January 28, 2011
As Mr. Dwyer explained a little bit ago, this post by Henry Abbott on TrueHoop has taken our basketball corner of the Internet by storm Friday for claiming that Kobe Bryant(notes) is not as clutch as everyone thinks. By the numbers, Kobe makes a little less than one of every three shots when his team is down two, down one, or tied on the final possession, which makes him one of the worst performers among players with at least 30 attempts in those situations. Kobe also rates poorly in all situations in the final five minutes or overtime.
This is obviously surprising given his reputation as the best closer in the NBA. But the fact remains that Kobe does have this reputation, and it's there that we must question why it persists even if the numbers claim it's wrong.
The most obvious reason is that laymen and commentators across North America say Kobe's the best in late-game situations. Those comments feed upon itself, and eventually everyone just accepts that Kobe owns the fourth quarter.
At the same time, that reputation wouldn't seem viable to most observers if it didn't have some basis in reality. Kobe hits big shots at the end of games, sometimes, but the far greater reason for his clutch reputation is that the Lakers win in the postseason. Kobe usually plays a huge part in those wins -- he's been the first or second-best player on five championship teams -- and he wins acclaim because of it.
That doesn't mean that his clutchness is an illusion, because the term can apply to many situations apart from the end of games. In baseball, for instance, Barry Bonds once held a reputation as not clutch because of his terrible stats in all playoff situations, not just at the end of NLCS games. The same logic can apply to basketball: if a player performs well in any postseason context -- even if it's just starting a blowout at the beginning of a game -- he can be seen as someone who comes up big in pressure-filled situations.
Kobe has won a lot of big games for the Lakers, which means he's seen as a winner, which means he becomes seen as someone who turns the tide in close games. So even if he fails to make big shots at the end of close contests, those aren't remembered because they don't fall in line with the established Kobe narrative. That doesn't mean that his reputation is wrong -- just that it's not a complete picture of how Kobe performs in crunch time. When someone is seen as a champion, we tend to remember the great moments, like Kobe's big shot against Phoenix in 2006 or his dominance of the Pacers without Shaq in 2000. These moments stand paramount in our memories because they fall in with the larger view of his career.
Again, the numbers in Henry's post do not necessarily establish that Kobe is not clutch, if only because clutch can mean many things: coming up big in huge games, performing well at the end of games, the thing that makes cars shift, etc. What the numbers do show, though, is that the popular view of Kobe as an indomitable closer is oversimplified. He's not perfect, but he's also provided us with more memorable late-game moments than any other active player. The important question may not be whether Kobe's clutch or not, but why we insist on saying he's one or the other.