Ant is the newest writer here at NBAMate. When he’s not over-loading the server with his long, rambling, over-hyphenated posts, he’s fighting for the revival of the fedora as a mainstream fashion item or bluffing his way through a cricket conversation with work mates. He is the thinking man’s NBA blogger, so lock-in and enjoy.
The recent Kobe game winner against Milwaukee has once again sparked up a bit of debate about all things Clutch. The consensus seems to be… that no consensus is possible. In one corner are the numbers guys, madly leafing through all manner of statistics, explaining that Kobe ranks nowhere near the top in anything other than sheer number of attempts. In the other corner is everyone else, hollering KOBE! as they watch the YouTube replay for the eleventh time. I’ve done both, and, being a keen fan of all things paradoxical, decided to give it some thought.
For those who haven’t seen the shot in question, it involved Kobe catching the inbounds pass in the backcourt, pushing the ball up until he was inside the arc, stopping, doing a wee pirouette, and launching a fade-away as the shot-clock expires. Scintillating stuff indeed.
That’s what he do! That’s what he do! they yelled. Hell, I yelled it.
Only here’s the thing – that’s not what he do and that’s precisely why Kobe’s late-game heroics are so revered. Confused? Let me explain by way of a crappy Simmonsesque analogy;
Imagine you, Toby Bryant, are at a pub with a few mates. You’re the only single guy of the bunch, so you know that if a girl who tickles your fancy happens to come past, you’ll be able to strut your stuff unfettered. Fast forward to about 2 in the a.m. Everyone’s getting a tad weary, and you’ve yet to have a crack at anyone. Eventually, you decide to lower the old standards a bit and focus your attention on a decidedly average girl at the corner of the bar. Let’s call her Carli Bell. As you approach, it dawns upon you that there are two viable options.
OPTION A: Go the standard, proven route of engaging Ms. Bell in conversation. Exchange stories, perhaps buy her a drink or two. Charm her some with your sparkling wit (or maybe just tell a couple of pull-my-finger jokes; after all, you are in a pub at 2am).
OPTION B: Grab her drink, scull it down, and announce: Baby, there’s a chair in my hotel room with your name on it!
Of course, option A is the safer play. And if you’ve been going through a dry patch, it might be the sage approach. But really, option B is significantly more satisfying if you can pull it off. Not only is it infinitely cooler there and then, but you can spend a good chunk of the next week bragging about it.
So really, in this situation, Option B has the higher payoff, even if you do happen to strike out a bit more often.
Kobe is all about Option B, there can be no question about that. In fact, he makes Option B look routine where other guys come off looking stupid. But the kick, and the reason that this works in analogy form and not so well directly, is that this scenario requires drunken male bravado logic.
Transpose our scenario back into the NBA reality, where we are theoretically driven by winning above all else, and the logic falls down. In fact, if you survey the other guys who’ve been extremely successful in the clutch over the last few years, you find names like Carmelo Anthony, Dirk Nowitzki and Manu Ginobili. Why? Because they always go with Option A. Their end game consists of milking their bread-and-butter moves (that’s either a mixed metaphor or a recipe for French toast). For Melo, this is usually a catch in the mid-post followed by that triple threat thing he does so well. For Dirk, it’s a high post turnaround. For Manu, a lefty lay-up.
Kobe, on the other hand, goes to the very extreme of his repertoire; he goes to the high notes. When we hear “Kobe game-winner”, we immediately visualise the swish as Kobe makes yet another crazy fade-away jumper, usually with a hand in his face. And no doubt, when it goes in, we all jump up, awestruck. Because if it were anyone else, that same shot would do well to graze the rim. And you know, those crazy shots are fucking memorable.
But some part of me wonders; if Kobe is as much about winning as his rhetoric would have us believe, why are most of his shots so damn difficult? He’s hands down the best shot-creator in the league. Why always settle for what at any other time in the game would be considered a bad shot?
Kobe we can forgive. Even if deep inside I’d love to see how deadly he’d be if he just went for Option A once in a while, he still strikes fear into the opposition on those final shots. But he’s hardly alone in his approach to the clutch. There are guys like Wade and Iguadala, who aren’t half the shooters Kobe is, who still seem to settle for those same bad shots. Or guys like Arenas and Billups who seemingly just launch anytime they get past the half-court line, knowing that if the shot is good they can strut off the court, nuts in hand.
Yet we, the viewing public, continue to lap these guys up. Sure, basketball should be entertaining, but it’s supposed to be about winning first, and from that perspective we’re all getting sucked in. I don’t want to appeal to stats too much, but take the example of Melo vs. Billups; the former is 13-for-27 on game-winning shots, whilst Chauncey is an abysmal 6-for-37. Yet Billups is the one with the “Mr. Big Shot” moniker! It doesn’t add up.
Poor crunch-time shot selection can be attributed to the lack of personal responsibility involved with the final shot in the NBA. No matter how bad the shot, the shooter will never be blamed for it. Yet if he makes it, he’s lauded with praise. And to a large extent, this absolution of responsibility is unwarranted. One might argue the same applies to a quarterback having to throw a hail-mary pass to win the game, or a goalkeeper trying to save a penalty. But the key difference is that in those cases, the chance of success is very low. The final shot in basketball, on the other hand, is made with regularity, albeit at lower percentages than usual given the time constraints and amped up defences.
Yet NBA fans are almost never upset by a bad final shot, especially when it comes from team’s star. It’s hard to blame a guy who’s probably responsible for the game being as close as it is. I get that. But the problem is that not only do we refuse to punish guys who take bad shots, we inadvertently punish guys who take good shots – because when it comes time to name the best clutch players in the league, we naturally remember the ones that opt for the spectacular over the fundamental. The ones that deal in memorable clutch shots. And in that category Kobe Bryant is the undisputed champion.
If we go on ignoring the guys who play it safe in crunch time, soon enough the vast majority of stars will be following the Kobe model, if they aren’t already. And unfortunately, most players aren’t Kobe Bryant. LeBron is a fine example; for the first part of his career his endgame was much like his normal game – strong drives and great passing. Yet he got relatively little credit for his clutch lay-ups, and then got chewed out for “deferring” to open team-mates when he did pass it. So, quite naturally, he’s begun shooting more and more fade-away jumpers on final possessions, which, not surprisingly, aren’t nearly as effective.
At some point we have to overcome our penchant for bravado and acknowledge the somewhat boring yet usually effective clutch stylings of Carmelo, Dirk and the like. If we don’t, we’ll see more and more bad shots and fewer game-winners. And that’s plain bad for the game.