By Jack Maidment
The term ‘clutch’ is a funny thing. It’s just a word but its meaning when applied to sports can be profound.
Depending on the context in which it is used it can be the highest of compliments, ‘he’s a great clutch player’, or the strongest of condemnations, ‘he doesn’t get it done in the clutch’.
Effectively it’s a label and the label can be hard to shake once it’s attached, especially if it’s being used negatively.
Kobe Bryant is a clutch player. LeBron James is not. That’s the prevailing wisdom. But is it accurate?
This season LeBron has played in 11 games, 6 of which qualify for clutch analysis (games where the score margin is within 5 points in the last 5 minutes).
Unlike just about every other superstar in the NBA LeBron James’ field goal attempts don’t go up in the clutch, in fact they go down, albeit marginally so.
Compare that to Kobe Bryant who takes 23.9 shots per 36 minutes in regular play but with a shooting pace of more than 30 in the clutch. That’s a big leap.
So Kobe takes a lot more shots than LeBron down the stretch but he is the only player who can create his own shot on the Lakers while LeBron has Dwyane Wade to share the ball with.
But regardless of who gets the ball for the Heat, when it is LeBron he is shooting just 33% from the field in the final 5 minutes, down from an otherworldly 58% for the rest of the game. That’s an unreal drop.
That’s not the only problem with LeBron this year who is also struggling at the free throw line in the last 5 minutes.
He gets there a lot more at the end of the game, as you would imagine, but once on the stripe he is hitting just 58%, down from the 73% that he normally shoots.
Kobe, in contrast, has played in 10 games this year that qualify for clutch analysis and while his field goal % goes down about 10% to 35% down the stretch, his free throw shooting actually increases, from 84% from the line to 88% – In short he makes you pay when it matters most.
It’s also worth considering that Kobe’s usage rate goes up 10% in the clutch to 56.2% (‘takeover mode’) while LeBron’s goes up just 3% to 38.3%.
Much of that can be attributed to the make-up of their respective teams: the Heat don’t necessarily need to go through James to get a bucket, the Lakers are much more reliant on Kobe.
But it doesn’t stop there. Or at least it shouldn’t.
Historically, performing in the clutch has been associated with scoring the ball, but there should be more consideration to other intangibles, as LeBron’s assist rating shows.
His assist % in the clutch (an estimate of the % of teammate field goals assisted while he is on the floor) sky rockets in the last five minutes from 35.5% to a staggering 66.7%.
While Kobe, and the rest of his fellow stars, usually shoot the ball in the clutch, LeBron is often compelled to pass.
Different wiring I guess.