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What Heat's clutch numbers really mean

4/25/2011
LeBron and WadeNathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

LeBron James and Dwyane Wade each came up short again on Sunday in the clutch. What do we make of it?

Do the Heat have a clutch problem or do we, as observers, have a math problem?

The statistical nugget that made the rounds after the Heat's loss Sunday got me thinking. It said that LeBron James is just 1-for-8 when the Heat are tied or down by three points or fewer in the final 10 seconds of a game. And Wade isn't any better. He's 0-for-5 in those circumstances.

Those are terrible numbers. Just awful. No two ways about it.

But then we run into some problems in logic. The implication, of course, is that the Heat are doomed. The narrative says that LeBron clearly can't close (I mean, come on, 1-for-8!) and, statistically, Wade is chopped liver. A graphic detailing their numbers or some variant of that graphic will be plastered to your TV screen whenever the Heat are discussed in the coming days.

But what can we really make of this?

In the world of statistics, there are descriptive statistics (what happened?) and predictive statistics (what will happen?). The more observations we have, the more predictive power. With these clutch shots, we just don't have many observations at our disposal and what we are observing is an exercise marked by failure.

Scoring with the game on the line is a tough task. Stakes are raised, defensive effort is sharpened and referees tend to swallow their whistles. Thus, we find that field goal percentages take a dive in the last few minutes of the game, especially when the team is desperate for a make. The average field goal percentage in the NBA is 45.9 percent. When the game is within three points in the last five minutes, the average field goal percentage drops to 42.0 percent. In the situation that LeBron is 1-for-8 in this season, the league average field goal percentage plummets to 25.7 percent.

That's right, 25.7 percent. Virtually no one does "well" in these situations, not by the standard of overall field goal percentage. Teams like to avoid these desperate situations for a reason.

Plenty of "clutch" scorers have struggled with that spotlight this season. Kevin Durant in that situation? 2-for-10 (20 percent). Paul Pierce? 1-for-4 (25 percent). Ray Allen? 0-for-2.

But these are merely a handful of observations. Now, there are small sample sizes and then there are microscopic sample sizes. We're dealing with the latter here. Would you still give Durant the ball with the game on the line? Of course! Ten shots should not define his capabilities to make the big shot. Likewise, eight shots from LeBron and five shots from Wade should not warp our sensibility.

This is just one snapshot of their careers. How have LeBron and Wade performed during their lifetime in the NBA? LeBron's 1-for-8 campaign this season pushes his career field goal percentage in that situation to 26.0 percent (19-for-73), just a hair above the norm. Sometimes LeBron will go through a hot patch and sometimes he goes through a cold stretch. Right now, he's icy cold. And Wade? Despite his sterling reputation as a closer, Wade now stands at a paltry 19.7 percent in 61 career field goal attempts in those situations.

Put another way, Yankees slugger Roger Maris had a .260 career batting average, or exactly the same probability that LeBron has in hitting a shot in this particular clutch situation. When Maris went 1-for-8 over a two-game stretch, do you think the Yankees manager sat him? No.

These slumps happen, especially when the probability of getting a hit (or a made shot, in LeBron's case) is so low. It has been said that hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports, but probabilistically, it's no different than hitting a game-tying shot at the buzzer.

It's times likes these when we need to show some perspective. It's incredibly silly to get up in arms about less than a dozen data points. What does a handful of shots tell us about the future? Next to nothing. That's why Erik Spoelstra happily gave Wade the ball down the stretch and had no qualms about giving it to LeBron at the end. They'll come through at some point, if the season lasts long enough. In terms of sample size theatre, this is a Broadway show.