By Chris Le
On December 16, 2009, Kobe Bryant nailed a clock-beating jumper in overtime to defeat the Milwaukee Bucks 107-106.
It was an example of what is—at this point in his legacy—expected of him. Having seen it time and again, the basketball world has come to believe that when the ball is in Kobe’s hands, it will eventually find its way through the net, and never a second too late. It’s a similar expectation bestowed upon game-winning luminaries of the past: Michael Jordan and Larry Bird.
And since expectations are such, that particular shot over Charlie Bell as time expired was, if you ask me, pretty ho-hum. A rather quotidian score that serves only as fluff for an already lengthy highlight reel. (When you’ve accumulated enough game-winners and clutch shots to produce an eight-plus minute video, you’re on another level. And the video is from 2006. Here’s another, this one a seven-plus minute highlight of clutch Kobe circa 2007-09.) I figure that shot—which, let’s face it, will prove meaningless in the larger picture of the season—would be wedged somewhere in a YouTube montage’s beginning alongside preseason daggers and other clutch instances within the season’s first 82 games. It was nice, but not worthy of constructing monuments.
Then the internet blew up. Followed by the deathless prattle of sports radio and television.
Judging from all the talk engendered by that—I must emphasize once more—regular season shot against the Milwaukee Bucks, I would’ve guessed it ended a triple-overtime Game 7 of the NBA Finals. The populace was wild in debate. Everyone from Kobe Chauvinists to Kobe Despisers to Statistics Geeks to the venerable Skip Bayless himself came out of the woodwork and gave their two cents.
Most proved to be idiots.
The biggest of these idiots, however, were the stat enthusiasts. The Henry Abbotts and John Hollingers of the world, the box score-loving boobs who see situational field goal percentage as scripture and who eulogize the virtues of “offensive efficiency”—whatever that means—and create formulae in hope of finding truth in numbers.
And the numbers—or their numbers, I should say—don’t point to Kobe Bryant as who you’d want in the clutch. Far from it.
Check out these clutch stats. Clutch stats, as defined by 82games.com, being production in the “4th quarter or overtime, less than 5 minutes left, neither team ahead by more than 5 points.” Stat heads and Kobe haters alike point to clutch field goal percentage, in which Kobe ranks 91st at 45.7 percent. “That’s a lot of missed shots,” detractors say. “You sheep”—which I’m almost positive internet trolls would call any Kobe supporter—“only remember the attempts he makes, and forget all the clunkers.”
It’s hard to rebut these trolls, though, when looking at this chart. It indicates the most field goals made in the final 24 seconds of a one-possession game, since 2002-03. Kobe comes in at third with 21 made shots, but brings it up the rear in field goal percentage.
Final 24 Seconds, One-Possession Game (since 2002-03)
Again, this is the king of clutch?
But wait, there’s more. This study. Same definition of clutch situation, but this chart measures the esoteric True Shooting Percentage, which accounts for trips to the free-throw line. Kobe ranks 38th. And when stacked against the class of 2003, Kobe is still stuck looking upward.
And for kicks, here’s one more. It examines True Shooting Percentage in clutch situations in the last five postseasons, and in what they call “Ultra-Clutch” (!!!!) situations. Ultra-Clutch situations refer to the following conditions: “less than one minute to go and a scoring margin of three points or less.” Kobe, once more, doesn’t look so hot.
It’s not often that I’m compelled to defend Kobe Bryant—never, almost—but the permittance of such mathematical sensationalism needs to end.
Let’s get one thing straight: Kobe Bryant is the NBA’s premier clutch performer. End of story. Roll the credits. Have a nice day. There’s no convincing me otherwise. I’ve heard all the arguments and seen the stats—I don’t care. Especially stats that say world-beaters like Ronnie Turiaf and Keyon Dooling are better options.
There is, I must admit, some truth in statistics. But they can only bring you so far. Past a certain point, they begin to deceive. It’s believed in the universe of numbers, much like what is said in the realm of legal litigation, that it isn’t a lie if you can prove it. But statistics, like trial evidence, can be manipulated and prodded and twisted to prove anything. (Like this Maxim poll, which says Beyoncé is the 52nd hottest woman in the world. When we all know it’s a metaphysical constant that she holds the number one spot.)
So I say: view statistics with a big chunk of kosher salt.
Would you trust a formula that regards Mehmet Okur, Corey Maggette and Kyle Korver among the ten most clutch players in the league? Doing so is akin to trusting money with Bernie Madoff. Having Okur and Maggette and Korver in any top ten list immediately eliminates credence—unless it’s a list of has-beens, underachievers and never-weres. The architect of the True Shooting Percentage formula, once he saw Okur was number two, must’ve felt like the Schwab when he gets stumped—his only validation of life destroyed.
