In light of Henry Abbott posting yet another article based on clutchness, I’ve decided to re-post a feature I wrote for an earlier version of this blog from February 2011. Breaking down some his rhetoric, I attempt to demonstrate the holes that are often present in Abbott’s arguments regarding clutchness, specifically regarding his confirmation bias towards Kobe Bryant.
A week or two ago, ESPN writer Henry Abbott decided to post a column on Truehoop.com dissecting his assertion of why Kobe was overrated as a clutch player. Since Abbott consistently claims he is objective in his analysis of Kobe Bryant, despite
multiple posts proving otherwise, I was intrigued enough to look further into his claims rather than simply accepting them – ESPN writers can be wrong too.
Unlike Henry, I support the notion that Kobe is a clutch player. Clutch doesn’t mean that he makes every
single shot – but over time, he has won games in so many different situations that his reputation is justified. However, when stats are used misleadingly to drive home a preconceived narrative, readers often get bamboozled in the process.
Editor’s Note: I will say though that this response was written before the 2011 playoffs, where Bryant and the Lakers were very ineffective down the stretch of games. In fact, Kobe was horrid, and I can admit as much.
First, let’s be clear that Abbot’s premise of being clutch is based on 24 seconds or less left in the game, and the team with the ball is either tied or down by 1 to 2 points.
Right off the bat, this argument is a very inaccurate time frame to judge clutchness by.
Note: If you want a more accurate measure of statistics that determines Kobe’s level of clutch, look no further than the 82games.com features linked below, which determines clutchness with the definition of “4th quarter or overtime, less than 5 minutes left, neither team ahead by more than 5 points“. This criteria is a lot closer to my own of 6 minutes or under, and not surprisingly, Bryant is at the top, or near the top for all the years that it has been documented.
By this category, Kobe comes #2 in 2010, #2 in 2008, and #1 in 2009. I couldn’t find the numbers for years prior to this on the website, but the list of players included in these lists resembles the general consensus by fans and players as to who is “clutch” in the NBA. It is a lot more accurate than the list Abbott uses, since the likely candidates (James, Wade, Ginobili, Roy, Paul) are on the list; most of these players were missing from Abott’s list or were not in the Top 5.
To me however, clutchness is not just in the last 24 seconds – it is when the momentum is swinging to the other team in the 4th quarter with at least 6 or less minutes remaining. In this scenario, you have to be “clutch” by either making baskets that give your team a further cushion on the lead, or baskets that put pressure on the other team to execute while you close the gap or take the lead. By Henry’s definition of clutch, if Kobe Bryant makes a 3 pointer with 10 seconds left and his team down 3, it is not defined as clutch because it doesn’t fit the criteria of “1 or 2 points”. Nor does it account for times when Bryant (or any player) stretches his team’s lead from one to three, and gives them further cushion in the last 24 seconds.
Now let’s breakdown some of Henry’s claims, word for word:
Bryant makes crunch-time defense easy for opponents by shooting just about every time he touches the ball (over a five-year period, he mustered 56 clutch shots, to go with one assist).
I have seen Bryant pass on “clutch” plays numerous times. Off the top of my head, the alley-oop to Shaq to seal Game 7 of the 2000 WCF (with 43 seconds left in the game), the game-clinching pass to Derek Fisher in OT of Game 4 of the 2009 Finals (with 31 seconds left), and a series of clutch plays in Game 3 of the 2010 series to the Jazz, including a clutch pass to Derek Fisher (at 2:47 of the video, with 31 seconds left in the game). But of course, none of these happened with less than 24 and down 1-2, so it doesn’t fall under what Henry deems as being “clutch”.
In 1997, he famously shot two air-balls that could have eliminated the Jazz; instead, the Jazz won the series
In 1997, Kobe Bryant was a little used rookie still clearly trying to prove he belonged. Should he have forced those shots? Of course not. But using his rookie year as a conclusive point to prove that he is not clutch, while ignoring the context surrounding the game is nit-picking at its finest. Keep in mind that Abbott is using examples from 15 years ago to make his point.
No matter how you define crunch time — from the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime to the last 24 seconds — and no matter how you define production — field goal percentage, offensive efficiency, David Berri’s Wins Produced, the results tell the same story: Bryant is about as likely to hit the big shot as any player.
Except that the stats that Henry presents as evidence to prove Bryant is not clutch is entirely based on the last 24 seconds and not in the last 3-5 minutes, as it should be. Why even say “no matter how you define it”, when the entire basis of the article is that Kobe can’t make shots with 24 seconds left?
Bryant shoots more than most, passes less and racks up misses at an all-time rate. There is no measure, other than YouTube highlights and folklore, by which he’s the best scorer in crunch time.
The point that he is missing is that Bryant is largely the reason the Lakers are in that position in the first place. By discounting the possessions preceding the last 24 seconds, Abbott completely ignores any clutch plays Kobe makes to swing the momentum before there is 24 seconds left on the clock, which is a severely flawed logic. Basketball doesn’t work with such a narrow definition.
