Economics professor takes a look at the "clutch" debate


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 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. 

Wizards’ Alan Anderson undergoes another left ankle surgery

Brooklyn Nets v Atlanta Hawks - Game Five
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Alan Anderson had surgery last May on his left ankle to remove some bone spurs. This wasn’t seen as anything major, so the Washington Wizards signed him to a deal and are counting on him to bring some versatility and depth to their wings.

However, that same ankle has bothered him since the opening of training camp and on Tuesday the Wizards announced that he had undergone another surgery to “remove a small bony fragment in his left ankle.”

There is no timetable for his return.

The Wizards liked Anderson because of his shooting and versatility — he can play the two, three or four depending on the lineup. The Wizards are counting on a combination of Otto Porter, Jared Dudley, and Anderson to fill the void left by Paul Pierce.

But they are going to have to wait a little while for Anderson to join the party.

Kevin Garnett welcomed Bobby Portis to NBA with veteran trash talk

Kevin Garnett
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Kevin Garnett is as good a trash talker as there is in the NBA right now. He’s one of the games’ legendary talkers.

And he welcomed Bulls rookie Bobby Portis to the NBA in his own special way during Saturday’s Chicago/Minnesota preseason game. From Vincent Goodwill of

Beautiful use of the Honey Nut Cheerios reference.

Hoiberg was a teammate of KG’s back in Minnesota from 2003-2005. Hoiberg did nothing but praise Garnett after the game. He’s probably good with KG pushing Portis.

Watch out for Portis this season, he’s going to show he shouldn’t have fallen so far down the board.