# 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 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.

## Phoenix Suns reportedly to hire Frank Vogel as new head coach

Frank Vogel won a title coaching two stars — LeBron James and Anthony Davis — in Los Angeles.

Now he will get the chance to coach two more stars with title aspirations, Kevin Durant and Devin Booker in Phoenix. The Suns are finalizing a deal to make Vogel their new head coach, according to multiple reports. This is reportedly a five-year, \$31 million deal.

New Suns owner Mat Ishbia — who took over in early February and immediately pushed for the Durant trade — reportedly has been the man at the helm of basketball operations since his arrival, making this primarily his choice. Doc Rivers and Suns assistant Kevin Young also were in the mix for the job.

Vogel may not be the sexiest hire on the board — and it’s fair to ask how much of an upgrade he is over Monty Williams — but it is a solid one. The Suns can win with.

Vogel is a defense-first coach who has had success in both Indiana — where he led the Paul George Pacers to the Eastern Conference Finals twice — as well as with LeBron’s Lakers (Vogel struggled in Orlando, but that was more about the roster than coaching).

Vogel is a good coach for superstars because he is relatively egoless, low-key, and a strong communicator — this is not a big personality with a hard-line attitude. Instead, he works to get buy-in from his guys and gives his stars plenty of freedom on the offensive end. Durant and Booker will have their say in what the offense looks like, but Vogel will demand defensive accountability.

There is a “good chance” Kevin Young — the top assistant under Monty Williams who had the endorsement of Devin Booker for the head coaching job — will stay on as Vogel’s lead assistant, reports John Gambadoro, the well-connected host on 98.7 FM radio in Phoenix. If true, that be a coup for the Suns, who would keep a player favorite coach to be more of an offensive coordinator. It is also possible that Young and other assistant coaches (such as Jarrett Jack) will follow Williams to Detroit, where he was just hired (on a massive deal).

## Nick Nurse doesn’t ‘vibrate on the frequency of the past,’ talks winning with 76ers, Harden

In his first day on the job, Nick Nurse didn’t shy away from the hard topics and high expectations — he embraced them.

Nurse is the new 76ers head coach — and Doc Rivers is out — because the team was bounced in the second round. Again. Nurse said at his introductory press conference that he doesn’t see the way past this is to ignore the problem (from NBC Sports Philadelphia).

“We’re going to hit that head-on,” he said… “We know we’re judged on how we play in the playoffs. It was the same in Toronto. We hadn’t played that well (in the playoffs) and certain players hadn’t played that well, and all those kinds of things. So the reality is that’s the truth. I would imagine that from Day 1, we’re going to talk about that and we’re going to try to attack that. We’re going to have to face it and we’re going to have to rise to it.”

Nurse stuck with that theme through multiple questions about the past and what he will do differently. Nurse talked about the players being open-minded to trying new things, some of which may not work, but the goal is to get a lot of different things on the table.

He also talked about this 76ers team being championship-level and not getting hung up on that past.

“My first thought on that is this team could be playing tonight (in the Finals), along with some others in the Eastern Conference that wish they were getting ready to throw the ball up tonight… And as far as the rest of it, I look at it this way: I don’t really vibrate on the frequency of the past. To me, when we get a chance to start and dig into this thing a little bit, it’s going to be only focused on what we’re trying to do going forward. … Whatever’s happened for the last however many years doesn’t matter to me.”

The other big question in the room is the future of potential free agent James Harden.

Harden has a \$35.6 million player option for next season he is widely expected to opt out of, making him a free agent. While rumors of a Harden reunion in Houston run rampant across the league, the 76ers want to bring him back and Nurse said his sales pitch is winning.

“Listen, I think that winning is always the sell,” he said. “Can we be good enough to win it all? That’s got to be a goal of his. And if it is, then he should stay here and play for us, because I think there’s a possibility of that.”

Whatever the roster looks like around MVP Joel Embiid, the 76ers should be title contenders. Nurse has to start laying the groundwork this summer, but his ultimate tests will come next May, not before.

## Silver: Ja Morant investigation results, possible suspension to come down after Finals

Justin Ford/Getty Images

DENVER — The NBA has nearly concluded its investigation into the latest incident of Ja Morant apparently waiving a gun on social media, however, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said the league plans to “park” the report and any announcement of a possible punishment until after the NBA Finals, so as not to distract from the games.

