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Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Are "Clutch" Statistics Meaningful When Evaluating Players?

I already wrote about Russell Westbrook being benched. The Lakers lost that game to the Pacers, not making up any ground with Westbrook out of the game. There have been no lingering issues from Westbrook being benched: he has not griped, complained, or sulked, nor has he been benched again, and he has played well as the Lakers won two of their next three games (19.0 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 6.7 apg, .522 FG%). There are two underrated aspects of Westbrook's career: 

1) His positive attitude--he never throws his coach or his teammates under the bus, and he does his best to fill whatever role is provided for him. 

2) Every star player who has played alongside him has had a career season, from Kevin Durant to Paul George to James Harden to Bradley Beal to LeBron James, who at 37 years old is scoring at a clip that he has not matched in over a decade (including his years partnering with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh). 

Westbrook's coaches and teammates have mentioned these traits, but most media members ignore any information that does not fit into their preconceived narratives. Remember that when Westbrook first entered the NBA we were told that he was not a real point guard and that he would never be a good playmaker. The facts that Westbrook has won three assist titles, that he ranks ninth all-time with an 8.5 apg career average, and that he ranks 12th all-time with 8248 assists have not put the slightest dent in that preconceived narrative; we are still regularly told that Westbrook is a poor decision maker who does not make his teammates better, even though the evidence demonstrates that he is a great playmaker who helps star players have career seasons (he also led the 2017 Thunder to the sixth seed in the tough Western Conference even though that squad ranked last in three point field goal percentage).

Another preconceived narrative about Westbrook is that he is not effective in "clutch" situations, which is one of the justifications provided for benching him against Indiana.

In The Strengths and Limitations of "Advanced Basketball Statistics," I explained why so-called "clutch" statistics are, by and large, irrelevant if not ridiculous:

Roland Beech has done some nice research about game-winning shots but, unfortunately, a lot of people borrow his data without bothering to consider his conclusion: "Ultimately though while this kind of thing is fun, it's not to my mind particularly meaningful, other than indicating that the league as a whole could probably get more efficient in 'end game' possessions...one easy place to start might be to try and be less predictable! It's nice to have a go-to guy, but when the other team knows without much doubt that a certain guy is getting the ball, it is going to be a lot easier to defend!" Beech is right on target that this data is both "fun" and "not...particularly meaningful" though I think that he is a bit harsh regarding the alleged lack of efficiency on "end game" possessions; he fails to consider two very important points: (1) since this is a small sample size the shooting percentages are disproportionately skewed downward by desperation heaves, broken plays, etc.; (2) it is very difficult to score against a set NBA defense and it is even more difficult to do so when your time is extremely limited, particularly if you need a three pointer just to tie. When the time is limited why would a coach design a play for someone other than his best player? Anyway, most people have no idea how plays work in the first place; no NBA coach is just giving the ball to one guy and saying, "Shoot it" (unless there is only enough time to catch and shoot): you give the ball to your best player because he is most capable of creating his own shot, creating a shot for someone else if he gets trapped and making free throws if he is fouled. You don't want to give the ball to someone who cannot dribble or who cannot get a shot off or who is a bad free throw shooter. When role players hit big shots it is usually after the team's best player created an opening--but if you give the ball to the role player first then you are asking him to do something he is not comfortable doing. If "stat gurus" think that "clutch shooting" percentages are low now just imagine what those percentages would look like if coaches started drawing up plays for non-ballhandlers to catch the ball at the top of the key with five seconds remaining.

