â€œThey have an entire vocabulary of completely imaginary concepts used to tie together chance groupings. It includes â€˜momentum,â€™ â€˜confidence,â€™ â€˜seeing the ball well,â€™ â€˜slumps,â€™ â€˜guts,â€™ â€˜clutch ability,â€™ being â€˜hotâ€™ and â€˜cold,â€™ â€˜not being aggressiveâ€™ and my all time favorite the â€˜intangibles.â€™ By such concepts, the baseball man gains a feeling of control over a universe that swings him up and down and tosses him from side to side like a yoyo in a high wind.” – Bill JamesÂ
The one I most often encounter of late â€“ and the one that draws my ire as a result â€“ is â€œclutch.â€ I can abide the word as a definition of a situation.* I can definitely see the possibility that different players have different reactions to pressure situations, though those are likely the outliers.
*4th quarter or overtime, less than 5 minutes left, neither team ahead by more than 5 points.
What irks me is the idea that a player is either clutch or not clutch. It’s usually redundant, for one; of course a great player is clutch! They perform well in most every situation during the course of a game. Being the closer in a tight matchup is simply par for the course. The chance of observing a single failure increases, of course, when observing a single play or a short stretch, but that’s simply the nature of probability.Â Those who perform well overall will likely perform well in specific instances, too, good players are clutch at all times, generally.
That bleeds into the issue of small sample size; even an entire career’s worth of clutch minutes might not suffice to draw an accurate conclusion.Â Take LeBron James, for instance. Excluding his rookie season (because 82games.com was being finicky and not allowing me to look at the data for that season), James has played 1,170 clutch minutes in the regular season for his career through Monday night. He averages 40 minutes per game, though, so that represents a sample size smaller than 30 normal games for James. Deciding that he’s not clutch because of fewer than 1,200 minutes – or worse, from a couple 5-minute long stints in two or three games – would be like proclaiming a champion after 30 games, regardless of what the data says about his clutch play.
And per that pesky Bill James quote, clutch simply seems to be one of those fun narrative nominatives to describe the patterns we want to see in random variance.Â Allowing for the potential of increased defensive effort and refined coaching strategies, performance in the clutch will regress to the player’s mean over a large enough sample size for the vast majority of players. Again, we’ll look at LeBron – and a handy chart of his career scoring numbers in the clutch:
LeBron’s numbers are a bit worse than his career averages, especially when you include his performance so far this year. That just further enhances how few minutes clutch discussions entail; 44 minutes of lackluster play from James in 2011-12 is enough to drag down his shooting percentage by .5%. Just 10 more made field goals and James would be a better field goal shooter in the clutch than he is on average, instead of being slightly below his career norm. If 10 shots that went in had popped out instead, he’d be a sub-46% shooter in the clutch, and people would point out that he can’t get it done when it matters most.
The overall story, however, is that LeBron shoots the ball a lot in clutch situations and does so right around his career average rate. When he misses, it’s as random as a second-quarter jumper that fails to go down or a no-call on a drive down the lane in the middle of a blow out. There’s no larger pattern there, simply circumstance and luck.
That’s simply my belief, though, and I have been wrong many, many times. Maybe there’s a reason for the things that happen in a close game beyond the offense, defenses, coaching and random bounces of a ball. Maybe the variance in LeBron’s play comes from somewhere else and being clutch (or a choker) really is a thing. Perhaps I’m wrong and LeBron’s misses in big moments aren’t merely random but are instead part of bigger failings in his nature as a human being and as a basketball player. Perhaps some players step up and others shrink when the lights are brightest.
Even if that were the case, I’d still take issue with using the word clutch on a basic level, because it’s lazy. It sells short the splendor. Assume that a â€œclutch geneâ€ exists and expresses itself through a â€œtoughness-and-heart-of-a-
Calling Kobe Bryant â€œa cold-blooded clutch killerâ€ is fun and alliterative, but it’s no comparison to pinpointing what that entails â€“ his ability to get inside a defender’s head and know how they’ll defend him and, by extension, his teammates; the infinite confidence to ignore mismatches or trust in his teammates as he sees fit; and the skill and acuity to often succeed against greatly stacked odds. We’ve all seen an opponent set the perfect trap for Kobe, only for it to end in another Lakers victory.
Conversely, saying LeBron James is a choker is the the low-hanging fruit of root problems. James has turned the ball over in big situations, and he’s disappeared down the stretch on several occasions. If LeBron really is a choker as so many want to say, especially in the big pictures, then those moments are truly spectacular and deserve more than a simple wave of the hand and derisive meme hastily applied. James’ career clutch performance is roughly equal to his performance out of the clutch; when things don’t fall in line, it’s worth taking a minute to stop and appreciate what that means and the rarity of the situation.
To believe in the concept of clutch is a fine idea, and admirable to me; just because I’m a cynic doesn’t mean I necessarily encourage you to be.
I do wish that you’ll consider using more than one word to describe these moments caught in time. It doesn’t do justice to the spectacle. When you lump in all the great and awful things that players do in clutch situations, you take away the unique facets of each one and diminish their impact and luster. A clutch performance and the players who create them is simply more fun when you remember them each individually instead of forcing them into a genre.