Race for the DPOY

“If anybody else gets that award, we need to have an investigation.”

Clippers coach Doc Rivers clearly thinks his center, DeAndre Jordan, is the favorite for defensive player of the year. Averaging ridiculous rebound and block totals, Jordan has a good shot, but is far from the favorite, as other candidates – both at the rim and on the perimeter – have (probably more) compelling cases. Doc, consider this the investigation.

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The Comprehensive 2014-2015 NBA Preview: Western Conference

After an amazing 2013-2014 season, the unbearably long offseason is finally coming to a close. There’s a lot to look forward to this year in the NBA, with superstars on new teams, contenders adding pieces, and more squads than ever with a chance to make noise. Let’s continue with my projected standings for the Western Conference, and analysis for the teams in it:

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The Comprehensive 2014-2015 NBA Preview: Eastern Conference

After an amazing 2013-2014 season, the unbearably long offseason is finally coming to a close. There’s a lot to look forward to this year in the NBA, with superstars on new teams, contenders adding pieces, and more squads than ever with a chance to make noise. Let’s get started with my projected standings for the Eastern Conference, and analysis for the teams in it:

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Guide to The Rematch

Parker’s ridiculous game 1 buzzer beater. LeBron’s block on Splitter. Danny Green’s unbelievable shooting run. Ray Allen’s immortal corner three in game 6. The series lasted seven games, but fans were hungry for seven more. A year later, that wish may come to fruition. Through their all-playoff-long dominance, the Heat and Spurs seemed destined to meet again in this year’s Finals. With teams this great, a lot of information is needed to make a well-educated prediction on the series’ winner. Let’s take a look:

Last Round

San Antonio: Won in 6 (TeamRankings’ most likely outcome: win in 7, CornerThree prediction: win in 7)

Miami: Won in 6 (most likely outcome: win in 6, prediction: win in 6)

Both teams were able to end their series relatively early, with Miami in full control the entire series, and San Antonio looking dominant other than their hiccups in games 3 and 4. It was clear that the better team moved on in both conferences.

Key Stats

Overall ranking (TeamRankings): San Antonio 1st, Miami 4th

Last 10 games ranking (TeamRankings): San Antonio 1st, Miami 4th

Shooting efficiency (TeamRankings): San Antonio 2nd offensive, Miami 22nd defensive

Points in the paint per game (TeamRankings): San Antonio 7th offensive, Miami 8th defensive

Effective field goal percentage (TeamRankings): Miami 1st offensive, San Antonio 4th defensive

In terms of overall ranking, Miami is a weaker opponent than San Antonio faced last round in Oklahoma City, but with Miami coasting to the second seed during the regular season, that stat could be a bit skewed… These two teams boast the two best offenses in the league, ranking first and second on the offensive side in both shooting efficiency and effective field goal percentage. The Spurs’ defense, however, looks to be more up to the challenge than is Miami’s… Chris Bosh and co. will have to do their best to shut down the paint against San Antonio’s common two-big lineups, but their ranking defensively in the paint suggests they’ll be up for the challenge.

Starting Lineups

Spurs:

Pos Player  CornerThree WAR ranking ESPN WAR ranking
PG Tony Parker 157th 51st
SG Danny Green 60th 63rd
SF Kawhi Leonard 24th 66th
PF Tim Duncan 23rd 17th
C Tiago Splitter 187th 87th

Heat:

Pos Player  CornerThree WAR ranking ESPN WAR ranking
PG Mario Chalmers 101st 76th
SG Dwyane Wade 30th 85th
SF LeBron James 4th 1st
PF Rashard Lewis 231st 334th
C Chris Bosh 64th 22nd

Matchup Advantages 

PG: Spurs (Parker)

SG: No clear favorite

SF: Heat (James)

PF: Spurs (Duncan)

C:  Heat (Bosh)

Bench: Spurs

Coach: Spurs (Popovich)

