Kobe Bryant vs. crunch time statistics: A debate

July, 11, 2011
7/11/11
12:22
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Kobe Bryant
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images SportStatistics? About crunch time? On a guy with five rings? Why?

During the Finals, I published some research compiled by ESPN's Alok Pattani showing how today's players compare to Michael Jordan when it comes to taking shots in the final seconds of very close playoff games. It included a chart, showing, for instance, that Jordan made half of his 18 such shots. Nobody could touch that. An assortment of players had great percentages on tiny numbers of shots, while Ray Allen had made half of his dozen, LeBron James was a tick behind at 5-of-12, and Dirk Nowitzki was 5-of-13 for his career.

Kobe Bryant, meanwhile, was 7-of-25, for 28 percent -- which happens to be the league average field goal percentage in this pressure situation. That's in keeping with lots of other research -- and comments from Lakers coaches -- showing that in crunch time Bryant is a very high-volume shooter, and a guy who makes incredibly tough shots, but not one who is especially likely to make the shots he takes.

L.A. Times basketball writer Mark Heisler (who once tweeted the question: "Is there anything more stupid than clutch shooting stats?") saw that post and emailed me to say that this kind of analysis missed the point. For instance, he said that Bryant's large number of makes -- none of today's players can top his seven -- matters more than how many attempts it took to get there. We discuss:

HENRY

So Mark, you recently reached out about a TrueHoop post comparing Michael Jordan's shotmaking ability at the end of very close playoff games to today's players. The findings were not surprising at all, in that Jordan was an impressive 9-of-18.

But a little more surprising was that Kobe Bryant was a miserable 7-of-25, lagging behind several other players in field goal percentage. It seems likely several players, especially James, are on a path to surpass Bryant's number of makes, at much better percentages.

You reacted with talk of, among other things, Bryant's five rings. You say that "without Kobe, I'm not sure the Lakers would have won any of his five titles."

You get what we're doing with this kind of journalism, right? We're not denying those rings. Instead, we're getting a little deeper and more subtle into trying to figure out what, precisely, worked and what did not.

Think about the Lakers organization in those five seasons. All those players, coaches, Kupchaks and Busses making hundreds of decisions a day for years. By the same rationale, you could use those rings as proof that trading for Adam Morrison was brilliant, that Kobe standing in a parking lot and belittling Andrew Bynum on video was just what the team needed, or that really brought it in practice.

I'll give you that doing things the way the Lakers did them did not prevent titles, clearly -- a valuable piece of knowledge. If there were sins, they were not so great as to outweigh the collective greatness. They made the Hall of Fame for people like Bryant.

But you agree with me, right, that it's possible -- likely even, as it's a human endeavor -- that some of the things that happened on those title teams may not have been perfect? That just because one of those Lakers teams did something a certain way is not proof that it is a great way to do it?

You agree with me that "it ended in a ring" does not equal "it was done the best way it could have been done"?

MARK

Henry,

Boy, do I agree with you, up to a point.

I learned a long time ago (reading Jim Brosnan in the '60s, actually) that sometimes you do the wrong thing, like hang a slider, and some guy like Hank Aaron pops it up.

I’m willing to concede a lot more than “some of the things that happen on title teams may not be perfect,” after 11 years in an incredulous/thrilled/desperate attempt to keep up with Lakers craziness.

The Lakers were living proof of the heretofore unimagined notion that you could indulge yourselves in all the ego conflict that crossed your brain pan, mail in seasons, hit the switch around April 15 (although some springs it was more like May 15 and in others, like this one, they never did find it) ...

And still they won five titles since 2000 to four for the Spurs, making it the Lakes’ decade, just like Showtime.

At this point I can’t believe we’re still talking about how clutch Kobe is.

If his place in the game isn’t secure by now, whose is?

If an argument is needed, anything I say on behalf of Kobe being clutch is based solely on his performance, not his mere presence on five championship teams.

Derek Fisher was on all of them, too. Even if Fish saved their butts more than once, he wasn’t the one taking over at the end. Nor did Shaq or Big Shot Robert Horry. Wherever the ball went at the end, it got there through Kobe.

Of course, Kobe being Kobe, lots of times it stuck.

It didn’t always work out for them or him, but I think the list of playoff games he took over -- I’ve got 16 since 2000 -- speaks for itself.

HENRY

Mark,

In fairness, and with your permission, I edited the living hell out of your last response, which -- this is important -- included capsule descriptions of many of the best clutch performances of Kobe Bryant's career.

Now you're talking my language! Arguments about crunch time performance used to be a jambalaya of hazy memory, reputation and dogma. In those six pages (I printed them out) you're saying let's keep this real. This happened. Let the man's work speak for itself.

