Kobe isn’t as clutch as you think, but he’s not as bad as some think

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There is no middle ground when it comes to Kobe Bryant — you either worship him or you hate him. The shades of gray have been washed away and he exists only as the guy in the white hat or the black hat.

Of course, reality is never that clean and simple.

One think Kobe has the reputation for is being clutch — maybe the most clutch player in the NBA. For years running polls of players and league executives, they say Kobe is they guy they would want taking the last shot of the game.

Henry Abbott and the research team over at ESPN dug through the numbers — the numbers as they chose to define them, but we’ll get to that — and found Kobe really isn’t all that clutch.

ESPN Stats and Information’s Alok Pattani dug through 15 years of NBA data (see table below) — Bryant’s entire career, regular season and playoffs — and found that Bryant has attempted 115 shots in the final 24 seconds of a game in which the Lakers were tied or trailed by two or fewer points. He connected on 36, and missed 79 times.

That’s 31 percent — which is the league average for shots in that situation Abbott points out. In fact, defenses on the whole get better — or shooters tighten up, or the refs swallow their whistles, or some combination of it all — in the clutch and offenses struggle.

Over Bryant’s 15-year career, the Lakers have had the NBA’s best offense, and second-best won-loss record. No other team can match their mighty 109 points per 100 possessions over the entire period…. In the final 24 seconds of close games the Laker offense regresses horribly, managing just 82 points per 100 possessions. And it’s not a simple case of every team having a hard time scoring in crunch time. Over Bryant’s career, 11 teams have had better crunch time offenses, led by the Hornets with a shocking 107 points per 100 possessions in crunch time, a huge credit to Chris Paul…

The Lakers are not among the league leaders in crunch time offense — instead they’re just about average, scoring 82.35 points per 100 possessions in a league that averages 80.03.

This is a great and well-researched story for which Abbott will get hammered by those convinced Kobe can walk on water. Comes with the territory but those people are wrong.

The numbers don’t lie — when faced with being tied or behind with 24 second or less left in the game, the Lakers and Kobe are pretty much average. And Abbott makes a good point in that the Lakers end-of-game offense is almost always isolation Kobe, which leads to contested jumpers. I’ve said for years that they need to run different sets (or the triangle) to make teams defend other players more.

My one issue with the report — you can choose to define clutch in a lot of ways.

How a player shoots in this very intense situation — tied or behind with 24 seconds remaining — which Abbott has chosen is one way to define clutch. But a big three with less than 24 seconds on the clock and your team up one is also clutch. Coming into a tie game with five minutes remaining and taking over so it becomes a 10-point win is clutch. Getting a key defensive steal or stop with your team up two and 10 seconds left is clutch. Having a great Game 5 of a playoff series is clutch.

We can define clutch any number of ways, from certain times and situations in games to entire games in certain situations. Kobe’s reputation as clutch certainly has some overlooking his flaws in that setting, but the fact that all those basketball minds in the polls of general managers and players keep coming back to Kobe as the guy they want in the crunch has me thinking that in the broader definition of clutch, you still want Kobe on your team.