In a study that he’s been at for quite a while, Henry Abbott of TrueHoop recently dissected the argument of Kobe’s “clutchness”, or scoring ability in the last 24 seconds of a game. The numbers are there – Kobe’s shooting percentage in the clutch is pretty poor. Dismal might actually be a more appropriate word. Luke Walton is shooting better in garbage time this season than Kobe shoots lifetime in the clutch (and even with all the variables playing against Kobe, that’s still so, so….so disgraceful). And more to the point, as Abbott points out, Kobe’s not necessarily making his team better in the last 24 of a game – the Lakers rank 11th out of 30 NBA teams in points per 100 possessions in crunch time during Kobe’s 15 year tenure with LA.
This article was written not to discredit the Mamba’s skill level as a player, to debunk his legend as an all-time great or even to say he’s not a good player in crunch time – but rather to say that he is a very ordinary player in the clutch. In fact, Abott’s statistics are saying that the league-average shooting percentage is 29.7% - compared to Kobe’s 31.3%.
The argument is very well-researched and has several valid points – in fact, I’ve been arguing for quite a while that Kobe isn’t nearly as clutch as his reputation may seem. If my life was on the line and I needed one human to get me a bucket, I probably would pick Carmelo or Wade for the task. Giving Kobe the ball with the game on the line isn’t as much a guaranteed thing as people would hope – every single player in the NBA knows he’s going to touch the ball on the final possession, and every coach draws up plays for such a scenario. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a “Kobe Contingent” playbook for every NBA coach (Kobe’s turning into Jack Bauer – no matter what you do to him, you have to assume he’s going to eff up your plans, so you better make sure you shut his ass down). The defenses will key in on him, he’ll get triple-teamed and any defense in the league will go from unsteady or somewhat competent to the lock-down 1989 Pistons. And this is where my counter-argument comes in.
Kobe has taken 115 shots in crunch time. According to the chart accompanying this article, Kobe has taken 19 more shots than the next most attempts on the list – Vince Carter. He has taken more than 43 more attempts than the next guy after that – Kevin Garnett. In fact, other than Vince, KG and Ray Allen, no one else in the past 15 seasons has more than 70 attempts.
Also, looking towards the top of the list, the highest nine shooting percentages were all guys who have taken 44 shots or less – and includes such basketball luminaries such as Glenn Robinson and Shawn Marion.
Lastly, only one of these nine guys have won an Finals MVP trophy or a regular season MVP trophy. One of them, Glenn Robinson, has won a title (albet as a role player on the Spurs in his last year), and only two have ever been to the Finals (Hedo and Robinson).
My argument is this – the comparison and study are both unfair. Yes, Kobe is close to the league-average in shooting percentage during the clutch. But he has justifiably built up the reputation as being the best and most reliable player in the final few seconds of a game. This rep leads to what I had mentioned – triple teams, crisp 5-man defensive rotations, plays built specifically to contain him. In other words, teams are playing harder against him. Every player wants to be a Kobe-stopper (RIP Ruben Patterson – no, he’s not dead. In real life. Just to me). Kobe’s notoriety in the clutch has only been exacerbated by his success on the biggest stages – despite the fact that he’s only had, by my count, four superb games in his last 4 Finals (Game 2 in 2004, Game 3 in 2008, Game 1 in 2009, Game 5 in 2010) – Kobe’s reputation as a “clutch” player is boosted by his overall success. Chris Paul is second on the list shooting 40% in the last 24 seconds, but I don’t hear anything about how clutch or how lethal of a finisher he is. Quite frankly, he’s just not the same stature of player as Kobe.
But to that, many would say – “well that’s a mark of true greatness – overcoming that type of adversity and winning with the game on the line”. Fair enough. If Kobe was truly great, then surely he should be shooting better than a paltry 31.3%. But basketball, like all other competitions, is a relative science. Batting .330 is great in baseball, but if you were look at the numbers empirically, you would probably say “wait, this guy only gets a hit in thirty percent of his at-bats? That sounds awful”. But relative to the rest of the league, getting a hit one-third of the time is pretty damn good.
More to the point actually, any study, scientific or otherwise, becomes more precise if the sample sizes are similar. Sure, information can be extrapolated from smaller numbers, but as time and quantity move on, variables are thrown into the mix. And that’s my argument here. We can’t have a precise study because no one else is shooting the ball with the game on the line more than Kobe Bean Bryant. In fact, as I covered, no one is within 1/5 of his shot attempts. Looking at that chart, as the number of shots are taken move up, the shooting percentage moves down to the mean. Sure, Carmelo is shooting 47% on his last second shots – but he’s taken ¼ as many as Kobe. If he were to take 80 more potential game-winning shots over a few more seasons, would he be still making around 50% of them? That’s 80 more games spread out over a number of seasons – time enough for coaches to start planning more heavily for Carmelo, for defenses to be sharper against him and for his legend to rise.
With a bevy of stats available to everyone’s fingertips now, I can see why Henry Abbott took such time to write this article. Its one of the most viewed pieces on ESPN and has spurred over 3,000 (!) responses. But it’s pretty short-sighted. What the numbers and stats don’t take into account are the variables of how a player’s performance will wane depending on how adversity evolves over time.
The problem with this article is that Abbott is trying to compare Kobe to other players in the league – but the comparison just can’t be made. No other player in the league has the same notoriety as Kobe in the last 24 seconds of a game and there is absolutely no way any other person can recreate that scenario. I think more attention should have been paid to the sheer number of shots Kobe’s taken in that scenario – and though I haven’t looked through all the statistics of all those games, I don’t think it’s crazy to say that one of the prime reasons his teams were in position to win those 115 games at the buzzer were because of Kobe to begin with. I don’t disagree with Abott that Kobe isn’t nearly as clutch as everyone thinks he is. But to say that he is an average player in the last 24 is simply ridiculous. Let me know how this article reads when Melo and CP3 take 80 more buzzer beaters.