On “clutch,” “choking,” and ships passing quietly in the night

22 Comments

Those in and around the basketball community engage in debate on an incredible number of game-related topics. Yet in truth, most reasonable observers of the game share more common opinions than one might initially think. There are subtle differences — mostly relative ones discovered in the process of comparing one player or team to another — regarding skill and ability, but the most common source of debate and dispute lie in differences in rhetoric, even if those participating in said dispute fail to realize it. The sports world has become laden with particularly weighty jargon, and it’s those specific word choices that typically incite the fiery passions of die-hard fans. Those words reflect the values specific to sport itself: an ability to exceed perceived value, dominance over other competitors, and high-level performance under the most intense and extreme of circumstances.

That last aspect of athletic performance is held on a higher pedestal than all else; the “clutch,” are feared and revered, while the “chokers,” are turned into joke-a-minute punchlines in the over-diluted world of sports consumption and coverage. Any who seems to shrink from a late-game situation is put in the stocks for all to throw rocks and produce at, despite the fact that there isn’t anywhere near a universal understanding of what words like “clutch,” and “choke,” actually mean.

Case in point: a column from Mike Berardino of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel:

Just last weekend, we saw the U.S. women’s soccer team become the latest to succumb to the massive pressure that often accompanies our games. Two blown in the leads in the late stages of a Women’s World Cup final against Japan, a team that had never beaten the top-ranked Americans in 25 previous tries. Three straight botched penalty kicks by the U.S., which had gone 5-for-5 in that same situation one week earlier against Brazil.

They choked, right? Of course, they did. Just like LeBron James in the NBA Finals or Rory McIlroy at the Masters or Scott Norwood in the Super Bowl.

“I think it happens to everybody,” says former Heat great Alonzo Mourning, now a team community-relations executive. “We, as professional athletes, when we’re put in that situation, the public, the team, everybody watching expects you to respond at that moment because you’re a highly paid athlete.”

But these are human beings, not machines, so more often than anyone would care to admit our sporting contests are decided by who blinks first.

“There are certain pressure points where the sense of responsibility rises,” Mourning says. “Anxiety increases and people, for lack of a better word, get nervous. People tighten up. You do things that you would not do when you’re at a comfort level.”

That’s not just a sports phenomenon either.

“All choking is,” says CBS college football analyst Spencer Tillman, “is when external situations impact what has traditionally been routine and normal for you.”

If only it were so simple. Individuals let external factors influence their decisions and performance at all times. If we’re restricted to basketball alone, it decides what shots are taken, what passes are made, how the defense chooses to cover certain players, how the clock is used, how the coaches elect to use the resources available to them, etc., etc., forever and ever. More accurately, “choking,” is whatever the public consensus decides that it should be, which usually serves to confirm a widely held belief of a player or is sparked and sustained by a single and brilliant irrefutable play.

Hit a game-winning shot in a big playoff game, and your reputation is made. Miss a crucial free throw with the game on the line, and that same rep is sunk…so long as the adoring public is willing to let the visions of clutch greatness go. The memory of the basketball fan collective is astoundingly selective, and whatever evidence is deemed admissible is twisted and spun in a way that simultaneously creates a clutch résumé and amends the very fluid definition of the term itself. Then come the arguments based on such a malleable foundation, a discussion that pretends to be based on a shared notion but only remains bound by the most abstract of concepts.

“Clutch,” is whatever we want it to be. It’s a word so powerful in the sporting realm that it is defined and guarded by every sports fan with a mouth or a Twitter account. We can rifle through all of the data in the world with all of the qualifiers and filters available, but individual definitions (and the perceptions that stem from them) will always dictate the discussion in a way that inconvenient facts cannot.

Is part of Markelle Fultz’s problem a too-tight, family-dominated inner circle?

Getty Images
2 Comments

There needs to be context with this story. A lot of context. First, whatever is going on with Markelle Fultz, it cannot be traced to just one thing. It’s never that clean and simple. His agent and lawyer Raymond Brothers is trying to pitch his issues are all physical when clearly there are mental aspects and more involved.

Next, a close-knit family where the mother/dad/uncle is very protective of the elite basketball prospect and is deeply involved in everything is far, far, far from a new story in the NBA. It’s more the norm.

All that said, it’s fair to ask if Markelle Fultz’s family situation is impacting him. The amazing Candace Buckner of the Washington Post delved into this topic, interviewing Fultz’s former trainer Keith Williams among others.

“He’s a sensitive young kid, and I think emotionally he went through so much,” Williams said….

Fultz is now a professional on a four-year contract worth $33 million, but close associates said [his mother] Ebony still goes to great lengths to shield him. During Fultz’s first season in Philadelphia, Ebony had cameras installed inside his New Jersey home, according to several people familiar with the setup who described the indoor surveillance as unusual. The cameras have since been removed. Multiple people said Ebony has asked some who have dealt with Fultz to sign nondisclosure agreements for reasons that are unclear to them…

“There’s definitely crazy [expletive] going on with the mom and how involved she is and how overprotective she is,” said a person with a close connection to Fultz. “The best possible situation is if the mom just backs off for a period of time and gives him a chance to breathe.”

Again, overprotective parents are not new in basketball circles. NBA teams have dealt with it before and generally understand how to make that less of a problem. Just like your parents don’t get to follow you to your first real job after college, NBA parents don’t either. Just ask LaVar Ball.

That said, this concern it adds to the things making it hard to move him in a trade.