The WAR rankings show the matchup between Parker and Chalmers is closer than conventional wisdom would suggest… Despite Dwyane Wade’s health, his matchup with Danny Green is more of a wash than you may think, with Green’s analytic-friendly ability to spread the floor and allow the offense more operating room, alongside superior defensive ability. Although it might be easy to assume that his proximity to Wade in the WAR rankings is partially because of Wade’s dearth of minutes this season, Green’s RPM (ESPN stat that doesn’t account for total minutes played) is far superior to Wade’s – 22nd to 77th… Though LeBron is the world’s best player, Kawhi Leonard will be able to give him the same headaches he gave Kevin Durant with his combination of length and strength, alongside a scrappy style that can frustrate his matchup. As I’ve brought up before, LeBron has already showed us his feelings on Kawhi Leonard:

… Erik Spoelstra has showed multiple different looks at the power forward position this postseason, from Shane Battier to Udonis Haslem to Lewis. It will be interesting to see if Spo is willing to give up Lewis’ offense in order to have a better shot defensively, or if he elects to hide Lewis on Tiago Splitter and force the Spurs to go to him offensively… Chris Bosh will continue to be one of the league’s true top big men, boasting one of the league’s best mid-range shots (courtesy of NBA.com):

Screen Shot 2014-06-01 at 3.25.19 PM

His pick-and-roll defensive ability will invaluable against players like Parker and Ginobili as well, and as I recently suggested, he may be called upon to guard Tim Duncan in the post as well. Bosh is of huge importance on both ends of the court in this matchup… The Heat have a solid bench, especially when Ray Allen is hot, but the Spurs can come from all angles, with Ginobili looking to erase his dreadful performance in last years’ Finals, and Boris Diaw becoming a huge contributor for the Spurs’ offense as the playoffs have gone along – his passing, post play, and three-point range make him both a matchup nightmare and an excellent facilitator of offense.

Regular Season Series Results

San Antonio 1, Miami 1

Odds (TeamRankings)

TeamRankings’ models overwhelmingly favor the Spurs, with each San Antonio winning outcome more probable than the most probable Miami outcome. I doubt the series will be this lopsided, but be careful not to simply disregard the graph because of conventional opinions – TeamRankings’ projections have correctly picked the winner of 11 of the 14 playoff series so far.

Keys For Each Team

San Antonio: Can they limit their turnovers and prevent Miami from getting into transition? Can Kawhi Leonard play well enough against LeBron to warrant consistent single coverage? Who will provide the offensive spark that Danny Green set off in last year’s matchup?

Miami: Can non-big 3 members provide enough offense? Will Miami’s ball-rushing, double teaming defensive scheme be torn apart by San Antonio’s ball movement offense? Can Dwyane Wade play up to his reputation?

Prediction

We already know how Gregg Popovich likes to play LeBron and Wade – force jumpshots. However, in last year’s matchup, LeBron his enough from the outside to bring the trophy to Miami. Will Pop change his approach? Either way, the bottom line is Miami is just as good as the team that won the Finals last year, but San Antonio’s gotten better. Depth, shooting, coaching, and a defensive edge will be enough to get the Spurs their revenge, and perhaps give Duncan, Popovich, and Ginobili chances to retire on top.

San Antonio in 6

by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University

All You Need to Know About the Conference Finals

Well, we’re here. After a very exciting first couple rounds of the playoffs, the Conference Finals have arrived. This season, the NBA again showed that there is little parity in its ranks, and multiple seven-game series usually weed out potential upsets. Accordingly, in both conferences, the only teams remaining are seeds 1 and 2. Both of these matchups, though, are sure to be classics. Let’s take a closer look:

San Antonio (1) vs. Oklahoma City (2)

Considered by many to be the West’s two true heavyweights, the Spurs and Thunder meet in the Western Conference Finals for the second time in three years. Where the Thunder won that matchup, they were not present last season when the Spurs swept the Grizzlies out of this round to advance to the Finals themselves. This year’s series will be must-see TV.