So as you can tell, I’m not a big statistics advocate. I am, however, a big fan of needless hypotheticals that illustrate a point.
Say the Yakuza break into my home, bag my head and take me to a basketball court somewhere in the heart of south Tokyo (I’m sure they’re basketball fans—who isn’t?). I owe a gambling debt, which I blindly squandered on LeBron’s Cavaliers in the 2009 playoffs. But these are a quasi-benevolent bunch of Japanese mafia, and they give me an out. Instead of an immediate beheading, they—being basketball fans and believers in chance—lay my fate in the hands of the NBA player of my choice.
The rules are simple: If the chosen player makes the shot, I live; he misses, and I become sashimi.
Right then and there, Hatori Hanzo blade indenting my neck, I’m picking Kobe. And I’m betting you would too.
In your heart of hearts, you know Kobe is the only logical choice. He’s proven it, and no one else has. Not LeBron, not Wade, not ‘Melo, Dirk or Ginobili—not the way Kobe has. And they definitely don’t have his skillful game. Not yet.
I’ve covered Kobe’s extensive arsenal before. He’s got it all, combining the best attributes of the aforementioned performers and unsurpassed split-second judgment. Kobe’s virtuosity has earned my confidence under any permutation—double-teamed, hand-in-face, double-clutching, six seconds left, one second, broken finger—doesn’t matter, Kobe is getting his.
But the real kicker is Kobe’s intelligence. He knows when and to whom he should pass the ball. It’s not just that Kobe has learned to trust his teammates, but that he’s learned to pass to players he trusts (i.e. Only to other clutch players and only in their sweet spots, like Derek Fisher on the perimeter and Pau Gasol in the post). Kobe not only knows his game, but the tendencies and strengths of his teammates. Which makes him the most dangerous man when the game is in balance.
But wait, knowing when and where to pass the ball? That sounds like LeBron, whom many mouth-breathing statistics apologists say is the league’s clutchest player. Just look at his field goal percentage in clutch situations!
I, however, view LeBron in a slightly different light. Yes, he will pass to an open player, any open player, but he will do it for better or for worse. He will do so because it’s the right basketball move—but common sense doesn’t always make the best decisions. Textbook strategy says an open player has a higher chance of making a shot, therefore the ball-handler should pass it. LeBron follows this rule religiously. He’ll pass to, say, Donyell Marshall on a game-deciding possession against the Detroit Pistons in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals (video). Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
But with my life on the line, I want a frozen-blooded killer on my side, not someone who plays by the rule book.
I doubt Kobe makes that play to Donyell Marshall, and I’m not sure I’d want him too. The ultra-clutch realize their status, or maybe it’s their unbridled murderous instinct, but they’re not giving up the game-winning possession unless the second option is close to a sure thing. Then again, Michael Jordan did pass to John Paxton and Steve Kerr, and Jordan was lauded for it. But Jordan and Kobe began as selfish players, mentally unable to pass up the final shot. That’s why them finally passing to trusted teammates was a sign of growth and eventual evolution into an all-around threat.
LeBron, on the other hand, doesn’t have that reputation. He’s a selfless player—perhaps too selfless. And the burden of turning selfish, developing that me-first killer instinct, is on him. The greats can see and analyze variables on the court. (e.g. That Paxton, Kerr and Fisher were/are proven performers in the waning seconds, far more reliable than Donyell Marshall.) They understand the situation and can gauge how their teammates will handle it. LeBron hasn’t learned to make this clutch calculation yet. Kobe has.
But what makes Kobe the wheat and everyone else the chaff isn’t just his analytical skill under stress; it’s that he isn’t afraid. He isn’t just confident he’ll make a shot; he’s assured of it. Confidence implies the possibility of failure—that doesn’t factor with Kobe; he knows it’s going in before the ball is released. At this point, I doubt the pressure of balancing my life would rattle Kobe’s cool. His mental state has moved passed brazen confidence into calm assurance, into Jordan and Bird territory.
But how do you explain the stats?
I’ll say this: LeBron is probably better overall in crunch time—in the final five minutes. He always makes the correct play, whether it’s bulldozing towards the hoop to get a foul or passing to an undefended teammate. And Kobe does frequently turn over the ball or take and miss bad shots in the 4th quarter. Hell, others are probably more efficient even in the last minute, when one possession doesn’t decide the outcome, and there is time for amends. But no one, not anyone still playing in the NBA, is better than Kobe at the game’s event horizon, that point of no return: the final ten seconds. Nobody embraces those moments like Kobe, and nobody comes through like him. And there’s no one I trust more.
You can have LeBron and Wade. Give me Kobe.