What model-dependent realism has to say about whether Kobe is clutch

Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE

Is Kobe clutch? What is clutch? What does Stephen Hawking have to say about this? What is the meaning of life? Who invented liquid soap and why...

Earlier this week, I decided to check out Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow's The Grand Design, a book that I've put off reading until now. This is a fantastic book and is worth reading even if you aren't accustomed to repeated deep dives into scientific concepts. My favorite excerpt from the book, and just maybe from any piece of literature I've read, is:

We make models in science, but we also make them in everyday life. Model-dependent realism applies not only to scientific models but also to the conscious and subconscious mental models we all create in order to interpret and understand the everyday world. There is no way to remove the observer - us - from our perception of the world, which is created through our sensory processing and through the way we think and reason. Our perception - and hence the observations upon which our theories are based - is not direct, but rather is shaped by a kind of lens, the interpretive structure of our human brains.

While it's obvious that we all have our own individual perception of the world, but we often lose sight of that fact. Everyone lives in a unique environment, and will have a different sense of what is real or fake, right or wrong, good or bad. No one perspective is more right or more wrong than another; everything is dependent on context, which brings me to the ultimate question: is Kobe Bryant clutch?

This is the age-old basketball debate (aside from if Matt Bonner has the greatest crossover of all time; which he obviously does), and it often starts as a calm conversation and finishes like this. Both sides, the Kobe lovers and haters, have developed their own perceptions based on observations that are "shaped by a kind of lens". They both do, in fact, have some valid arguments, but things often get personal very fast. I'm interested in showing the legitimate parts every party has to offer. There are three separate mindsets on this subject. Let's start with the Kobe apologists:

Kobe is Clutch:

This is the common opinion held by NBA fans and executives. NBA GMs have consistently picked Kobe as one of the clutchest players in the NBA over the past decade. Laker fans exist on a global scale, and a lot of that has to be credited to Kobe's work, especially in clutch time. So what has made Kobe so highly touted in clutch time? Here's what my friend, Lawrence Wilmore (yes, I have a friend who's a Lakers fan), has to say.

Kobe is the definition of clutch.

When looking at Kobe's impact at the end of the game, it is important to remember the words of one of the greatest sports coaches of all time, Bill Belichick. "Stats are for losers."

We are currently in an era that loves to overanalyze every aspect of sports. In a time when Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith can make careers off of spewing irrelevant, baseless, and sometimes purely comical facts at one another, statistics must be carefully understood before coming to drastic conclusions. Before you can even begin to debate clutchness, you must first determine what it even means to be clutch.

If Kobe makes a game winning shot against the Washington Wizards, is he clutch? Is he more clutch if that same shot occurs in the playoffs? Finals? Is a free throw at the end of a game as clutch as making a fade-away while being double-teamed to win? Statistics never tell the full story.

Clutchness isn't a measurement. It's completely subjective. I personally use three factors to determine clutchness. The first is the magnitude of the moment. Making a game winner in the playoffs is exponentially more clutch than making a game winner in the regular season. The second is difficulty. The more difficult the shot is, the more clutch the shot is. The final factor I use is likeliness of victory. What is the chance that the player makes the shot? How much of a priority of the opposing team to not let a player beat them? In the final possession of a Lakers game, how many opposing coaches will try to force Kobe into taking the game winning shot? Zero. At the end of every single game, it is at the top of every coach's list to do everything possible to keep the ball out of Kobe's hands.

When you take into consideration these three factors, Kobe has repeatedly proven himself to be one of the most clutch players in the history of the NBA. Coming through with an incredible 4th quarter in the 2008 Olympics, making a double-teamed fade-away in the playoffs against the rivaled Suns in overtime, or Kobe's fade-away three pointer in double OT against the Kings, Kobe continues to electrify fans with unbelievable game closers. Whether the stats say Kobe is clutch or not, at the end of the game, the last player you want to see taking the game winning shot against your favorite team is Kobe Bryant.

Kobe isn't Clutch:

Despite all of his clutch fame, Kobe has had his skeptics. Most non-Laker fans hold this opinion. Some of this skepticism is based purely on hate, and other is based off of facts. Recently, ESPN analysts have criticized Kobe's numbers and how they deceive people in articles like this and this. What, exactly, makes Kobe so not clutch?

While Kobe has made a ton of clutch shots over his career, he has missed significantly more. Between 2000 and 2012, Kobe shot by far the highest number of attempts (230) in the final minute of games with a margin of five points or fewer for regular season games. Of those 230 attempts, he only made 80 of them. 80/230 puts him at a mediocre 34.8%, only slightly above the atrocious league average of 33.7%. This means that for every clutch basket that Kobe makes, he has 1.87 clutch misses. If those numbers are considered worthy of being considered one of the clutchest players of all time, Amar'e Stoudemire should be up there, as well. When your clutch numbers are worse than this guy, you probably should join a depression clinic before an all-clutch NBA team.