Ultimately, what Fultz needs is to be traded to a smaller market where he can develop out of the spotlight and demands that came in Philly. The Sixers are testing the market, but so far no deal has come close. That team will have to deal with everything going on around and with Fultz. And it’s not going to be just one thing.

 

Watch the video: How many times was James Harden fouled by the Lakers?

Getty Images
2 Comments

James Harden has attempted 235 free throws this season, second most in the NBA (Joel Embiid, to answer your question about the most). He averages 9.8 free throws a game, again second most in the NBA.

Every team complains about how he draws fouls — driving into players bodies then selling it by throwing his head back, flailing his arms and going to the ground. Last night the Lakers were so frustrated they played with their hands behind their backs for a while.

How many fouls did Harden really draw? Watch this and decide for yourself.

The NBA referees think he was fouled more than you do. That includes a foul on Kyle Kuzma.

That second one is the correct call — Lonzo Ball has his hands down but he as the defender initiates the contact and drives into Harden. That’s a foul. Other ones are as well, the Lakers slid under him as he went up on a number of plays.

A lot of NBA fans complaining about the calls Harden gets may want to watch their own team more closely — a lot of players do the same thing. Not as often or as convincingly as Harden, but it’s the same idea, a lot of players do the same thing.

Harden is the master of drawing fouls, with his herky-jerky, old man at the Y game which includes a lot of stepbacks and flailing. It’s frustrated everyone, including Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook when they had to guard him as teammates.

Why does he do it? Because it works. It throws defenders off. Same reason Marcus Smart and others flop on defense, he gets calls and gets in opponents heads.

And it’s not going to stop.

No, the Heat are not going to tank, you can stop asking

Getty Images
Leave a comment

At the season’s end, if no trades or moves are made, the Miami Heat would pay nearly $6.3 million in tax. They have the sixth-highest payroll in the NBA.

The Miami Heat are 11-16 and right now out of the playoffs in the East. Even if they get it together, this is not a roster ready to compete with the top four in the East.

There is a lot of context is needed here: Goran Dragic, Hassan Whiteside, James Johnson, Dion Waiters all gave missed time this season (Waiters has yet to play), it’s not simply that this is a bad team asking too much of Josh Richardson. But it is an unimpressive team.

Which always leads to the “will the Heat sell off their good players and tank” question? A question the franchise is weary of hearing.

No. That’s not the way Pat Riley sees the world. That’s what everyone told Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated.

“This is what pro sports is supposed to be about,” Spoelstra told The Crossover. “Competing every night. To try to win. Not the opposite. Obviously not every year you are going to have a realistic chance to compete for a title. Since I have been here, working for Pat, from day 1, that has always been the directive. For me, that brings great clarity. Keep the main thing the main thing. And everything else is just b*******….

“Do the history on it,” Spoelstra said. “What franchises have had the most enduring sustainable success over the last 24 years? We’re up there with the top three or four. The teams that constantly tank, I don’t know where they are. It would make for a pretty good discussion. But if you are hardwired to find a way to get it done without any excuses, you will find different pathways. There’s no one way to do it.”

Miami has advantages — the nightlife, the weather, no state taxes — that allows it to get free agents other franchises can only dream of. Miami is a destination. Build a core and try to attract free agents is a legitimate strategy for Miami in a way it is not for other franchises.

Building a core is just not that easy. Miami is a team is set to be over the tax this season and next, and their 2021 first-round pick is owed to Philadelphia unprotected (via Phoenix). Is the goal to stick around in the East and overachieve as Spoelstra teams tend to do the Heat are set up to go for it, but should they take a step back to try and take a step forward.

That’s not the way the Heat operate.

 

Report: Suns owner Robert Sarver overruled draft-night trade for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
2 Comments

On draft night, the Suns traded the No. 16 pick and the Heat’s unprotected 2021 first-round pick to the 76ers for No. 10 pick Mikal Bridges. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander went to the Clippers with the No. 11 pick (via the Hornets).

Phoenix is now an NBA-worst 5-24 and lacks even a decent point guard.

Bob Young of The Athletic:

It’s worth noting that the Suns wouldn’t be in this fix if Robert Sarver, the club’s managing partner, had not reportedly overruled his then-general manager, Ryan McDonough, on draft night.

McDonough reportedly planned to package the club’s pick from Milwaukee and a player taken with the 16th pick to move up and draft Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a point guard from Kentucky.

When Philadelphia offered the rights to Mikal Bridges for the rights to Zhaire Smith and Miami’s unprotected 2021 first-round pick, Sarver pushed for that deal. So the Suns moved up six spots to add their fourth young wing player.

I didn’t like the trade the Suns made. I ranked Bridges No. 6 on my draft board, and he’s having a fine rookie year. But part of Bridges’ appeal was his NBA-readiness. Phoenix isn’t good enough to take advantage of that. The Heat pick is also too valuable.

McDonough’s preferred trade would have been better. The Bucks pick – 1-3 and 17-30 protected, in 2019, 1-7 protected in 2020, unprotected in 2021 – is less valuable than the Miami pick. Gilgeous-Alexander has looked promising in L.A.

Importantly, Gilgeous-Alexander would have given the Suns a much-needed point guard.

As owner, Sarver can step in where he sees fit. It’s his team after all. But this makes it all the more ludicrous he fired McDonough shortly before the season due, in part, to not having a quality point guard.

That said, if Gilgeous-Alexander were struggling, I’m not sure we’d hear this story. Only the near-hits, never the near-misses, get leaked.