“We’ve uncovered a fair amount of additional information, I think, since I was first asked about the situation,” Silver said in a press conference before Game 1 of the NBA Finals. “I will say we probably could have brought it to a head now, but we made the decision, and I believe the Players Association agrees with us, that it would be unfair to these players and these teams in the middle of the series to announce the results of that investigation.

“Given that we’re, of course, in the offseason, he has now been suspended by the Memphis Grizzlies indefinitely, so nothing would have changed anyway in the next few weeks. It seemed better to park that at the moment, at least any public announcement, and my sense now is that shortly after the conclusion of the Finals we will announce the outcome of that investigation.”

That statement hints at a long suspension for Morant — Silver believes the announcement will be big enough news to draw headlines over the NBA Finals. That only happens if it’s something significant. Silver would not divulge any potential punishment, but the expectation in league circles is for him to come down much harder on Morant this time. While Morant did not break any laws, this is a serious image issue for the NBA (one that reverberates through decades of the league).

The Grizzlies suspended Morant after he appeared to flash a handgun on friend Davonte Pack’s Instagram account. Morant has since released a statement taking responsibility for his actions, but otherwise staying out of the spotlight.

That came months after Morant was suspended eight games after another video of him flashing a gun in a Denver area club was posted on Instagram Live.

After that first incident, Morant spent time away from the team to seek counseling, and he met with Silver about what had happened. Morant admitted after the No. 2 seed Grizzlies were eliminated in the first round by the Lakers his actions were part of the distractions that threw off the Grizzlies.

Silver was asked if he had come down harder on Morant after the first incident — his suspension was seen as player-friendly — if things would have been different.

“I’ve thought about that, and Joe Dumars [VP of basketball operations with the NBA], who is here, was in the room with me when we met with Ja, and he’s known Ja longer than I have, Silver said. “For me at the time, an eight-game suspension seemed very serious, and the conversation we had, and Tamika Tremaglio from the Players Association was there, as well, felt heartfelt and serious. But I think he understood that it wasn’t about his words. It was going to be about his future conduct.

“I guess in hindsight, I don’t know. If it had been a 12-game suspension instead of an eight-game suspension, would that have mattered?”

Morant lost about \$669,000 in salary with the last suspension, although the real hit was his missing games and the team stumbling after this incident, giving voters a reason to keep him off an All-NBA team — that cost him \$39 million on his contract extension that kicks in next season (he is not eligible for the Rose Rule max).

## Three takeaways from Nuggets dominating Game 1 win against Heat

DENVER — It was a full-throated celebration inside Ball Arena as a fan base that waited 47 years for this moment was going to be heard.

It was a full-throated celebration in the hallway outside the Nuggets locker room after Game 1 as the players let loose some joy after a big win.

Game 1 was everything the Nuggets could have wanted with a 104-93 victory, and the game was not as close as the final score suggested (even if it got a little interesting in the fourth). The Nuggets lead the NBA Finals 1-0 over the Miami Heat with Game 2 Sunday in Denver.

Here are three takeaways from Game 1.

## 1) Nuggets’ size early, poise under pressure late earned them win

Before the series started, one of the big questions was how the smallish Heat would deal with the size across the board of the Nuggets.

To start Game 1, they couldn’t — the Nuggets scored 18 of their first 24 points in the paint. Denver used its size advantage to punish every switch that gave it a matchup advantage. Aaron Gordon was at the forefront of that, overwhelming Gabe Vincent among others on his way to 12 first quarter points (with none of his made shots being rather than six feet from the rim).

“I definitely think they came out with a lot of physicality, and we have to be able to match that,” the Heat’s Jimmy Butler said.

Leaning into that size advantage was all part of the plan.

“Most definitely. You’ve got to play to your advantages at this time of year and all the time,” Gordon said. “I was just looking to play to my advantages.”

This was not some new wrinkle the Nuggets put in just for the Finals or the Heat, this is how they beat the Timberwolves, Suns and Lakers all postseason.

“No, those are sets. We’re making reads,” Jamal Murray said. “Like I said, we’re just making reads. If I’m not open, somebody else is open if I cut.”

“If you make the right read or make the right cut or set the right screen, you’re going to be open, and the ball moves, the ball finds the open man,” Gordon added. “The open man is the right play, and that’s how we play the game, and it’s a fun way to play.”

That size advantage got the Heat a lead early that they grew to 21 by the end of the third quarter. But then the Heat made an 11-0 run to start the fourth, and for Heat fans things started to look familiar — they had made big comebacks with a dominant quarter all playoffs.