Regular season games are great and all, but the playoffs are the games that really matter. If you think Kobe's clutch numbers are better there, boy are you wrong. In the final minute of playoff games where the margin is within five points, Kobe has gone 10/31. That's 32.3%, which means that for every one amazing make Kobe has he has 2.09 bricks. Granted this playoff number comes in a small sample size; LeBron James (apparent, notable choke artist) has actually made the same number of clutch shots in the final minute of a playoff game as Kobe between 2000 and 2012 with 11 fewer attempts. That's not even including the plethora of clutch makes LeBron had against the Pacers and Spurs. Kobe's numbers are certainly not indicative of a player who shows up in big games.

As much of an offensive threat as Kobe is, one would expect that the Lakers would have a top-notch offense in crunch time of close games. To see a complete recap of just how bad Kobe and the Lakers' crunch time numbers are, you should check out Henry Abbott's Truehoop article posted a few years ago. One of the most stunning excerpts from this article is:

You'd expect Los Angeles to also have one of the league's best offenses in crunch time, right? Especially with the ball in the hands of the player most suited to those moments.

That's not what happens, though. In the final 24 seconds of close games the Lakers offense regresses horribly, managing just 82 points per 100 possessions...

The Lakers are not among the league leaders in crunch-time offense -- instead, they're just about average, scoring 82.35 points per 100 possessions in a league that averages 80.03. They are, however, among the league leaders in how much worse their offense declines in crunch time.

When Bryant is on the floor in crunch time, Bryant's Lakers are actually outscored by their opponents.

Kobe is said to be the clutchest player of all time, yet the Lakers' offensive numbers beg to differ.

I don't Care About Clutch:

Arguments, usually, only have two polarizing opinions. In the Kobe clutch case, people only mention two sides: Kobe is/isn't clutch. There is, however, another side that I'd like to investigate. Could it be that Kobe's clutch numbers, and clutch numbers in general, don't matter?

As a Spurs fan, I find that it is often quite difficult to remain impartial towards players like Kobe Bryant. When people bring up Kobe's clutch-ness, I am conflicted between arguing that he's not clutch and arguing that clutch is something that doesn't even matter. Clutch is a misleading term in that there are so many definitions for it. These definitions range from the final five minutes of a game with a margin of five points or less to the final possession of the game.

Aside from ambiguity, another major problem with clutchness is that there is such a small sample size for every player. Look at Kobe. His "clutch gene" will forever be held in question by skeptics because of his horrible end game performance against the Jazz in Game 5 of the Western Conference Semifinals in 1997. Those four measly shots can taint a player's clutch image so much because players seldom shoot shots that could be considered clutch. Between 2000 and 2012, Kobe took 20,592 total field goal attempts, of which only 1525 were taken with five minutes left in the fourth quarter or overtime with a margin of less than or equal to five. This means that only 7.41% of Kobe's shots in a 12-year span could be considered clutch (with a very generous definition of clutch, that is).

The final major problem with clutch is that it doesn't factor in opposing matchups and team compositions. Because of small sample sizes, a few clutch makes could be the difference between being a fourth quarter superstar and scrub. The difficulty of these made shots strongly depends on the opposing team's defensive setup and the offensive options the team has. LeBron has often been labeled as a choker after his 2011 Finals performance against the Mavericks. Check out the video, though. LeBron was forced to take bad shots at the end of the shot clock because the Mavs were pressuring him with a double-team and there was little to no off-ball movement. LeBron went 0/3 in the clutch moments of the game, yet his individual performance should not be credited for the choke, but the entire Heat team in general. Compare that to the final two Heat possessions of Game 1 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals. Frank Vogel chose to play man-to-man defense on LeBron, though Hill and George switch on the first play, which leads to two of the easiest clutch shots in NBA history as the help defense of Roy Hibbert was removed from the game. Clutch is extremely dependent on the context of the situation, and every play can taint or inflate a player's clutch recognition.

Conclusion:

Hawking and Mlodinow again:

Dualities like this - situations in which two very different theories accurately describe the same phenomenon - are consistent with model-dependent realism. Each theory can describe and explain certain properties, and neither theory can be said to be better or more real than the other...

Doesn't this sound like the Kobe debate? It essentially boils down to your definition of clutch. Clutch is an arbitrary, ambiguous term. With certain definitions, Kobe is one of the clutchest players in NBA history and with others he should pass the ball to an open teammate whenever the buzzer approaches. Kobe is a fantastic player, or a narcissistic, shot chucker, ball-hog, or the greatest of all time; all of those descriptions fit him quite nicely. It all depends on the lens that we are use to make judgments on the NBA.

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