You even included some YouTube links. There he is, killing the Kobe stopper in Portland, and killing everyone in 2009-10. And on and on.

But holy mother of deciding the outcome, and then finding your argument to support it.

You sent me a list of everything Bryant did in crunch time, with all the bad stuff taken out. That's a PR person's list, or a list to make the case he belongs in the Hall of Fame -- I'll stipulate to that already. Yes, he did all that stuff. Yes, it more than qualifies him for every award out there, the Hall and everything else.

It's not a list, however, designed for the task at hand, which is to compare his crunch time performance to other players', or to support the idea that of all NBA players, he alone has solved the riddle of the big shot.

I'm thrilled you say you're willing to acknowledge even title teams can screw up, but I'm not feeling your open-mindedess on this point.

The full list of Kobe's mishaps, if printed, would kill a forest. It's more or less the same exact thing you sent me, in other words, only with all the misses, turnovers and fouls included. It's long. (I've written more than a few times that I believe the video version of that full list is the way to settle this, by the way.)

If we're going to keep this real, let's keep it real. Let's not nip and tuck the record. Let's look at what Bryant has actually done in crunch time. Remember the legendary 2002 Finals versus the Kings? In that series, Bryant had three attempts that could have put the Lakers ahead or in a tie in the closing seconds. Missed them all. Similarly whiffed on both key attempts in that tough 2004 series against the Rockets.

As we speak, he's on a personal five-miss streak in the closing seconds of close playoff games -- his last such make was on May 21, 2008.

Several players in the modern era have close to his number of makes, but nobody can touch his amazing collection of misses. So, yes, I could go on.

In the closing seconds of close playoff games, over his career, he is as likely to airball as to make.

Them's the facts.

So yes, "an argument is needed," that he is the best crunch time player in the game.

Especially because he's doing something different in this part of the game. I actually think it's easy to make the case he's a great player all game long. Crunch time is when he changes what he does, and takes on a radical one-man assault, giving himself the greenest green light in sports, his coach stomach acid and his team fewer points than you'd expect them to score playing the regular way.

It's super bizarre to me that this part of the game, where he's at his most ineffective because of selfishness, is the part of the game where we most single him out for praise.

Go and watch the video you sent me of Bryant, for instance, making those big 3s against Ruben Patterson in 2004. When he plants his feet to take that first one, his heels are pointed at the hoop. He's well behind the 3-point line, well-covered and facing the wrong damned way. It's as tough a shot as there is in basketball -- and almost certain to miss. Most coaches would rightly bench most players for even taking it.

It has what, a 5 percent chance of going in? For Bryant, bless him, it might have a 20 percent chance, which is a testament to his amazing and heroic skill.

But it's still a miserable shot attempt. So miserable that it's within the realm of possibility that wide-open Slava Medvedenko over there, a career 2-of-13 3-point shooter, actually may have been a better option.

And no, the fact that this one happened to go in doesn't prove jack. He has taken a zillion of those, and missed the vast majority.

If we're talking about a guy who decides to take that shot, we're talking about a guy who is not getting his team the best shot it can possibly get. He's hanging his team's chances on a roll of the dice, taking a shot no coach would want at any other time of the game -- even in a league in which plenty of teams are able to find clean crunch time looks.

Some nights, like that one, he'll end up looking like a hero throwing up those hopers. Other nights, he'll be the goat.

The key question in assessing a player like Bryant becomes: How many "other" nights are there?

Answer: A lot.

If it's a debate about who has the most talent to score in crunch time, I'll put him up at the top of the list, too.

But it's a debate about who is best at winning close basketball games. In that, judgment matters. Bryant is a guy who, in a moment you call "the granddaddy of them all," decided he'd take a 5 percent shot with the game on the line. That's a poor use of one of the best rosters in basketball.

Meanwhile, teams that hit the open man in crunch time (the Mavericks and Hornets) like they do all game long have been scoring much better in crunch time for years.

Bryant's gunning comes at a price. Does deflating the egos of the rest of the roster, and forcing very tough shots, cost the Lakers 10 points a year? 110? It's not a price we can tally perfectly, but there's one number we know for a fact it is not: zero.

And that's the value you're giving it, when you give Bryant a pass on all those soul-crushing misses.

MARK

Henry,

So, without all those “soul-crushing misses,” the Lakers would have won 12 titles since 2000 and not merely five?

First, I should note I’m not Kobe’s PR guy. If you ask Kobe, he’d tell you I’m more the reason he needs his own PR guys and such a long list of them, which I have already published.

