Another day during the NBA season, yet another reason to talk about how “unclutch” LeBron James is. After LeBron missed two free throws and he shot none of the Heat’s three field goal attempts in the final minute of the Heat’s 78-75 loss to the Pacers last night, we had a whole new opportunity to declare his poor performance in game-deciding situations. As always, ESPN commentators like John Buccigross could be counted on to join the fun.

Ah, yes, the ol’ “cherry-pick numbers to fit a narrative” tactic. I know this technique because I’ve been guilty of it myself in the past — most notably two months ago, when I showcased the vast difference between Kobe Bryant’s and LeBron James’ performance numbers over the past three seasons, in the regular season or playoffs, in the fourth quarter or overtime, with 0:05 or less remaining in the game. Unsurprisingly, that post generated a lot of discussion, but do cherry-picked stats with a small sample size really prove anything? Let’s see how the narrative can change when we move the goal posts to a few different locations.

Sticking with the past three seasons, I’ll start broad with these numbers and then narrow them down so they get “clutchier” at each level. Here are Kobe and LeBron’s numbers in the fourth quarter and overtime with a scoring margin of five points or fewer. Note: eFG% refers to “effective field goal percentage”, which adjusts for the fact that a three-pointer is worth more than a two-point field goal.

Well, that certainly gives a different view of these two superstars, doesn’t it? Let’s move the goal posts back so we’re looking at their numbers in the fourth quarter and overtime, five minutes or less left in the quarter, with a scoring margin of five points or fewer.

Hmmm… we’re still not getting the right numbers to fit our narrative. Now we’ll move into “super-clutch” territory and look at just the last minute in fourth quarter or OT, and strictly shots that could tie or take the lead.

Getting warmer! And notice how LeBron has only taken six shots in those situations this season? He’s scared! The critics have obviously shaken his confidence! Let’s hammer the point home with these “super-duper-uber-ultimate-clutch” numbers I previously measured in early March, and let’s blow this mother up to a 16-point font for emphasis! (Note: I can’t explain the minor discrepancy with Kobe’s three-point numbers now compared to March. Take it up with the shot finder.)

Bingo! There’s your money shot, folks! Put a bow on that chart and overnight it to Skip Bayless!

So what do any of these numbers really prove? Is LeBron’s clutch ability underrated because he’s actually compared favorably to Kobe in late(r)-game situations over the past three seasons? Or do you only measure clutch performance by what a player does with the final shot of the game, when the outcome is on the line? To many, this latter measurement is the only one that matters — ridiculously small sample sizes, be damned.

What does clutch mean to you? It means whatever you want it to mean, depending on the numbers you select to fit your chosen narrative. What does clutch mean to me? I don’t really believe in it, to be honest — but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to warming my hands over the flames of this never-ending war.

Comments (56)

  1. tl;dr
    who’s better?

  2. The problem is that you move these “goal posts” under the presupposition that one set of parameters is equal to another. It’s NOT just choosing numbers to fit your narrative. The pressure and the importance of shotmaking (and shottaking for that matter) increases exponentially as time ticks away from the game clock.

    Two points is surely two points- whether scored in the first quarter or the fourth. But good basketball teams often play one another to close finishes which come down to execution at the very end of games.

    Your sarcastic article is actually proving the Kobe crowd right- the closer you get to the final horn, the more effective Kobe becomes and the more LeBron shrinks from the moment. If that’s not a definition of “clutch” (or lack thereof) then I don’t know what any of us are even doing here.

    • You understand the importance of sample sizes, I presume? You’re comfortable assigning a label on a player based on 11 field goal attempts over three NBA seasons?

      • I am. Especially given the fact that the player he’s being compared to has more than double the amount of attempts while maintaining a similar usage rate. And more especially considering the number of makes in those 11 attempts is 0.

        Sample size is less important here. You don’t get many looks at “game winner” type shots, just as you don’t get many Game 7 opportunities. Should Game 7′s, or alternatively “close out playoff games” be thrown out of the clutch discussion simply because most players can’t compile a large enough of a sample size to get the data junkies hard?

        Having 24 (or even 11, I suppose) attempts at something like that may seem like a small sample size- but considering the rarity of the opportunity we’re talking about, it’s really not all that small at all.

