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. 

Friday afternoon fun: Watch James Harden’s 10 best plays from last season

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James Harden had a historic season in Houston.

Since it’s Friday afternoon and your sports viewing options consist of watching guys about to be cut from NFL rosters try to impress, why not check out Harden’s best plays from last season. It’s worth a couple minutes of your time.

Mavericks sign Jeff Withey to one-year contract

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Jeff Withey‘s ex-fiancée accused him of domestic violence, but he was not charged.

That frees him to continue his basketball career, which he’ll do in Dallas.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

The Mavericks could use another center, even if they re-sign Nerlens Noel. Salah Mejri is the only other true center, though Dirk Nowitzki will now play the position.

Withey is a good rim protector. Just don’t ask him to do anything away from the basket.

Dallas annually brings excess players to training camp and has them compete for regular-season roster spots. Whether or not his salary is guaranteed, Withey will likely fall into that competition.

Marc Gasol: If Grizzlies don’t share my goal of continued growth, we might have to revisit things

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The Grizzlies’ Grit & Grind era has ended.

Zach Randolph signed with the Kings, and Tony Allen appears likely to leave Memphis, too. The Grizzlies are prioritizing younger/cheaper players like Ben McLemore and Tyreke Evans.

Marc Gasol via Ala Carta, as translated by HoopsHype:

I’m very ambitious and I’ve wanted Memphis to be a great franchise. We’ve grown a lot the last 6-7 years, but we have to keep growing. If this is not lined up, maybe we may have to revisit things.

Gasol has been loyal to Memphis, and his first wish is probably winning there. But Giannis Antetokounmpo put it well: Teams must also do right by their players. Gasol is 32 and doesn’t have much time in his prime left. I see why rebuilding wouldn’t interest him.

But what will he do about it if the Grizzlies don’t prioritize the present? They made their push last summer with a max contract for Chandler Parsons, but because Parsons can’t stay healthy, that deal only inhibits team growth.

Gasol is locked up for two more years before a player option. He doesn’t have much leverage. This is part of the reason LeBron James keeps signing short-term contracts. Gasol doesn’t have the same ability to steer his team in his desired direction

On the potentially bright side, rebuilding teams often don’t have much use for 32-year-olds guaranteed more than $72 million over the following three years. If the fit devolves, Memphis becomes more likely to trade him.

Celtics to retire Paul Pierce’s number after Cavaliers game in February

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The Celtics already said they’d retire Paul Pierce’s No. 34.

Now, we know when.

Celtics release:

The Boston Celtics announced today that they will retire Paul Pierce’s No. 34 after a mid-season game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday, Feb. 11

After? That’s apparently in response to a new rule that penalizes teams not ready to play after a 15-minute halftime. These ceremonies can drag on, and nobody wants to cut Pierce short. I wonder whether this will start a trend of number retirements coming after games.