/48
  • Kevin Durant, +7.3 Reb/48
  • David Lee, +7.0 Reb/48
  • Luis Scola, +6.1 Reb/48
  • LaMarcus Aldridge, +5.4 Reb/48

The players who look to make the extra pass to an open teammate:

  • Kobe Bryant, +4.1 Ast/48
  • Paul Pierce, +2.6 Ast/48
  • Tim Duncan, +1.5 Ast/48

The players who protect the ball above all else:

  • Blake Griffin, -3.6 TO/48
  • Devin Harris, -3.1 TO/48
  • Russell Westbrook, -2.6 TO/48
  • LeBron James, -2.4 TO/48
  • Raymond Felton, -2.3 TO/48

The players who may tighten up and force the action:

  • Eric Gordon, +5.9 TO/48
  • Dirk Nowitzki, +4.4 TO/48
  • Joe Johnson, +4.0 TO/48
  • Carmelo Anthony, +3.6 TO/48
  • Derrick Rose , +3.4 TO/48
  • Kobe Bryant, +2.4 TO/48

Those player descriptions are obviously generalizations and ignore the myriad factors why a player might turn the ball over more often or grab a few extra rebounds in a clutch situation. Chris Bosh doesn’t take fewer shots because he being selective. It’s because Dwyane Wade and Lebron James are eating up all those extra crunch time shots.

When we talk about player performance in the clutch there is a place for observation and statistics, emotion and logic, makes and misses. Whatever you consider the value of clutch performance to be in overall player evaluation, looking at how player performance changes in the clutch should absolutely be a part of that discussions as well.

  • Greyberger

    Great post. Actually, the perfect post on this topic. I had to read nine or ten other here-are-the-clutch-numbers articles before finding this one, but you nailed it.

    • http://ilevy.wordpress.com ilevy

      Thanks Berger, glad you liked it. I have a couple more things I’m going to try with these numbers so definitely come back and check them out!

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  • Justin

    Hey, interesting post. I’m a bit slow with statistics so wondering if you can assist. As this was all initiated by a discussion of Kobe… So Kobe passes more in Crunch time? Based on watching him play that doesn’t make sense. Could the increase in assists be because his teammates make their shots in that same period? If his baseline level of assists, that you are comparing this increase to, is not high (as he doesn’t pass a lot for someone who has the ball in his hands as often as he does), isn’t this a distortion? I would be interested to see a comparison of average possessions a team has in the last five minutes, average total FG, assists, etc, to see how their performance deviates.

    • http://ilevy.wordpress.com ilevy

      I’m a bit slow with statistics too, it takes me forever to write these dang things. The numbers I used for this post are all from this season, so we are talking about a pretty small sample size. In addition I’m using totals for points, assists, etc. which gives one angle. By this measure Kobe is handing out more assists in crunch time then overall.

      However this is not really because he is passing more relative to everything else. The issue is that in crunch time he essentially uses every Laker possession which means he is doing a lot more of everything. 82Games doesn’t provide the raw data but I worked backwards from their per 48 minutes totals and came up with 10 assists and 39 field goals attempts for Kobe in 54 crunch time minutes. If we turn that into a ratio of Ast to FGA we get 0.256. On the season Kobe has 239 assists and 957 field goal attempts. If we turn that into a ratio of Ast to FGA we get 0.249.

      So essentially he’s passing the same amount relative to how much he shoots. It’s just that in crunch time he uses almost every possession, with it ending in an assist, a shot or a turnover. His stats in all of these categories are inflated but they’re inflated roughly the same amount. His patterns of usage don’t change he just does more of it.

      I didn’t really think about this issue when I was writing the post but it’s an excellent point and shots that some of these increases may be misleading. I’ll try to put together another post looking at just this issue of ratios. I’d love to do a clutch analysis for an entire team but will need to see how I can put the numbers together from what 82games.com offers. Thanks for reading and commenting Justin!

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