        Not to get all Eight Mile on you, but great careers really DO come down to a few defining moments. Data analysis and macro trends, etc. are all well and good, but the truth is that any given player is lucky to be given a handful of shots at an iconic moment. Henry Abbott, etc. are confounded by those moments, which stick in the public consciousness while defying the logic of his spreadsheets. Those moments, if you make the most of them, live on. Kobe, a career volume shooter, is nonetheless made immortal by his willingness to engage and meet those moments.

        Lets not kid ourselves- the last minute of a game IS “that moment” in a very different way from the next-to-last minute. The pressure is an entirely different animal. Kobe lives for it- misses as often as he makes, but lives for it. LeBron not only shrinks from it but fails in the few instances he does engage. This is easily a big enough sample size for me.

        • Someone get this guy a blog

          • Your kidding rigit. Read the sentence about “cherry-picking” numbers. Martin is a prime example of this. MJ and Kobe are SCORERS first, passers, second. So, that plays an awful lot into the equation. Plus, LeBron has proven himself time and again that he is “clutch” for the simple fact that he CARRIED AN ENTIRE FRANCHISE, that wasn’t relevant b4 he came along.

        • no idea who you are, martin – but that was illuminating. write more, +1 on that “give him a blog”.

        • I would like to know how many available clutch shots Lebron and Bryant had. I am confident that Bryant took the vast majority for the Lakers, but what if Lebron has shot fewer times because Heat close out a lot of games in 3rd quarter? I personally do not know these answers, but I think Scott could indulge us even in this small sample size

        • +2 in the get a blog category.

        • Look up the amount of “last-second” shots that MJ took in his career. He hit something in the neighboorhood of 25%. LeBron has also shot OVER 50% for his career. My, point, LeBron takes SMARTER shots. And MJ MISSED quite a bit more of these clutch shots than he made. But many, such as yourself, tend to reflect on the revisionist part of history, instead of reading the numbers for what they REALLY are. Nothing against Kobe or MJ, but to say that LeBron “shrinks” at the last minute is BEYOND comical. Maybe learn the game instead of giving fancy, UNINFORMED, answers. BTW, I’m a Knick fan, b4 you accuse me of being a homer…

      • Save your breath. People like this are force-fed info, and actually think they came up with an original idea. To compare LeBron to those two is fair. To call LeBron a choker, is STUPID….

    • Do you have an e-mail I can reach you at, Martin?

    • The argument that the lost shot makes you ‘clutch’ is ridiculous on many levels, but the most obvious is that the best players do not often shoot the last shots. NBA defenses are built to stop that from happening.

      Notice how the list of All-time clutch players are the third scoring options on their team? Rarely the second, and even more rarely the first.

      John, Paxson, Steve Kerr, Derick Fisher, Robert Horry, Boobie Gibson, James Posey….the list goes on for days.

  3. Has anyone looked at assists in the final thirty seconds of games? I’d like to see those stats please. Clutch Assists or something.

    How many game winners has Kobe assisted, how many has Lebron?

    I’m too lazy and numerically challenged to do this work myself. Also, I’m busy writing massive masterpieces.

    • i see where you are coming from but why would you pass it when you are the best player on the team? lebron did that before and got criticized for it.. what you are saying doesnt really mean anything

      • Chris Paul doesn’t score as much as Kobe. But anyone with a brain would take Chris Paul over Kobe if they had the choice.

        Similarly, the Spurs don’t have a top 15 player, but they might be the best team in the league right now.

        Being the best isn’t about being the best scorer; and if you can’t understand that, you should probably stick to baseball.

  4. The only other proven game winner in the league besides Kobe is D. Fish. And that’s only because he got to play so long next to Kobe to learn how to be a winner. Game winning shots are the only shots that matter and that’s why every year the MVP voting should be:
    1. Kobe
    2. Kobe
    3. D. Fish
    4. Kobe
    5. Robert Horry

  5. The article takes a complete tangent from Buccigross’ statement. He gives a percentage, total number of attempts, and its only over one season to ensure some form of consistency. If someone wants to dismiss the tweet because its only 17 attempts they have the right. Personally I think 17 free throws is a reasonable sample, it may not please statisticians but 17 repetitions of the same shot in clutch situations is about as good as its going to get in sports analysis. In addition we already know Lebron struggles at the the free throw line late in games just from watching the games this is not forcing some absurd constraints on a situation to get a desired narrative. No where in here does he talk Kobe either I’m not sure why you got defensive and decided to enter that abyss

  6. exactly what games did lebron win with this great clutch shooting? as much as NBA has been forcing this chickensh*t loser down our throats for years, using him in all sorts of promos, videos and daily recaps, I cannot remember a single game that he ever won at the buzzer or in final seconds. and kobe must have had at least 10 such games in last couple of years.

    try going to youtube and search for yourself, you will find many amazing shots by lebron. at the end of first or second quarter :D

    • mirko, winning by dominating the whole game and by shooting the last shot is the same; they both count for one win.