Last Round

San Antonio: Won in 5 (TeamRankings’ most likely outcome: win in 5, CornerThree prediction: win in 7)

Oklahoma City: Won in 6 (most likely outcome: win in 7, prediction: lose in 6)

Key Stats

Overall ranking (TeamRankings): San Antonio 1st, Oklahoma City 2nd

Last 10 games ranking (TeamRankings): San Antonio 1st, Oklahoma City 2nd

Shooting efficiency (TeamRankings): San Antonio 2nd offensive, Oklahoma City 4th defensive

Free throws made per game (TeamRankings): San Antonio 4th defensive, Oklahoma City 5th offensive

Effective field goal percentage (TeamRankings): San Antonio 4th defensive, Oklahoma City 7th offensive

Starting Lineups

Spurs:

Pos Player  CornerThree WAR ranking ESPN WAR ranking
PG Tony Parker 157th 51st
SG Danny Green 60th 63rd
SF Kawhi Leonard 24th 66th
PF Tim Duncan 23rd 17th
C Tiago Splitter 187th 87th

Thunder:

Pos Player  CornerThree WAR ranking ESPN WAR ranking
PG Russell Westbrook 53rd 59th
SG Thabo Sefolosha 97th 111th
SF Kevin Durant 1st 2nd
PF Serge Ibaka 26th 15th
C Kendrick Perkins 476th 415th

Matchup Advantages

PG: Thunder (Westbrook)

SG: Spurs (Green)

SF: Thunder (Durant)

PF: No clear favorite

C:  Spurs (Splitter)

Bench: Spurs

Coach: Spurs (Popovich)

Regular Season Series Results

Oklahoma City 4, San Antonio 0

The Thunder swept the Spurs impressively this regular season, but don’t put too much weight on these games: after being swept by the Nets in the regular season, the Heat went on to win four out of five against them last round. Both the Spurs and Heat are notoriously for taking the regular season slowly.

Odds (TeamRankings)

TeamRankings’ models clearly favor the Spurs here: San Antonio in 7, 6, and 5 are all more likely than the most probably OKC outcome.

Keys For Each Team

San Antonio: Can Kawhi Leonard, a defensive stalwart, slow down Kevin Durant without constant double teams? Can Tony Parker stay in front of Russell Westbrook? Can Tim Duncan get the shots he wants against tough post defenders in Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison?

Oklahoma City: Can secondary offensive contributors like Reggie Jackson and Ibaka make enough of an impact? Can they avoid stagnant offense late in games? Can they keep all of San Antonio’s shooters in check while denying Parker penetration? Will Scott Brooks utilize Collison and Steven Adams more, as opposed to the dreadful Perkins, as he did last round?

Prediction

Both of these squads, after looking surprisingly shaky in round one (both fell behind in their series before winning in seven games), are coming off very impressive wins against worthy teams in round two. The teams know each other well, but after a long enough series, better coaching, more consistency, and a powerful home-court advantage will send the Spurs back to the Finals.

San Antonio in 7

Indiana (1) vs. Miami (2)

After a very scary start to these playoffs, the Pacers are back on track and appear ready to compete in a rematch of last year’s seven-game Eastern Conference Finals. LeBron vs. George. Wade vs. Stephenson. Bosh vs. Hibbert. This series will be both physical and emotional, and will test both the ability and the resolve of both teams.

Last Round

Indiana: Won in 6 (most likely outcome: win in 7, prediction: lose in 6)

Miami: Won in 5 (most likely outcome: win in 5, prediction: win in 6)

Key Stats

Overall ranking: Miami 5th, Indiana 10th

Last 10 games ranking: Miami 4th, Indiana 7th

Assist-turnover ratio (TeamRankings): Miami 1st defensive, Indiana 26th offensive

Effective field goal percentage: Indiana 1st defensive, Miami 1st offensive

Rebounds per game (TeamRankings): Indiana 11th, Miami 30th

Starting Lineups

Pacers:

Pos Player  CornerThree WAR ranking ESPN WAR ranking
PG George Hill 121st 43rd
SG Lance Stephenson 72nd 75th
SF Paul George 14th 29th
PF David West 77th 31st
C Roy Hibbert 96th 40th

