Coping With Powerful Distractions

Photo Courtesy of Nuzz on Flickr

*                      *                    *

Clutch performance has been a touchy subject this season. There are the typical statistical arguments, eye-test arguments, and those based on everything imaginable in between. But it is really worth debating the best pressure performers?

The recent end-of-game shots by a pair of the league’s star players have foregrounded this question. Derrick Rose shot 4-of-18 from the field in Game 3 against the Pacers, but he hit a game-winning layup. LeBron James scored 31 points on 55 percent shooting in Game 4 vs. the Sixers but missed a key floater late in an eventual Heat loss.

It’s natural, then, to call Rose the success and LeBron the failure in these cases, as the Bulls won and the Heat did not, consistent with those final shots. Fundamentally, that’s fair. But the full-game execution of these players seems to suggest that the boundary between triumph and futility is maybe not so lucid.

The final minutes of games draw the most attention as they often noticeably influence results, and that is why top players’ execution down the stretch is so frequently subject to scrutiny. With that said, the appeal of these late-game scenarios distracts most viewers from the truth of clutch production: it’s totally overemphasized.

An oft-ignored basic principle of basketball is that the value of shots does not vary with respect to the progress of the game. Two points is two points, whether they come five seconds after the tipoff or find the net with just seconds left to play. The perceived significance of missed shots in the early going is usually negligible, as those flubs are often forgotten by the time of the game at which it is possible to process their negative impact — especially if the consequences of those misses are neutralized by late-game makes. But in many cases, if a player had passed up an ill-advised shot that did not fall in favor of a high-percentage look during a low-pressure moment, the make-up basket in the clutch would not have been necessary.

In other words, if the goal of basketball is to win games, maximizing output and efficiency at the end of games should not be the goal, for in an ideal situation the preceding portion of the game should preclude the necessity of “big” shots. When a particular team plays well in the first 46 minutes of its games, its only task in the final two minutes is to protect a lead rather than to escape a deficit with heroics.

Here’s a rudimentary illustration to demonstrate this.

(Owing to the divisive nature of this topic, bringing up specific names here would only be counterproductive — as loyalty-driven commentary would do nothing more than muddy the dialectic — so it’s wise to deal only in generalities.)

Take two players, X and Y, in two separate games with entirely equivalent final box scores, who each notch 30 points. Player X scores all 30 of his points before the one-minute mark of the fourth quarter, at which point his team is up three points. Player Y, however, only scores 24 of his 30 points before that one-minute mark, at which point his team is down three points. Player X doesn’t shoot in the final minute, but his team still wins by three. Player Y hits two three-pointers, including a tiebreaking buzzer beater, and his team also wins by three.

Player Y is the one you’re going to see in the highlights, the one whose crunch-time accomplishments will be the talk of the NBA community at large for the next day. But Player Y didn’t put his team in the best position to win. It was Player X who hit his shots early, avoiding a predicament that required an “exciting” shot; the situation merely required holding a lead. Maybe Player X is the better winner, then, however counterintuitive that realization is. After all, his performance increased the likelihood of a win for this team compared to Player Y’s, as it’s certainly easier to hold a lead than to recover from trailing.

With all that said, it’s easy to make a claim that is entirely dependent on inference and conjecture. Bolstering the case further, though, is the argument’s practical traction.

Consider the following teams: the Miami Heat, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Chicago Bulls, the San Antonio Spurs, the Boston Celtics, and the Orlando Magic. Arguably the six best teams in the NBA this season, right? They were also the top six teams in the league in scoring differential after three quarters (Thanks to @snghoops for pointing this out) at the end of the regular campaign. Meanwhile, those same squads were 12th, 15th, 17th, 5th, 28th, and 14th, respectively, in fourth-quarter output. Put simply, the NBA’s elite teams do their work early on in games such that they can put scoring on the back burner: all they are tasked with late is protecting a lead. Indisputably, taking care of business early in contests has more than just a theoretical association with success.

Of course, any team, irrespective of its performance, will invariably find itself down by a slim margin late in some games. In those cases, someone to hit key shots would, in fact, be valuable given short-term considerations. (In the playoffs, this excellence might take on extra importance in accordance with the greater gravity of each contest.)

But nothing in basketball is free of exception. It’s about swaying the odds as far as possible in one’s favor. No team is going to hold its opponents to 0 percent shooting, but it would much rather have them shooting 40 percent than 50 percent. Similarly, no team will completely avoid scenarios in which it needs a final shot to win, but minimizing that reliance is optimal. The team that performed the best during standard, “non-clutch time” would have a leg up in that regard and simply let clutch situations take care of themselves.

It would be challenging, probably impossible, to find a coach in the NBA that would prefer to win every game on a last-second shot than to win comfortably, especially in the long term — assuming, again, the coach’s principal goal is to win.

So the apparent discrepancy that allows the clutch movement to gain momentum is this: the interest of fans is not always compatible with the most efficient, reliable way to win a basketball game.

Sports ethicist Edwin DeLattre is one that believes there is an inherent need for excitement in successful competition. He writes:

“Whether amidst the soft lights and the sparkling balls against the blaize of a billiard table, on the rolling terrain of a lush fairway or in the violent and crashing pit where linemen struggle, it is the moments when no let-up is possible, when there is virtually no tolerance for error, which make the game. The best and most satisfying contests maximize these moments and minimize respite from pressure. When competition achieves this intensity it frequently renders the outcome of the contest anticlimactic, and it inevitably reduces victory celebration to pallor by contrast … Exclusive emphasis on winning has particularly tended to obscure the importance of the quality of the opposition and the thrill of competition itself” (From William Morgan’s Ethics in Sport, Second Edition).

At their most basic, professional sports are meant to entertain fans, to inspire awe with spectacular athletic feats. For DeLattre, the power and frequency of the entertainment is enough to belittle the end result of the game. As it happens, the plays in close games tend to amplify the greatness of players’ actions, as fans identify with the struggle of their teams. Clutch shots provide a feeling of release that enhances the sports-viewing experience for most. Accordingly, many people find it necessary to dissect particular players’ success in these situations. After all, who wouldn’t want to watch the most dramatic actors in the league?

Just remember this: these clutch performances are great for the league and the viewer, but that’s about it. Tense late-game scenarios certainly aren’t sought out with winning in mind. Before anointing your player of choice the King of Clutch, it might be worth it to revisit how meaningful that title really is and what your view of success in sport really reduces to.

Seth Carstens