The difference was when the Heat made these kinds of runs against the Bucks and Celtics, those teams became rattled and made mistakes. They helped fuel the Heat runs.

Not the Nuggets.

They have poise and Nikola Jokić — they just throw the ball to him and get a good shot and a bucket. The Nuggets don’t beat themselves, they just keep scoring. Miami got the lead down to nine for a possession, but that was as close as it ever got. The game was never in doubt and the message was sent to the Heat — there will be no dramatic comebacks in this building.

## 2) Miami has to be more aggressive, and they know it

The shotmaking that fueled Miami’s run past the two teams with the best records in the NBA was nowhere to be seen in Denver. Particularly in the first half, when the Heat were 4-of-17 from 3 — led by Max Strus being 0-of-7 — and shot 37.5% as a team.

More than just missing open shots, the Heat settled for jumpers in the face of the length of the Nuggets.

“We shot a lot of jumpshots, myself probably leading that pack, instead of putting pressure on the rim, getting layups, getting to the free throw line,” Jimmy Butler said. “When you look at it during the game, they all look like the right shots. And I’m not saying that we can’t as a team make those, but got to get more layups, got to get more free throws…

“But that’s it as a whole. We’ve got to attack the rim a lot more, myself included.”

The evidence of the Heat settling for jumpers, they had just two free throws all game. As a team. That clearly bothered Bam Adebayo postgame, who was careful not to say something that would earn him a fine from the league, but his frustration with not getting calls was clear. And maybe he could have gotten a couple more, but he was one of the guys taking jumpers rather than attacking.

More than settling for jumpers, the Heat kept passing up open looks in search of the perfect look, when they just needed to take the good and knock the shot down. They seemed to overthink their half-court offense.

The one Heat player putting up numbers was Adebayo, who finished with a team-high 26 points, but needed 25 shots to get there. He took what the defense gave him, which was 10-15 foot jumpers and floaters, and he put up 14 of those — but with that he was not pressuring the rim. While he racked up points the Nuggets will live with those shots.

“If you’re giving up tough mid-range contested twos, that’s better than them getting a lot of open threes,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “Obviously, we can do a better job of contesting some of those mid-range shots that Bam was getting, and I think we have to mix up our levels.”

## 3) There is no answer for Nikola Jokić, but can Heat limit him?

It was another master class from Jokić, right from the opening tip. He came out dishing the ball and carving up the Heat defense — Jokić only took one shot in the first quarter (a putback dunk in the final minute) and three shots for the half. But he had six first-quarter assists as Gordon was dunking inside, some 3-pointers fell, and the Nuggets were up 29-20 after one, and by 17 at the half.

“That’s just the way he plays the game,” Jamal Murray said. “If the team is rolling, that’s just how you play basketball. If everybody else is scoring, then there’s no need to force it. He’s a great passer, great facilitator. They’re digging, they’re doubling, they’re trying not to let him score.”

The Heat had talked about making Jokić more of a scorer, staying home with shooters and trying to take away his passes. It’s one thing to have that plan, it’s another to deal with the reality of player and ball movement Jokić orchestrates. Throw in the unstoppable Jokic/Murray pick-and-roll — Murray finished with 26 points and 10 assists — and even a good defense can look bad.

“Just how he plays, how the game comes to him, the way they were playing him — he was just passing,” Michael Porter Jr. said of Jokić. “Jamal had it going. Aaron had it going. And then to still end up with that triple-double just shows how special he is.”

Jokić finished with a triple-double of 27 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds.

The Heat are finding what so many teams have found before them — there is no answer to Jokić. Switch the screen and put a small on him and Jokić just backs him down in the post and gets an easy bucket (he backed down Cody Zeller that way, too). Double Jokić and he finds the open shooter. Roll out a zone and cutters slash to the rim, or a shooter knocks down a shot over the top of it all.

Miami had a little success in the fourth with Haywood Highsmith on Jokić. The Heat used Highsmith sort of the way the Lakers used Rui Hachimura to try and bother Jokić and freeing up Adebayo to play off Gordon and be more of a free safety.

Except, that didn’t work well for the Lakers for the rest of the series. Jokić and the Nuggets figured it out. Erik Spoelstra tipped his hand with some adjustments as he tried things in the fourth, but that gives the Nuggets a couple of days to prepare for it before Sunday’s Game 2.

That’s when the Nuggets will pose the Jokić question to the Heat again. There is no great answer, but the Heat need to find a better one.