Economics professor takes a look at the "clutch" debate

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One of the key questions of the statistical movement, both in baseball and in basketball, is whether or not “clutch” performance exists. Most casual fans and basketball cognoscenti are absolutely positive that some players have the capacity to raise their game when it matters most, and other players tend to shrink in those same situations. 

Meanwhile, stat geeks keep trying to find evidence that supports that theory, but can’t seem to do it. Hundreds of thousands of words have been written on this subject, with 99.7% of those words generally being dismissed by casual fans who believe in their own opinion and don’t want to be told otherwise. Examples have been given, studies have been done, and respected basketball experts have been told to “watch the games” countless times. 
Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at the MIT Sloan School of Management, is the latest respected academic to add his two cents to the “clutch” debate. Here are some excerpts from Ariely’s essay, which was originally published on the Huffington Post:
With the help of Duke University men’s basketball Coach Mike Krzyzewski (“Coach K”), we got a group of professional coaches to identify clutch players in the NBA (the coaches agreed, to a large extent, about who is and who is not a clutch player). Next, we watched videos of the twenty most crucial games for each clutch player in an entire NBA season (by most crucial, we meant that the score difference at the end of the game did not exceed three points). 
For each of those games, we measured how many points the clutch players had shot in the last five minutes of the first half of each game, when pressure was relatively low. Then we compared that number to the number of points scored during the last five minutes of the game, when the outcome was hanging by a thread and stress was at its peak. We also noted the same measures for all the other “nonclutch” players who were playing in the same games…
…We found that the non-clutch players scored more or less the same in the low-stress and high-stress moments, whereas there was actually a substantial improvement for clutch players during the last five minutes of the games…
…we looked separately at whether the clutch players actually shot better or just more often. As it turned out, the clutch players did not improve their skill; they just tried many more times. Their field goal percentage did not increase in the last five minutes (meaning that their shots were no more accurate); neither was it the case that non- clutch players got worse.

Before you criticize Ariely’s findings, please read the full essay, which gives much more context and deals with many of the knee-jerk reactions against his study. On the surface, the finding makes sense; other than some very rare positive exceptions (Derek Fisher, Robert Horry) and some negative exceptions (Carter, Vince), the players who are considered the most “clutch” players in basketball are also the best overall players. Michael Jordan was the best player ever in the last two minutes of a game; he was also the best player ever in the first 46 minutes of a game. 

No study that attempts to distill something as nebulous as “clutch” play into a science will ever be 100% perfect, but work like Ariely’s and “clutch” stats like the ones kept by 82games.com are great jumping-off points to advance the level of discussion about NBA basketball. By utilizing research and resources like those, it’s possible to use facts where there was once only conjecture. Of course, there’s always the option to talk about “clutch” players like we do now: decide who’s clutch and who isn’t relatively early in a player’s career, play up the examples where those players do come up big, and ignore the times when they don’t. 

76ers coach Brett Brown: Joel Embiid’s minute limit likely to remain 28 this season

BOSTON, MA - JANUARY 6: Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers looks on during the second half against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden on January 6, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Celtics defeat the 76ers 110-106. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that , by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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Joel Embiid‘s per-36 minute numbers – 28.0 points, 11.0 rebounds and 3.5 blocks – are unprecedented by any rotation regular.

In fact, the only players to come close are Hall of Famers: David Robinson, Patrick Ewing and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Player Year Team Points Rebounds Blocks
Joel Embiid 20117 PHI 28.0 11.0 3.5
David Robinson 1995 SAS 26.2 10.3 3.1
Patrick Ewing 1990 NYK 26.7 10.2 3.7
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 1977 LAL 25.7 13.0 3.1

Robinson, Ewing and Abdul-Jabbar each averaged more than 36 minutes per game. Embiid is at just 25 due to a minute limit.

How would the 76ers rookie handle a larger load?

According to Philadelphia coach Brett Brown, we probably won’t find out this season.

Jessica Camerato of CSN Philly

This is probably the right approach considering Embiid missed his first two professional seasons due to injury, but it’ll cost the 76ers on the court. They outscore opponents by 2.6 points per 100 possessions when Embiid plays and get outscored by 11.3 points per 100 possessions when he sits.

Embiid will still run away with Rookie of the Year, though I doubt he takes much solace in that. He wants to play.

On the bright side, this will improve Philadelphia’s draft position.