      • Hes too busy sucking kobe’s c*ck along with a large group of people that have the same intelligence level as j. simpson.

        No ones disputing Kobe’s late game shot making ability, but to say Lebron has never made any makes you look like a retard.

        If lebron switched places with kobe while lebron was in CLE, kobe doesnt get out of 1st round and lebron would match kobes rings, if not exceed. Theres two bigs that just might dominate if they actually had the ball

        • Mirko, are you smoking crack? Lebron has missed some opportunities but he’s made some big plays as well. He’s easily the best player in the game, the fact that you don’t understand that is pretty sad. Lebron has 3 MVPs, Kobe has 1. Put Lebron on those Laker teams with Shaq and you can argue that he’d win more championships.

    • Lebron vs DET 2007 playoffs
      Lebron vs ORL 2009 playoffs
      etc…

      People like you need to get of kobe’s d*ck and look up facts for once.

      • LOL @ “etc.”

        No no, GO ON, please.

        • Both the Celtics and the Bulls got shredded by Lebron last year in the playoffs. He played out of his mind in the last few minutes of those games but there is some kind of collective amnesia towards these games for some reason. He had a tough finals, yes, but that doesn’t throw the rest of his playoffs out the window.

      • I would rather be on kobe’s d*ck since he has proved to be winner and greatest player of his generation, than be in lebron’s pus*y like you.

    • Actually, there was that buzzer-beater over Turkoglu in the ECF when the Cavs won their only game a couple of years back.

      But that’s the thing, Kobe has a much more (also because he has much more attempts).

  7. Well, well, Scott, aren’t you the one skewing with numbers to fit your narrative, there ? With all the moving the goal posts and only comparing 2 players and whatnot…

    The fact that the sample size is smaller in LeBron’s case than in Kobe’s (by a pretty wide margin) IS telling, the fact that he didn’t make a single game-winner is telling. Those are things we see with our eyes and that are confirmed by the stats.

    LeBron is a fantastic 4th quarter player, better than Kobe, the stats prove that too.
    But Kobe is better when the line gets closer.

    That’s it.
    Sure, the media overblow this thing, but it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily wrong.

    And yeah, as Leo Tolstoy said in the comment above, if there was an assists on game-winners (or even assists in 4th quarter comparison), I’m pretty sure LeBron would win hands down on that stat. Google doesn’t help ‘tho.

    • 82games.com has
      33.2 pts on 25.6 fga and 9.3 assists per 48 minutes of clutch time for James
      36.3 pts on 33.7 fga and 6.8 assists per 48 minutes of clutch time for Bryant

      clutch according to 82games.com : 4th quarter or overtime, less than 5 minutes left, neither team ahead by more than 5 points (pretty much the conventionnal way of seeing it).

  8. No one would care about the Jordan shrug or the “switching to the left hand in mid-air for no reason at all” if he went on to bone two free throws at the end of the game and lost the series.

    It’s probably unfair that a player can turn an 8 win team into a 60 win team, carry them through the playoffs, then take all the blame when they lose, but that’s sports. It doesn’t have to make much sense.

  9. Really, the important statistic is how well their teams do in similar situations when they have the ball to start. And even this will be skewed because of differences in their teammates’ ability.

    Kobe is one who almost always wants to take it upon himself to decide the outcome of the game. Win or lose, he will take the criticism or praise. Much more of the time he is going to take the shot, even if it’s tough and he’s double teamed. Except for guys he trusts (Horry, Fisher) he is much more reluctant to pass the ball. It probably pained him to pass the ball to Artest in Game 7 of the Finals for that 3. This means his percentage is going to be worse.

    On the other hand, Lebron’s tendency is to pass up the ball to whoever is open. Is this the “right” play? Often, no it’s not. Wade is not the best spot-up shooter, and the other guys haven’t really proven themselves in tough situations. If he’s passing to someone who is wide open, maybe they’re wide open for a reason. There’s no statistical disadvantage to passing the ball to someone else (a reason I think Rondo is overrated). Lebron’s percentage should then be falsely elevated, since he only takes the shot if he’s single covered, has an open drive, and many times he may be fouled.