Watch this video from the 2:10 mark, which is when the real crunch time begins. It is Game 3 of the 2010 playoffs, and the Lakers are in Salt Lake City looking to go up 3-0 in the series. The Lakers are down 5 points with 6 minutes remaining. Kobe does the following in the next 6 minutes, ultimately leading to the Lakers winning the game: fade-away jumper with 1:45 left to take a one point lead, a three pointer while being down three with 54 seconds left, and a clutch pass to Derek Fisher with 30 seconds left. And that is from ONE game – Bryant has had numerous games like these throughout his career. Therefore, it is not just “folklore” that adds to his reputation. Rather, fans who have watched his teams over the years have seen displays like this numerous times in a variety of situations which lead to the formation of his reputation as a clutch player.
According to Abbott, however, this is not clutch because it doesn’t meet his criteria.
In basketball, entrusting the ball to the open teammate really does benefit the team. Remember when Jordan passed to a wide-open Bill Wennington in the lane? Or to Steve Kerr or John Paxson in the Finals?
Again, that’s two examples he uses for Jordan, while completely ignoring instances where Kobe has done the same thing, including passing to Derek fisher (Game 4 of the 2009 Finals, Game 3 of the 2010 Jazz series, to name two examples), the Shaq alley-oop, and a rifle pass to Robert Horry to beat the Blazers in the 2002 playoffs. In fact, a week or so after Henry’s article picked up steam, Kobe had a clutch pass to Lamar Odom for a game sealing three pointer. To suggest that Kobe doesn’t pass during crunch is time is one of the most ignorant arguments I’ve ever heard – there is a lot of evidence to the contrary, you just have to be receptive to it.
John Wall was a heavy favorite to beat Blake Griffin for rookie of the year. Kevin Durant was a slam dunk to win this year’s MVP
Abbott uses this point to illustrate that GMs are sometimes ignorant and can be quite wrong when assessing players. He uses this to conclude that this is why they pick Bryant as the king of clutchness, implying that it’s because their eyes fool them. Except, the examples he gives aren’t really that bad. Wall is widely considered the second best rookie from last year’s rookie class, and KD and the Thunder are still doing well enough for him to be Top 10 in the MVP conversation. It’s a moot point.
Jackson published that book in the interlude when he was not coaching the Lakers. That he doesn’t talk that way is hardly bizarre — it’s admirable for a coach to keep his criticism of a colleague “in the family.”
This is where Henry’s bias and contempt towards Kobe starts being evident.
Never mind the fact that Phil Jackson came back on the Lakers to coach Kobe even when he had quit the year before and published this book; never mind the fact that they’ve played SIX seasons together since that book with no outward signs of discontent; never mind the fact that they have won 2 championships in 3 Finals trips since then, or the fact that Kobe has greatly evolved as a player and as a public figure since the 2004 season. Rather, Abott chooses to focus on a seven-year old book written by Phil Jackson as the definitive source of information on Bryant’s ability in the 4th quarter. Which begs the question: why would an objective writer need to use Phil Jackson’s seven-year old criticism of Kobe to make a statement about him not being clutch in 2011?
It seems as if Abbott is trying less to convince us that Bryant is not clutch, and more vehemently trying to drive the narrative that Bryant is a terrible person to play with. Unlike, of course, Lebron.
There are a lot of misleading things in this world.
I thought this was humorous, considering the clear evidence of bias, contempt, selectivity, and arrogance throughout his articles.
As long as your mind is open to all that, it has to be closed to the idea that Kobe Bryant is the king of crunch time.
Kobe may not be the “king” of crunch time, but that’s not why he is so respected. He has been the undisputed leader, especially in the clutch, of a team that made it to 3 straight Finals appearances, winning two in the process. You don’t make it that far into the playoffs for three years running without winning close games down the stretch. This doesn’t even account for the numerous times that he closed games during the 2000-20002 Lakers’ title runs.
If you want a true barometer to see who the supreme alpha-dog “closers” are in the league, look no further than the 2008 Olympics Gold Medal game featuring the Redeem Team versus Spain. On a team featuring plenty of future Hall of Famers close to their
absolute apex (specifically Kobe and Wade), there were only two guys who repeatedly sealed the game for Team USA. One was Dwayne Wade – who has, unsurprisingly, been the crunch time leader for the Heat in the 2011 Finals – and the other was Kobe Bryant.
When Team USA needed baskets, Kobe delivered by converting on a 4 point play, making a mid lane floater, and shooting threes in timely fashion. When the team needed him to be a play maker, he assisted to Deron Williams for a game-changing 3 and made passes which lead to fouls, changing the outcome of the game.
None of these plays occurred in the last 24 seconds, but if you WATCHED the game, it was clear that the two best players down the stretch were Wade and Bryant – they consistently put their team in a position as the game went down to the wire.
Like it often happens, none of the above heroics could have been was adequately captured in statistics, and especially not in Henry’s narrow definition of clutch. The best way to judge? Watching the games – something I doubt that Abbott actually does unless the results add credibility to a narrative he already has in mind.
Ultimately, my point is that clutchness isn’t just the final possession, it’s putting your team in a position to win as the game winds down. I realize that Kobe is getting older, and is declining in ability with each passing year. It is easy to start picking on him now when he is closer to the twilight of his career and his talent is diminishing. However, if you look at his playing career objectively (specifically in his prime years in 2001-2003, 2006-2009), it is very easy to conclude that the man has repeatedly proved that he is worth being the primary option in the clutch.