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Kobe Bryant Is Not Mr. Clutch
Over his 15-year career, Kobe Bryant has made only 39 of 115 attempts in the final 24 seconds of a game with the Lakers trailing. (NBAE via Getty Images)
ESPN Stats and Information’s Alok Pattani dug through 15 years of NBA data – Bryant’s entire career, regular season and playoffs — and found that Bryant has attempted 115 shots in the final 24 seconds of a game in which the Lakers were tied or trailed by two or fewer points. He connected on 36, and missed 79 times.
That works out to 31 percent. That’s obviously horrible. It would embarrass the 2001 version of Antoine Walker.
But guess what? It’s just about average. Despite what Abbott is saying here — that Kobe is not clutch — he’s actually not arguing that Bryant is bad in the clutch. Only that his shooting percentage exactly matches that of a run-of-the-mill NBA player taking a shot at the most high-pressure moment there is.
This shouldn’t really be a surprise, if only because Abbott and others have shown us again and again and again that Bryant (and Chauncey Billups, and Paul Pierce and many, many others) put up pretty brick-tastic shooting percentages when the game is on the line. Percentages that belie their reputations as clutch shooters.
Abbott takes one fascinating step further: He shows us that the Lakers’ offense as a whole stinks with the game on the line. Through Bryant’s career, L.A. has averaged about 109 points per 100 possessions overall. That is the best mark in the league over that span, Abbott tells us.
In these clutch situations — with 24 or fewer ticks left — the Lakers have scored 82 points per 100 possessions.
That is unthinkably bad. To put it in perspective, the Cavaliers offense’, on pace to be one of the worst in modern NBA history, is scoring about 99.5 points per 100 possessions this season. So the Lakers’ offense in these particular clutch situations has been 17 points per 100 possessions worse than the Cavaliers’ putrid offense. And that 17-point gap is larger than the difference between Cleveland’s offense and the league’s best this season!
But guess what? The league-average scoring rate in these clutch situations over Bryant’s career has been 80.03 points per 100 possessions. So the Lakers’ awful number is actually better than the league’s average in the clutch!
And that’s the larger story here. Everyone will go crazy over the Kobe numbers, calling Henry a Lakers-hater and parroting hogwash that we can’t measure clutch performance with numbers. (And, yes, that’s hogwash. Clutch performance can be measured with numbers — I just typed them in this post.)
But the real story is how the league falls apart in the clutch — everyone but the Hornets, anyway. There have been dozens of explanations for why this might be: defenses probably try harder; referees swallow their whistles and allow all sorts of contact that makes it harder to score; teams with the ball become predictable, abandoning their normal offense in favor of isolation plays that are easy to defend; stars get selfish, refusing to pass; players are tired.
There are more. One that I think doesn’t get enough attention: Defensive players not only try harder in these situations, but they also employ different strategies. Teams switch more often on screens, both on and off the ball, in order to prevent offensive players from driving into the paint or getting any space at all. Sometimes defenses send double teams toward star players with the ball. Each strategy, to some degree, banks on offensive teams reacting slowly and sticking to the original play call regardless of the on-court situation.
Whatever the reason, something strange happens to NBA offenses in crunch time. They are horrible, and whatever team can determine why and correct that problem figures to have another small edge in the postseason.
The league-wide problem with performing in crunch situations will inevitably get lost in the Kobe-mania, but that’s the thing to pay attention to. Kobe isn’t bad in the clutch. He’s just average — and that’s the issue.