Heat:

Pos Player  CornerThree WAR ranking ESPN WAR ranking
PG Mario Chalmers 101st 76th
SG Dwyane Wade 30th 85th
SF LeBron James 4th 1st
PF Udonis Haslem 447th 329th
C Chris Bosh 64th 22nd

Matchup Advantages

PG: No clear favorite

SG: No clear favorite

SF: Heat (James)

PF: Pacers (West)

C:  Heat (Bosh)

Bench: Heat

Coach: No clear favorite

Regular Season Series Results

Indiana 2, Miami 2

The Pacers and Heat showed their matchup equality during the regular season this year, with the home team winning every game.  The scoring differential over the four games combined was just +8 in favor of Miami.

Odds

There looks to be a good chance of this series going to seven games, but if it doesn’t, these models definitely prefer Miami. According to Bayes’ Theorem of conditional probability, if the series doesn’t make it to seven games, the Heat’s chances of winning go up from 60.9% to 66%.

Keys For Each Team

Miami: Can they overcome their size and rebounding deficiencies with enough fastbreak points and outside shooting? Can Chris Bosh consistently keep Roy Hibbert far enough outside the paint? How big of a factor will Dwyane Wade be?

Indiana: Can Paul George play up to LeBron’s level? Will Hibbert find any sort of consistency and follow up last year’s huge performance in this matchup? Can the Pacers find enough offense to keep up with the Heat?

Prediction

Indiana will be plenty motivated, and won’t lay down in this series. With some minor changes, these rosters look almost identical to how they looked last year at thistime, and with luck, this time around will be just as enthralling. However, with Wade looking healthier and the Pacers definitely shakier, Miami will have enough firepower to hold off Indiana just enough to prevent a trip back to Indy for game seven.

Miami in 6

by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University

Who/When/Why: Second Round

We have just witnessed one of the greatest first rounds in NBA Playoff history: Game 7s, overtimes; four-point plays. Can the second round top it? Here’s what the stats say about each of the matchups:

San Antonio (1) vs. Portland (5)

Both of these teams were surprising in the first round: the Spurs in their difficulty finally advancing and the Blazers in their seeming ease. It’s the old guard vs. the new guard in a fast-paced, exciting matchup that will include lots of outside shooting.

Last Round

San Antonio: Won in 7 (TeamRankings probability of outcome: 17.8 %, CornerThree prediction: win in 4)

Portland: Won in 6 (Probability of outcome: 15.9%, prediction: lose in 7)

Key Stats

Overall ranking (TeamRankings): San Antonio 1st, Portland 4th

Last 10 games ranking (TeamRankings): Portland 1st, San Antonio 10th

Shooting efficiency (TeamRankings): San Antonio 2nd offensive, Portland 5th defensive

Total rebounds per game (TeamRankings): Portland 4th offensive, San Antonio 20th defensive

Starting Lineups

Spurs:

Pos Player  CornerThree WAR ranking ESPN WAR ranking
PG Tony Parker 157th 51st
SG Danny Green 60th 63rd
SF Kawhi Leonard 24th 66th
PF Tim Duncan 23rd 17th
C Tiago Splitter 187th 87th

Trail Blazers:

Pos Player  CornerThree WAR ranking ESPN WAR ranking
PG Damian Lillard 62nd 30th
SG Wesley Matthews 46th 77th
SF Nicolas Batum 50th 86th
PF LaMarcus Aldridge 19th 10th
C Robin Lopez 95th 27th

Matchup Advantages

PG: Trail Blazers (Lillard)

SG: No clear favorite

SF: Spurs (Batum)

PF: Trail Blazers (Aldridge)

C:  Trail Blazers (Lopez)

Bench: Spurs

Coach: Spurs (Popovich)

Regular Season Series Results

San Antonio 2, Portland 2

Odds (TeamRankings)

Screen Shot 2014-05-05 at 2.06.56 PM

Keys For Each Team

Portland: Can Lillard keep up with Tony Parker’s quickness when on defense, both on-ball and off, while still being himself on offense? Can LaMarcus Aldridge win his matchup against a defensive legend at his position?