    The opposite issue holds true for other guys who tend to be on this list with a higher late game percentage. They aren’t the primary ball handler. They’re just good clutch shooters. If you give them the ball to start the possession, they can’t get their own shot. Ray Allen depends on 2 or 3 guys to get off his “Clutch” shots (the one passing to him and 1-2 guys to set screens).

    Is Kobe the most clutch player? I think he is still close to being the best guy in the league to have the ball with less than 10 seconds left needing a score. However he’s definitely lost a step, some athleticism, and his handle (he can’t really dribble well any more due to his unstable deformed wrist) so I’d probably take a guy like Durant who is willing to shoot and can create his own shot, with Carmelo and Pierce somewhere in the mix.

    And let’s put the whole “2 points is 2 points” thing to rest. 2 points with no time left on the clock is more important because teams can’t do anything to “correct” the result. If a team scores 2 more points in the 1st quarter, their opponent can speed up the game, foul, etc to overcome those 2 points. If a team makes the last 2 points of a game, their opponent can do nothing about it.

    • Your point about the specific situations LeBron passes in is good. I do think LeBron is underrated in the clutch by the haters, but yes, it will often be a pass that does not gain ground.

      I think Nash has been overrated for a similar reason…too many times he passes up what for him (a tremendous shooter) is a decent look for a teammate’s inferior look. That’s okay to a point, improving their confidence early in the game to pay off later. However, for someone who shoots so well despite initiating his own offense, he takes far too few shots. Definitely unselfish to a fault. CP3 knows when to make himself the threat. Kyrie, DWill have that too, to a lesser extent.

  10. I’ve never really understood why people put so much emphasis on game winners. I think that a player’s “clutch” ability is important, but I think it is talked about WAYY too much in basketball. Winning games is the ultimate goal, but why does it matter how the games are won? What happens if in 10 years we have a guy playing in the league who averages 100 points per game and his teams win every game that season by 40 points. He wouldn’t hit a single game winner that season, so does that mean he isn’t the best? You see the number that Lebron takes less “clutch” shot attempts. Could that be because he was in less close games? I don’t know the stats so I’m not sure. I’m just trying to make a point of how these numbers are very hard to take anything from by themselves.

    P.S. Of all Kobe’s wonderful game winners, how many have been in the playoffs? Since that is all that matters to most people, shouldn’t those be the only ones we talk about? If we’re talking about playoff game winners, I bet the number Kobe has hit would be pretty close to LBJ

    • Well, off the top of my head Kobe made two against the Suns in one game, one to force overtime and one to win it. When the Suns were clearly the better team. And Kobe led a team starting Smush Parker, Kwame Brown, and Luke Walton to a 3-1 lead.

      In the end, I don’t think the “clutch” issue is really that big. Both Kobe and Lebron are great players and both deserve the ball at the end of games. Even though shooting percentages might be low, we’re often talking about situations with less than 5 seconds resulting in very limited options on offense.

      I’d say maybe I’ll take Kobe if there’s less than 7 seconds on the clock, and Lebron if there’s more than 7 seconds, at least at this point in their careers. Lebron is better at getting to the rim (though I am always nervous about his free throw shooting). Kobe is way better at making a tough shot where there’s just no other option than to shoot over 2 or 3 defenders.

      No matter which guy you choose, you’re not very far off.

  11. I’d take LeBron for 99% of situations and Kobe if it’s a halfcourt set and you want to guarantee your team takes the last shot (i.e. isolation may be preferred).

    I mean, that is, if you can’t have Chris Paul, who’s a distributor like Bron but I’d prefer CP3′s scoring ability in the halfcourt set. He’s also a better free throw shooter. He to me is a superior choice to either guy being debated, and the team cluch stats in his Hornets years back that up. Let’s say CP3 initiating with Pop or Doc drawing the play up and you have the best chance =)

  12. Great post. Stats get tossed around all the time and most analysts only seem to have a tangential understanding of them. Basketball is getting better as people are developing more advanced (and meaningful) measures, but there’s still a long way to go before the numbers get used correctly.

  13. How can anyone take themselves seriously when they judge a player based on 10.4%(5 out of 48 min) of the game? That alone in my opinion, is “skewing stats to fit a narrative”. Yeah, Kobe’s a 41% shooter in the clutch, but that doesn’t make him a bad player. Yeah, LeBron is 0 for 11, but that shouldn’t matter either. The game doesn’t magically get harder in the last 5 minutes. Trust me, I’ve been playing ball my whole life. Think about it this way; Kobe wouldn’t get the opportunity to hit the last shot for the win, if Steve Blake had missed a free throw in the first quarter. The real problem here is the unnecessary isolation plays at the end of a game, that ruin our perception of greatness in basketball.

