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. 

Watch Derrick Rose leave Patty Mills standing still with eurostep, huge dunk

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New York Knicks point guard Derrick Rose still has some explosivity left in his legs. Against the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday night, the former MVP left Spurs guard Patty Mills standing still on a thunderous dunk.

The play came in the fourth quarter with Rose on the break and Mills the only Spurs player defending the basket. Rose had a full head of steam, and it appeared Mills was going to for the charge call.

Rose then craftily eurostepped his way around Mills, leading to the jam.

San Antonio beat New York, 106-98.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich on resting players: “It’s complicated … kind of like healthcare”

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San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, along with LeBron James, has been at the center of the discussion about resting players in the NBA. The legendary coach has been credited with the idea to rest star players en masse during the season to save them for the playoffs. Meanwhile, after the Cavaliers sat LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love during a primetime matchup on ESPN, the team received a call from the league.

Commissioner Adam Silver has been active in talking about the issue as of late, and has even issued a memo to team owners to be considerate about resting players.

Popovich, meanwhile, thinks the issue isn’t quite as easy to clear up. Speaking with ESPN, the Spurs coach noted that each party in an NBA team has a different role and goal, and that sometimes those goals pull opposite each other.

Additionally, Popovich said asking owners to step in to make a decision over a coach or GM could be a serious issue.

Via ESPN:

But we all have different roles, different jobs, and different goals. We can’t satisfy everybody. But I think that every owner’s gonna be different. I think it’s a slippery slope, and makes it difficult to keep trust, and camaraderie to the degree that I think you have to have to be successful in this league if owners get too involved in what coaches and GMs are doing.”

“I think keeping owners informed about what’s going on is mandatory, and having input is fine,” Popovich said. “But I think there has to be an understanding that coaches and GMs have brains also, and we know who pays the bills. It’s a slippery slope, I think, if owners got too involved in that process. That trust relationship in those three areas is really important in creating a culture and making something that can be long-lasting.

What Popovich is basically pointing out is that GMs and coaches are hired to be the basketball minds for a reason. Having owners meddle in day-to-day decisions like resting players could muddy that relationship.

The San Antonio coach did concede that the best idea might be to rest players when they are at home, in front of home crowds who are more likely to have already seen their top players that season simply due to repetition. But Popovich isn’t in favor of broad, sweeping mandates on resting players from the league since that wouldn’t always be prudent.

“That’s why no basic rule has been written, so to speak,” said Popovich. “Because you can’t write a rule that covers everything. It’s complicated … kind of like healthcare.”

Chicago does humor with “Beauty and the Bull” snapchat musical

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The Beauty and the Beast movie is both a hit and ripe for satire. Or just amusing spinoffs.

Enter the Chicago Bulls, with Benny the Bull mascot and Robin Lopez pitching in on a musical takeoff of the film promoting the team.

Well played Bulls.

LeBron James drives through Wizards defense, dunks on

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Even when they are getting beat — and the Cavaliers have some issues to shake out before the playoffs start — there are a couple times a game that LeBron James makes a play that is stunning.

For example, splitting defenders out high with his dribble then going in and dunking on Ian Mahinmi. LeBron did that Saturday night.

The Wizards beat the Cavaliers and Cleveland has issues that are bigger than LeBron’s goggles (Boston can tie Cleveland for the top spot in the East with a win Sunday), but never doubt LeBron’s explosiveness.