San Antonio: Can they keep Portland off the glass? Can they find a way to slow down the red-hot Lillard while still keeping Aldridge and the perimeter shooters in check?

Prediction

The data here is interesting: while the Blazers have the advantage at most of the starting positions (though likely partially due to more minutes played), the Spurs have the predictive models at their backs. Though Portland has looked excellent lately, I’m going to go with the coaching, experience, and depth to pull through, despite close games and a couple of big performances from the Blazers’ big two.

San Antonio in 7

Oklahoma City (2) vs. Los Angeles (3)

Both squads had tougher times than anticipated shutting down their confident opponents in round 1, but now they’re in for perhaps the biggest showdown of the second round. With top-flight players galore on both teams, this series has all the makings of a classic.

Last Round

Oklahoma City: Won in 7 (Probability of outcome: 18.6 %, prediction: win in 6)

Los Angeles: Won in 7 (Probability of outcome: 19.5%, prediction: win in 6)

Key Stats

Overall ranking: Oklahoma City 2nd, Los Angeles 3rd

Last 10 games ranking: Los Angeles 5th, Oklahoma City 9th

Free throws made per game (TeamRankings): Oklahoma City 5th offensive, Los Angeles 21st defensive

Fast break points per game (TeamRankings): Los Angeles 2nd offensive, Oklahoma City 11th defensive

Starting Lineups

Thunder:

Pos Player  CornerThree WAR ranking ESPN WAR ranking
PG Russell Westbrook 53rd 59th
SG Caron Butler 189th 418th
SF Kevin Durant 1st 2nd
PF Serge Ibaka 26th 15th
C Kendrick Perkins 476th 415th

Clippers:

Pos Player  CornerThree WAR ranking ESPN WAR ranking
PG Chris Paul 3rd 6th
SG JJ Redick 183rd 167th
SF Matt Barnes 175th 69th
PF Blake Griffin 22nd 7th
C DeAndre Jordan 8th 8th

Matchup Advantages

PG: Clippers (Paul)

SG: Clippers (Redick)

SF: Thunder (Durant)

PF: Clippers (Griffin)

C:  Clippers (Jordan)

Bench: Clippers

Coach: Clippers (Rivers)

Regular Season Series Results

Oklahoma City 2, Los Angeles 2

Odds

Keys For Each Team

Oklahoma City: Can they get enough scoring from players 3-12 to supplement their two superstars? Can their bench keep pace with the Clippers’ Crawford, Collison, and co.? Can Ibaka play up to his competition in Griffin?

Los Angeles: Is Paul healthy enough to stay in front of the uber-fast Westbrook for a whole series? Can Matt Barnes check KD without needing a double on every possession? Can DeAndre Jordan defend the rim against some of the league’s most explosive finishers?

Prediction

This is a battle of heavyweights on a finals-type scale, with both teams in the top three of the league’s overall rankings. Chris Paul is hungry to save his playoff reputation, but he has health questions after last series. However, he’ll be able to run the offense well enough that the Clippers’ superior frontcourt and depth will continue to wear down the Thunder to the point of elimination.

Los Angeles in 6

Indiana (1) vs. Washington (5)

The Pacers limp into round 2 against a team that blew through its initial matchup with ease. However, Indiana has all of the tools to make this series an excellent one, and the absence of a “stretch 5” in Washington should allow Roy Hibbert to show again why he was an All-Star this season.