You’re absolutely right. There were a lot of people from Jerry Buss to Gary Vitti who had to do their job.

On the other hand, there’s a clear hierarchy among the soldiers, with generals like Kobe and Shaq, and colonels like Pau, Andrew, Lamar and, on my list, Derek Fisher, Robert Horry and Rick Fox, too.

Shaq, Pau, Lamar, Drew et al had to get Kobe to crunch time, close enough to make a difference.

As you note, their job was made all the harder by Kobe, whose contribution was impressive but mixed with all the dizzy shots he took and the open teammates he missed.

Nevertheless, in crunch time, the ball was his and his alone.

It couldn’t go to Shaq, who would be quickly put on the line, where he might hurt someone.

It was never Pau, Lamar or Drew, whose names didn’t occur to Phil Jackson in those circumstances.

In the last 12 seasons, the Lakers appeared in seven Finals (to next-best San Antonio’s four), winning five titles (to the Spurs’ four).

That required a lot of playoff wins, many of which were close with the ball going through Kobe at the end of all of them.

The Lakers went 118-63.

If the bottom line is a clumsy metric, with the anecdotal evidence that goes with it, I prefer it to a finely tuned statistic that says shooting percentage in stipulated circumstances means someone else is more clutch, even if the games they win aren’t as big as the ones Kobe’s teams won, by definition.

(The closest anyone came to the Lakers’ 118 playoff wins over 12 years is San Antonio at 88-62.)

The Lakers weren’t like the Spurs, who could go through Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan or Tony Parker.

If some other Laker was winning those games, we’d have noticed (I think).

I’m not arguing this for Kobe. I’m arguing it the way I’d argue the sun rises in the East.

Bottom line, no one gets to be a great player without being clutch.

Some are more clutch than others.

If they’re good in every other way, but that’s missing in your game, you can be Scottie or Iggy but they can’t ever be AI or MJ.

If you have it all, but haven’t been able to do it the last two seasons, you can be Bron.

If you’ve got that, and just led the league in “clutch shooting percentage” by the old (dumb) definition -- last five minutes with the teams within five points -- but don’t defend or rebound and have won two playoff series in your entire career, you can be Melo.

I was impressed by Alok Pattani’s analysis, first and foremost because it went back and included MJ, whom we had better be able to agree was a clutch player, or what’s the point?

However, why is shooting percentage the standard?

Would you rather have Kobe’s seven in 25 attempts than Tayshaun’s 3-of-5?

Aren’t we leaving out free throws drawn and converted, traditionally the way superstars always prevailed?

How about passes for assists? Kobe has some of those, too (lob to Shaq vs. Indy) although not as many as Mike.

With all the conclusions being thrown around like anvils from modern hoop “analytics,” I think we need to talk a lot more about the assumptions going into them.

First, there’s a general question of whether it works as well in basketball as baseball, where Bill James et al changed the way the game was played (taking pitches, tiring pitchers, giving them a chance to fall behind in the count, etc.).

Basketball is fluid, zero-sum and, I would argue, less susceptible to being broken down mathematically.

Baseball had a valid mathematical assumption: Each base you reach, on the way to the plate, has value.

I’m not sure you can assume that any number in basketball except the raw, obvious ones (points, shooting percentage, rebounds, etc.) is that fundamental.

Analytics lean heavily on efficiency statistics (per minute, per possession).

Not that they mean nothing, but who says efficiency is as important as the raw total?

There’s an old NBA fallacy about per-minute production.

On one hand, it’s how you notice a player is doing a lot in limited time.

On the other, it often turns out that if you start someone like Leon Powe, who has been getting eight rebounds in 17 minutes against the other team’s reserves, he’ll get eight rebounds in 34 minutes.

Of course, if your assumptions are wrong, or arguable, it’s more like numerology than analysis.

HENRY

There's no question. Everybody agrees with you: Mathematical analysis works better in baseball.

But that doesn't mean the kinds of behavioral economics that inform more-complex-than-baseball things like Wall Street, the military, health care, governing the nation and everything else will leave basketball untouched. (The algorithms that inform adjusted plus/minus, interestingly, are based on the pharma industry -- they've been trusting that to help us figure out if this or that drug is safe or effective for some time.) It's a central tenet of analysis -- of all kinds -- these days. In 2011, to have the best possible information means to incorporate at least some of this.

Which brings me to my next point: This mysterious assertion (made by who?) that Carmelo Anthony is the king of crunch time ... where'd you find that straw man you're beating up? I suspect it's from this TrueHoop post. If so, it's a case of misunderstanding what that sidebar list is all about. That is not a list of the best crunch-time scorers. That's a list of players with the best records of makes and misses. It's presented as one more point of reference to inform the conversation.