I have consistently maintained that Being a Clutch Player is More Significant than Just Making Clutch Shots; I have never pretended to know or even care which NBA player is the best at making last second shots--but I am perplexed that so many "stat gurus" (other than Beech) think that this is an important topic to investigate ("stat gurus" famously do not believe in the so-called "hot hand" so there is no reason for them to believe that a player will perform much differently in some arbitrarily defined "clutch" moment than at any other time); I am also amazed at the lack of intellectual rigor displayed by the conclusions that have been loudly and repeatedly stated in some quarters about this issue. Setting aside for a moment the fact that "clutch shots" have not been universally defined in terms of time remaining/score differential, regardless of how such shots are categorized they comprise just a tiny, unrepresentative portion of a player's total shot attempts--and within that small subset of "clutch shots" there are in fact many different kinds of shots that cannot reasonably be lumped together. For instance, consider two "clutch shots" that Kobe Bryant recently attempted; near the end of the fourth quarter versus Detroit, Bryant received the ball outside the three point line in the top of the key area, took two strong dribbles and drained a midrange pullup jumper to send the game into overtime; near the end of overtime, with the Lakers trailing by three and the Pistons possibly ready to foul rather than permit a three point attempt, Bryant caught the ball well behind the three point line and quickly fired a shot that missed. If you are a "stat guru" measuring "clutch shots" then you lump in Bryant's desperation three pointer with his two dribble pullup, combine it with some half court shots and other miscellaneous attempts taken against a variety of defenses with differing amounts of time on the clock and then you produce one field goal percentage that supposedly provides a definitive measurement of Bryant's "clutchness." Does anyone measure the "clutchness" of NFL quarterbacks by looking at their completion percentages on "Hail Mary" passes? This stuff is so foolish that I cannot believe that it is a topic for supposedly serious discussion; the problems with sample size are so obvious that it should be readily apparent that "clutch shot" data is, at best, a fun, frivolous stat to consider lightly, and not something that is worthy of in depth debate. If someone nails a lucky half court shot does that prove that he is "clutch"? The reality is that most shots taken in the final few seconds against a set defense are inherently low percentage shots--but it should not be surprising to anyone that in the same game Bryant calmly nailed a two dribble pullup (a shot that is a normal part of his repertoire) and then missed a twisting, rushed, long three point attempt; anyone who combines those two attempts into one "clutch shooting percentage" and takes that number seriously is an idiot.
After Westbrook was benched, many media members scurried to dig up various statistics (from small sample sizes, naturally) to "prove" that Westbrook is an ineffective player in "clutch" situations or even in fourth quarters in general. Fourth quarter statistics from less than a half season of games are not very relevant or meaningful, but since so many people are determined to use those numbers to attack Westbrook it is worth noting that last season Westbrook ranked first in the league in clutch FG% (59.1) while scoring 105 points (fifth in the league), shooting .409 from three point range, and compiling a league best .659 eFG% (per StatMuse).

If a whole season of efficient "clutch" play does not impress you, then you should also consider that Westbrook made 15 go-ahead field goals in the final minute of play from 2017-2019, ranking first in the NBA.  

I would not evaluate Westbrook or any other player based on arbitrary "clutch" statistics, but if this is going to be an ongoing discussion topic then the least that media members can do is acknowledge that there are "clutch" data points that contradict their preconceived narrative that Westbrook is not effective in such situations.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:48 AM



At Wednesday, January 26, 2022 10:35:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Westbrook is a great player, but it's no secret his decision making is very suspect at best sometimes.

How do you figure James, Harden, and Durant had 'career seasons' with Westbrook? For example, this is hardly James' best season, so how is this season James' career season? Alongside 2 future HOFers(even with just half a season with Davis), his team is only .500 through 48 games, that just doesn't equate. Beal had his best season with Westbrook, but his best play was at the beginning of the year when Westbrook was struggling more. George led 2 Indiana teams to the ECF vs the great James-led Miami teams, and was 1 win away from the Finals, then can't get to the 2nd round even with Westbrook. Westbrook lost the PG battle in each of those series.

At Wednesday, January 26, 2022 1:23:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


It may not be a "secret" to you or others, but the data--just some of which I included in this article--does not support your assertion.