Last Round

Indiana: Won in 7 (Probability of outcome: 18.1 %, prediction: win in 6)

Washington: Won in 5 (Probability of outcome: 8.2%, prediction: loss in 7)

Key Stats

Overall ranking: Indiana 10th, Washington 14th

Last 10 games ranking: Washington 2nd, Indiana 13th

Effective field goal percentage (TeamRankings): Indiana 1st defensive, Washington 13th offensive

Three point percentage (TeamRankings): Indiana 3rd defensive, Washington 5th offensive

Starting Lineups

Pacers:

Pos Player  CornerThree WAR ranking ESPN WAR ranking
PG George Hill 121st 43rd
SG Lance Stephenson 72nd 75th
SF Paul George 14th 29th
PF David West 77th 31st
C Roy Hibbert 96th 40th

Wizards:

Pos Player  CornerThree WAR ranking ESPN WAR ranking
PG John Wall 10th 34th
SG Bradley Beal 58th 139th
SF Trevor Ariza 34th 79th
PF Nene Hilario 123rd 83rd
C Marcin Gortat 69th 21st

Matchup Advantages

PG: Wizards (Wall)

SG: No clear favorite

SF: Pacers (George)

PF: Pacers (West)

C:  Wizards (Gortat)

Bench: No clear favorite

Coach: Pacers (Vogel)

Regular Season Series Results

Indiana 2, Washington 1

Odds

Keys For Each Team

Indiana: Can this team forget its chemistry issues and fully get back to basketball? Will Roy Hibbert’s return to the paint give him a reenergizing? Can they slow down Wall and Beal in transition?

Washington: How good of a job will Trevor Ariza do on the oft-enigmatic Paul George? Can Nene bring the same physicality he did to Joakim Noah to David West?

Prediction

Washington has the young legs and the confidence factor, while the Pacers have been the better team over the full course of the season. However, despite much of the year-long data favoring Indiana, the Wizards’ long rest period and the superstellar play of John Wall on both sides of the ball will define this series in an upset.

Washington in 6

Miami (2) vs. Brooklyn (6)

This could be a classic matchup – Pierce and KG vs. LeBron and Wade in the playoffs for perhaps the final time. Brooklyn has gotten the better of Miami in their head-to-heads, while Miami has been much more consistent all season long. Let’s take a look at the data:

Last Round

Miami: Won in 4 (Probability of outcome: 14.8 %, prediction: win in 5)

Brooklyn: Won in 7 (Probability of outcome: 9.3%, prediction: loss in 7)

Key Stats

Overall ranking: Miami 6th, Brooklyn 15th

Last 10 games ranking: Miami 6th, Brooklyn 16th

Assist-turnover ratio (TeamRankings): Miami 1st defensive, Brooklyn 18th offensive

Offensive rebound percentage (TeamRankings): Miami 24th defensive, Brooklyn 27th offensive

Starting Lineups

Heat:

Pos Player  CornerThree WAR ranking ESPN WAR ranking
PG Mario Chalmers 101st 76th
SG Dwyane Wade 30th 85th
SF LeBron James 4th 1st
PF Udonis Haslem 447th 329th
C Chris Bosh 64th 22nd

Nets:

Pos Player  CornerThree WAR ranking ESPN WAR ranking
PG Deron Williams 83rd 57th
SG Shaun Livingston 84th 121st
SF Joe Johnson 111th 47th
PF Paul Pierce 102nd 61st
C Kevin Garnett 138th 97th

Matchup Advantages

PG: Nets (Williams)

SG: Heat (Wade)

SF: Heat (James)

PF: Nets (Pierce)

C:  Heat (Bosh)

Bench: Heat

Coach: Heat (Spoelstra)

Regular Season Series Results

Brooklyn 4, Miami 0

Odds

Keys For Each Team

Miami: Can the Heat prove that their getting swept by Brooklyn this season was a fluke? How big of a factor will Dwyane Wade be? Can they use their speed to beat slower Brooklyn by forcing turnovers and running in transition? Will Ray Allen have a big series against his famous former teammates?

Brooklyn: Are the well-aged Nets tired from their seven-game first round series? Can Pierce and Garnett evoke whatever power they do have that seems to gives LeBron troubles? Can they avoid giving up big runs (especially when playing in Miami)?

Prediction

Despite Brooklyn’s success this season against Miami, they’re coming off a grueling seven game series against Toronto, whereas the Heat walked over the Bobcats and haven’t played for an entire week. The Heat will be rested, prepared, and motivated enough to defeat the Nets, despite a couple of hiccups.