Report: Timberwolves “actively shopping” Ricky Rubio, packaging with with Shabazz Muhammad

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - NOVEMBER 15: Ricky Rubio #9 of the Minnesota Timberwolves looks on during the game against the Charlotte Hornets on November 15, 2016 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
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At 14-27, the Minnesota Timberwolves have been one of the bigger disappointments of the NBA season. Maybe we were all a year out in front of what this team will become with all this talent. Especially defensively (Tom Thibodeau can’t work instant miracles, it turns out).

Offensively, they lack shooting. The Timberwolves have two slashers in Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine, they have Karl-Anthony Towns in the paint, but you can pack the paint on this team — they get 23.3 percent of their points from three, the third-lowest percentage in the league, and they take the fifth fewest threes per game in the league. Fixing that is going to fall more on Thibodeau the GM — this team needs shooters. Ideally at the point guard spot.

Which means the Timberwolves are shopping Ricky Rubio, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

The Minnesota Timberwolves are actively shopping point guard Ricky Rubio in trade proposals, league sources told The Vertical.

The Timberwolves have attached Rubio to multiple offers with Shabazz Muhammad to several teams around the NBA, league sources said. Minnesota has been seeking something of a “bridge” guard in return, a player capable of starting in the short term, but who’ll ultimately settle into a backup role and give way to rookie Kris Dunn to become the long-term starter, league sources said.

The Sacramento Kings have had a strong interest in acquiring Rubio, but there’s no traction on a deal between those two teams, league sources said. So far, the Timberwolves are trying to exhaust the market elsewhere for a better return of assets than the Kings can offer.

This is confirmation of something talked about on this site and whispered around the league for a while — the pieces don’t fit well in Minnesota and Rubio was always likely to get moved. That said, the Timberwolves are not giving him away, there needs to be a quality return of Rubio stays put. And the question is, what team is in a position to bring in a point guard who is a brilliant passer but can’t shoot? That’s a very short list.

The Kings start Darren Collison at the point and bring Ty Lawson off the bench behind him — one of those guys plus some other pieces could come to Minnesota (Omri Casspi?). The Kings desperately want to make the playoffs for the first time in a decade, and they are just half-a-game back of eight-seed Portland, but does Rubio get them there? Rubio is a better passer but not near the shooter (Collison hits 40 percent from three). Collison for Rubio seems a lateral move.

I can see why the Timberwolves are looking for a better offer, and leaking this so teams know they are serious may help bring a few more suitors to the table.

One other thing to watch in Minnesota: Is Dunn the future at the point guard spot? He’s the first pick of the Tom Thibodeau era so they are committed to making it work, but is he a future starter? Or, should the Timberwolves spend money on a quality free agent point guard this summer (Patty Mills, Jeff Teague) and make him the glue that brings all the talent together? That buzz is out there around the league, it’s something to watch.

Report: Carmelo Anthony tells Phil Jackson he wants to stay with Knicks

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 12:  Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks during a stop in play against the Chicago Bulls at Madison Square Garden on January 12, 2017 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Phil Jackson asked Carmelo Anthony whether the star forward wanted to remain with the Knicks.

Apparently, what Anthony said publicly over and over and over and over and over was true.

Frank Isola of the New York Daily News:

This further proves Anthony’s loyalty to New York.

A trade could’ve sent him to a better team with a more-desirable boss and netted him a $10 million trade bonus. But Anthony enjoys living and playing in New York, even with the tumult – including Jackson – that follows.

Now, it’s on Jackson to improve the roster around Anthony, repair player-coach relations and create a culture where the starting point guard doesn’t go AWOL.

Report: In ‘far more contentious’ meeting, Phil Jackson asked Carmelo Anthony whether he wanted to stay with Knicks

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Carmelo Anthony finally got his desired meeting with Knicks president Phil Jackson.

Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

At turn after turn after turn after turn after turn, Anthony has stated his loyalty to the Knicks. What has he done since to indicate he wants to leave New York?

Jackson, not Anthony, has fostered all this recent controversy.

Jackson built a crummy roster that faced a difficult path to the playoffs. Jackson used the code word “posse.”  Jackson publicly critiqued Anthony for being a ball hog. Jackson mouthpiece Charley Rosen wrote “Anthony has outlived his usefulness in New York.”

Anthony just wants to play basketball for a good team in the world’s biggest market – not work under a black cloud. Jackson is making it impossible for Anthony to get all his wishes, though.

So, the question falls to Anthony: Would he rather keep playing for the Knicks – and all that comes with it – or waive his no-trade clause to join another team?

For years, he has unequivocally answered that question publicly with devotion to New York. But the act of Jackson asking might invite a different response.