Is Kobe Bryant really the best clutch player in the NBA?

The stadium scene.
June 8 2010 4:12 PM

The Captain of Crunch

Is Kobe Bryant really the best clutch player in the NBA?

To hear Stefan Fatsis, Josh Levin, and Mike Pesca discuss the NBA Finals, click the arrow on the audio player below and fast-forward to the 1:50 mark:

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What accounts for James' greatness in the clutch? Essentially, almost every facet of his game improves when the game is on the line. "Most importantly, [James] improved with respect to shooting efficiency and rebounds," Berri explained via e-mail. "Kobe also improved by lesser amounts with respect to rebounds and free throws. But he also got worse with respect to shooting efficiency from the field, assists, blocked shots, and steals. Basically each player tries to do more in the clutch. But LeBron is better at turning this effort into results."

LeBron's ability in the clutch can be quantified in other ways. He led the league in points per 48 minutes of clutch time in 2009-10 (66.1) and 2007-08 (56.0), and finished second (55.9) to Bryant in 2008-09. He also had a better clutch field goal percentage per 48 minutes than Bryant in 2009-10 (.488, ninth), 2008-09 (.556, second), and 2007-08 (.475, 16th). And according to 82 Games, James also had six game-winning assists from 2003 to 2009, while Bryant had just one assist to go along with his 56 shot attempts.

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So, does LeBron James' run of clutchness mean that there is such a thing as clutch ability in basketball? Berri says that a couple of years of LeBron and Kobe stats aren't enough to help us reach a general conclusion. All we can say at this point, the economist believes, "is that Kobe is not the most clutch player in the history of the universe (or whatever Kobe fans assert)."

Behavorial economist Daniel Ariely argues that a player's clutchness is a fiction based more on social agreement than on performance. In a study, Ariely asked a group of professional coaches who they thought were the NBA's best clutch players. Not surprisingly, the same set of stars kept coming up, including Bryant, James, Wade, and Duncan. Ariely then compared the performances of alleged clutch players with those were not explicitly identified as clutch. "As it turned out, the clutch players did not improve their skill; they just [shot the ball] many more times," Ariely wrote in a recent piece for the Huffington Post. "Their field goal percentage did not increase in the last five minutes. … [N]either was it the case that non-clutch players got worse."

Before latching on to pro basketball players, Ariely initially set out to study Wall Street bankers—another group that fights for supremacy as a part of highly selective teams. Ariely says he heard the same things about the bankers and the athletes: They're not regular people. They thrive on stress. Indeed, that SI poll about late-game heroes shows that Bryant's colleagues don't see him as a regular person, that they believe he thrives on stress. Kobe might be the best basketball player alive, and he very well could hit a game-winning shot in the NBA Finals. He's doesn't, however, have a unique ability to score in the clutch. The only reason he's The Closer is that his teammates, his coach, and the sports media have chosen him to assume the role.

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