LeBron James, a 37 year old player in his 19th season, is posting his best scoring average since 2009-10 along with the sixth best field goal percentage of his career while setting a host of records for a player of his age and/or number of seasons played. While this is not his absolute best season ever, he is more productive and efficient than he has been for several years. Westbrook leads the team in assists, and the Lakers rank eighth in both scoring and field goal percentage, better marks in both categories than they posted last season. Typically, when a team improves its offensive productivity and efficiency while its best scorer improves his productivity and efficiency the point guard receives a lot of credit; that is the type of narrative often attached to Steve Nash and Chris Paul. Of course, when Westbrook is involved he will only receive criticism from most media members, not praise.

In Harden's lone season playing with Westbrook, Harden posted his second best scoring average, and fifth best field goal percentage while being able to reduce his minutes (eighth most mpg out of a 14 season career). In the playoffs, Harden posted his career-best single season playoff field goal percentage while posting his second best single season scoring average, and third best playoff assist average. I'm not a fan of how Harden plays, but the best and most efficient version of Harden that we have seen was the version that played with Westbrook, particularly if you look at the second half of that season after the Rockets finally took the ball out of Harden's hands and enabled Westbrook to run the offense.

Durant had his two highest scoring seasons while playing alongside Westbrook. Durant won his only regular season MVP while playing alongside Westbrook, and Durant also had five other top five MVP finishes with Westbrook as his teammate (including three times as runner-up). Durant has not finished higher than seventh in MVP voting since he left OKC, though he did win two Finals MVPs after joining a team that had previously won one title without him.

George was the best player on an ensemble cast that reached two ECFs in a relatively weak Eastern Conference in 2013-14. He barely averaged 17 ppg in one of those seasons. Playing alongside Westbrook, George averaged a career-high 28.0 ppg and finished third in the MVP voting, far better than he ever performed in either category before or since.

Beal set career-highs in scoring (31.3 ppg) and field goal percentage (.485) while playing alongside Westbrook in 2020-21. This season, the vaunted "addition by subtraction" of Westbrook that media members endlessly talk about (though they have become quieter as the Wizards keep dropping in the standings) has resulted in Beal scoring 23.6 ppg on .455 field goal shooting. It is irrelevant whether or not you think that Westbrook "struggled" during the first part of last season; the point is that Beal, like every other All-Star who has played with Westbrook, improved his scoring and his efficiency.

In an interesting contrast, All-Stars who play alongside LeBron James must accept lesser roles, and accept a decline in their statistics: that list includes Wade, Bosh, Love, Irving, Davis, and now Westbrook.

The media narratives that LeBron is a "pass-first" player while Westbrook is a stat-padder who makes poor decisions have little to no basis in reality, and there is little to no evidence to support the narratives, but media members do not let facts get in the way of a "good" story.

At Wednesday, January 26, 2022 9:47:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perfect response David. People are blind sighted by the media that LeBron is a "pass-first" player and someone who makes his teammates better. The only time LeBron ever passes is when he is scared of the moment (too passive) or he doesn't want to attempt those late shot clock hand grenades to prevent his FG% from going down. Something that Westbrook and Bryant didn't care about. To me, I rather my best player take a contested shot than someone else who can't score and shoot a wide open jumper.

It's funny because the narrative is that only LeBron and Chris Paul makes people better and guys like Westbrook and Bryant makes their teammates worse. I don't think passing the ball to someone makes them better or being 'nice' to them. Bryant like Jordan did it the villain way so to speak, they demand excellence and push you everyday at practice. Then those players got to hold themselves accountable and learn from these greats. That's why numbers don't tell the whole story. More assist doesn't equal making teammates better. Like you said, each and every all stars that LeBron has played with suffered in terms of their numbers. On the other hand, players that played with Bryant and Westbrook see their numbers go up. It's just that simple but the media and delusional fans can't recognise this fact.

At Thursday, January 27, 2022 12:35:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Thank you.

I am regularly involved in two forms of analysis--playing chess, and working in the field of law--that are far more complicated than analyzing basketball, so it is amusing to read, watch, and listen to self-proclaimed experts who do not have the faintest idea of how to analyze anything, and are incapable of consistently expressing their thoughts coherently.