Imagine you're shopping for a house in L.A., where there are more than 20,000 for sale. You can't look at them all. It'd sure be nice to have someone prepare you a list of the "best" houses available, taking into account your tastes, price range, preferred school district, resale value, condition, color and everything else. You could just buy the one at the top of the list and save all that looking.

Dream on. We both know it's too nuanced and personal a decision for that. So you do the smart thing, you use data to rule out the vast majority of candidates (the expensive, the remote, the decrepit), and then you look very closely at those remaining.

The data works the same here. There is not a data road to "best crunch time scorer" that satisfies me. But there is data to rule out a lot of players, just as there is data to say Chauncey Billups is not Mr. Big Shot (worst field goal percentage of any NBA player with a lot of crunch-time attempts, by one measure).

You said in an earlier e-mail: "When data conflicts with what you know intuitively, better think about working on your model." I agree it's great to have intuition and data in step, but it's a two-way street. And if you are watching Bryant tallying highlights, your intuition will say he's the best. But if you're counting misses too, you'll quickly join me in questioning him as the model.

In other words, I've watched these games. I've seen those misses. I'm not judging this by a spreadsheet alone, nor from the scrubbed YouTube record of things. In my head, the data say exactly what my eyes, and his coaches, say: that Bryant shoots more than anyone, and makes shots at an average rate. There is data to say that the Lakers get less out of their big possessions than a lot of other teams, and that they're among the league leaders in how much their offense gets worse in crunch time.

So that data, while not enough to crown anybody else (still don't know which house I'm going to buy without more looking, as it were), is enough, to me, to make clear that the long-held NBA dogma -- that the solution to crunch time was to be like Kobe -- is wrong.

Other teams do crunch time much better, with teamwork.

MARK

As amazed as I find myself having to defend Kobe at this late date, here’s why I think this discussion is important.

It’s emblematic of today’s coverage, which has changed so dramatically so recently, with the rise of the Internet, broadband and, most recently, the social networks, most of which were only launched circa 2005.

Like lots of revolutions, this one has cut both ways.

On the plus side, it enfranchised the whole world, rather than a few pundits who, in total, weren’t any smarter than anyone else, expanding and integrating the audience.

On the dark side, it created a 24/7/60/60 battle for attention ... which in this business, is really survival ... and a tendency to turn everything into a witch hunt.

With the premium on immediacy, there’s a huge emphasis on little pictures, the day-by-day stories ... and almost no thought to the big picture ... our stars go from demigods to schmucks and back, annually.

To me, if they’re entirely different today, I must not have portrayed them very well yesterday.

If modern number crunchers started out to examine basketball with a new tool, their work is often used to bash the daylights out of someone.

The clutch/not clutch argument is like the point of the spear.

It’s a total setup, because you can be clutch as clutch can be, as Bron was against Boston and Chicago, disappear against Dallas, and the bottom line isn’t 2-of-3, for .667.

You lost the last one, the only one that counted, leaving you at .000, you total piece of crap.

HENRY

I nod along as you speak of the ills of the media cruelly and senselessly building celebrities up only to tear them down again.

I'm all for a world where we can fairly casually acknowledge that LeBron James is a hell of player, without getting into a lot of emotional baggage and tabloid side story. And he has been damn good in crunch time, which doesn't change with a game or two. To say otherwise is, frankly, wrong.

The celebrity roller coaster you describe, though ... it runs on emotion. Strongly held beliefs that don't stand up to scrutiny. Claims that are not tethered to some kind of evidence.

Reality is the "off" switch for that hype machine. And reality pops up in various different ways, sometimes as statistical evidence.

"Kobe Bryant is the best closer in the world and there is no need for further discussion" is one of those built-on-a-foundation-of-hot-air constructs that feeds the vicious cycle. He sails to the top of the media world on a balloon filled with that helium. When the balloon gets too high in the sky, it pops.

In my perfect world, we'd be more reasonable, and frankly kinder and more fair, from the start. We'd keep that balloon a little lower, where it won't pop. Kobe is really damned good in crunch time. Shoots a little too much for my taste, but the mastery of the moment! He's not in a category by himself, but he's up there among today's best. I'd make that unsexy claim about him whether the rest of the world was killing him or loving him. That claim is defensibly true now and a decade ago.

But everyone went a bit nuts there, lionizing him beyond all reason. I'm trying to pull his reputation back to "excellent" from "other-worldly." You may see that as dragging his name through mud, or calling him a schmuck, but I see it as letting just a small, measured amount of air out of the balloon, in the name of better understanding this game we all follow so closely.

Henry Abbott | email

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