  14. So, Kobe Bryant and Durantula had the clutch opportunities…

    and YOU CHOSE TO DOWNLOAD DOO DOO JUMP!? DOOOOO DOOOOO JUUUUUUUUUMP?!

  15. i’m really disappointed that kobe shied away from an opportunity to hot dog. i would have liked to see him relish the opportunity to take that last shot for the lakers to ketchup. instead he couldn’t mustard up enough courage and had to rely on steve blake to take the shot for the win. so sad. :’(

  16. Never mind these individual stats. Who’s team won more in clutch situations?

  17. Just listen to Tim Legler on the last NBA Today podcast… he sums it up perfectly and y’all can stop arguing about stats you’ve produced to back up your opinion.

    Every player feels pressure. Some players let the pressure get to them, others push it aside and let the muscle memory take over – the ball goes in.

    Sometimes LeBron chokes, sometimes he doesn’t.

    It’s sports.

  18. “What does clutch mean to me? I don’t really believe in it, to be honest — but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to warming my hands over the flames of this never-ending war.”

    Scott Carefoot, you insane lunatic, are you trying to kill me? So you don’t believe in clutch and unclutch. Do you believe in pressure? Because if you believe in pressure than surely you must admit that there are different ways to react to pressure and that different people have different responses to it.

    In life, basketball, finger-knitting some people are able to overcome the pressure that the moment exerts on them and perform at, above, or very close to the level they perform at in a less pressurized moments. We call these people/players clutch. Should we call them something else? Probably. Clutch isn’t a great word and it leads to unclutch and ‘clutchness’ which are even worse.

    To say there is no such thing as ‘clutchness’ is to say that there is no such thing as pressure and/or everyone responds to pressure in the same way. And I don’t think you want to say this. I think you’d have to be certifiable to say this. The physical motion required to make a free-throw, may not change from moment to moment, but your ability to execute this physical motion does change. Undeniably. If some random psycho wanders out of a Cormac McCarthy and onto the court at the Y, the pressure I’d feel at the free-throw line with his gun pointed at my head and only one shot would be immense. Infinite. It’d be the hardest free-throw in the history of free-throws. If I overcome the towering pressure of the moment and make the free-throw, then there is some pretty good evidence that I’m as clutch as Jordan. (If I miss it I’m dead. And Finals Lebron. Zing!) Pressure is real, and so is clutchness.

  19. clutch huh how about game 6 in a 3-2 series at boston where he scores 45 pts 15 reb 6 ast ending his team back to south beach then hits 12-17 at the line 31 pts and 10 rebounds in a must win game .hmmmmm ya i guess hes not clutch

  20. Do you guys not remember Kobe and MJ in their primes like Lebron is right now. Either Kobe or MJ could have made CLE a competing franchise no questions. All three of these guys are comparable of course. The problem is Lebron hasn’t won a ring yet and it seems when everyone is watching he always misses the big shot. I don’t even get excited if Lebron is shooting a tying, or game winning shot, we all know the outcome. MJ is the BEST EVER then KOBE and once Lebron wins multiple rings then he can be considered, maybe better than Kobe and depending on how many possibly MJ. But he has to WIN first. Also another thing that bothers me, we never saw Magic team up with Bird or Shaq team up with Tim Duncan, Lebron lost respect when he teamed up with Wade, not a best player to ever play the game, move.

  21. Without a doubt Lebron James is a better basketball player than Kobe Bryant. I can understand why some want to argue that it is the other way around. But the argument is who is a better basketball player right now. Lebron James is in his prime Kobe Bryant is in the decline of his career I feel that Kobe is a good player and in his prime this could potentially be an argument. But right now Lebron James is bigger, he’s faster, he jumps higher, he’s the most aggressive player in the NBA when it comes to taking the ball to the goal. Lebron James is a freight train that no one wants to stand in front of. Lebron has put up great numbers all around and has played consistently throughout the playoffs. He’s been named League MVP, Finals MVP, and Olympic MVP. He has just won his first NBA championship ring, has just won the Olympics and is currently the hottest ticket in the NBA. Lebron James is better than Kobe Bryant hands down.

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