A person can only obtain Expert status in chess by winning rated games against strong players; a person can only be admitted to law school, obtain a law degree, and become an attorney by demonstrating analytical competence, writing proficiency, and the ability to utilize those skills under severe time constraints (i.e., passing the bar exam).

In contrast, any fool can get hired to write about basketball, or to appear on TV spouting nonsense--and many fools are regularly hired to do those things. It is not necessary or required that a person prove analytical competence or basic communication skills in order to obtain such jobs.

As you mentioned, the reality of how Bryant played, and how James and Westbrook play, is not difficult to discern. If you watch with understanding--and without bias--and if you realize both the strengths and limitations of basketball statistics, then you can figure out what is happening on the court, and why it is happening.

Many people confuse money, fame, and social media "influence" with competence. "If I am being paid a lot, am well known, and have a bunch of followers then I must know what I am talking about," is the mantra of the day. The reality is that if a person gets paid a lot, is well known, and has a bunch of followers but that person never developed critical thinking skills and basic writing competency then that person is a highly paid, famous, and influential fool--not a subject matter expert.

At Thursday, January 27, 2022 6:33:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

how do you reconcile (1) James' negative impact on star teammates' individual stats with (2) his apparent positive impact on winning -- e.g., 10 NBA Finals appearances in 18 completed seasons in the league, with 4 titles and 4 Finals MVP awards, which include at least one title with 3 different franchises?


At Thursday, January 27, 2022 7:40:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


LeBron James is one of the greatest players of all-time. In basketball, one great player can have a larger impact on team success than one great player can have in football, baseball, or other sports involving more than five players per team who participate in the action.

I don't dispute that James has impacted winning, though it is worth noting that his teams have a 4-6 record in the NBA Finals. Most Pantheon members have a better NBA Finals winning percentage.

It could be argued that James carried subpar teams further than anyone else could have, but it could also be argued that James shrank in key moments (most notably in the 2011 NBA Finals).

To the extent that James has been successful, he has been successful as a dominant scorer, not as a passer. It is well documented that after James failed in the 2011 NBA Finals, Dwyane Wade begged James to be more assertive and less deferential.

I am not questioning James' impact on winning; I am questioning the narrative that he is a pass first player who has a positive impact on his star teammates' statistics.

At Friday, January 28, 2022 3:44:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Just picking up your response to J's comments. I think the media and delusional fans fail to recognise the fact that LeBron James has always had a lot of help ever since he left Cleveland in 2010. You can look at the number of All-Star/All-NBA players he has played with. It seems like people elevate his championship wins over other all-time greats notably Kobe Bryant.

It baffles me because people discredit Bryant's championships just because he played with Shaq, but failed to recognise the context and what Bryant did in those playoff runs when the Lakers 3 peated. In fact, almost anyone who plays with Shaq including Jordan should be the number two option because he was that dominant, but when it's crunch time it was always Bryant who sealed the deal. The fact that Bryant won back to back titles and 3 straight trips to the finals beating the Celtics with 4 All Stars with just Pau Gasol as his second best player deserves a whole lot of credit. Plus he had multiple injuries including a fractured index finger on his shooting hand I believe during that run.

At Friday, January 28, 2022 3:44:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Yes, there is no truth supporting the narratives that James has not had enough help, or a lot of help, or as much help as other superstars. Even the 2007 Cavs team that is, to this day, often cited as a prime example of James' lack of help, had a better and deeper roster than most people remember, think, or describe. In 2010, he had more than enough help to win, but he quit against Boston. In the 2011 NBA Finals, he was often outplayed by Jason Terry in clutch situations, and Dirk Nowitzki outperformed the James-Wade-Bosh trio.

If James were in fact without question the best player ever then he would have won more than four championships. He is obviously in the Pantheon, but there are other Pantheon members whose best player of all-time resume is at least as good, if not better than, James' best player of all-time resume.


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