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.