Miami in 6

by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University

Does Clutch Exist?

Is Kobe Bryant clutch?

Are Kevin Durant or Dirk Nowitzki?  Was Michael Jordan ever clutch?

These questions may seem ridiculous, as each of these players has made many “big shots” in the dwindling moments of close games. But how many of those shots are attributable to “clutchness,” and do they matter as much as we think they do?

All of those people mentioned are/were professional basketball players. They spend many hours each day perfecting their shot form on different plays from different areas of the floor. A specific isolation or post-up play, when run in a game, in the beginning or end, has probably been run multiple times during practice or scrimmages, and the offensive players involved have mastered these situations to the best of their respective abilities. The chances of those shots then going in are then left to just that – chance. Taken from a distribution of an uber-complicated probability model just like every other shot in the game.

Consider this: players like Kobe and Durant may be able to make so many shots in “crunch time” simply because they’re better players, not because they’re clutcher players. A play is run, and the abilities of those players are put on display in an effort to score.

Take a look at the top eight point-scorers in crunch time last season, courtesy of 82games.com:

Screen Shot 2014-03-09 at 6.02.30 PM

The first thing you may notice is that perhaps Kobe and Durant weren’t as clutch as you thought, both shooting well below their season averages. But what I’d like to point your attention to is the minutes column. These numbers fall between 104 and 161 minutes over the course of the season, not much more than the course of a few games. This is a statistical concept called small sample size – there simply is not enough data to make an overarching prediction about any of these players.  If James Harden were to go out on a three-game stretch and shoot .402, not very much would be made of that. So why does this same amount of minutes – 143 out of 3936 minutes in a season – over the course of an entire season draw such attention from fans and media alike? A lot is made of players who perform “when it matters.” Here’s a concept: the first three quarters of the basketball game actually matter three times more than than the fourth – 36 minutes compared to 12. All points count for the same amount from quarter to quarter, and the first five minutes matter just as much as the last five.

According to Rob Mahoney of the New York Times, “No player can be [clutch]; the word itself describes but a tiny slice of past performance, and indicates the timing and importance of a particular play rather than a fundamental attribute of any one player… Jordan wasn’t a winner in crunch time. He was just a winner.”

Shall we take a look at who was best at making “clutch” shots? Here’s the same data, sorted by field goal percentage:

Screen Shot 2014-03-09 at 6.13.09 PM

As you can see, the top five most efficient scorers in these situations were all centers, players who normally shoot better percentages then the rest of their teams due to the nature of their close-to-the-basket shots. Were they more efficient in the clutch than their peers, or simply more efficient than their peers in general?

Statistics has a test specifically designed for situations like this. Known as the “two-sample t test,” this tests takes two sets of data and provides, with 95% confidence, whether or not they come from different probability distributions. In this case, we’d want to decide whether players are actually performing differently (better or worse) in the clutch, or if they’re just as good as they are for the rest of the game.

This test would be most effective with the most data possible, so let’s start with Kyrie Irving, who took the most crunch-time shots of anyone else in the NBA last season. A comparison of his .467 shooting on 38.8 attempts to his .452 shooting that season says that the two numbers are too similar to say they’ve come from separate distributions.

This is called rejecting the alternative hypothesis: just like how a criminal is innocent until proven guilty in the courtroom, this test assumes there is no clutch factor changing the data, unless sufficient data says otherwise.

For Kobe, his .426 in the clutch, compared to his .463 percentage that season, although seemingly very different, comes from a small enough sample size that the test detects no significant clutch factor. Even if it did, it would say Kobe – who is widely hailed as being clutch – is actually a less efficient player in those crunch-time moments. Conflicting evidence for widely held opinions make the clutch argument a difficult one.

Despite all of that, the fact remains that NBA players are people, and any psychologist will tell you that their performance would be affected by their surroundings and situation. NBA players themselves refer to the concept of clutch as fact all the time, and talk about their nerves in late-game situations. Does a player’s personal confidence, or belief in clutch, affect his performance in such situations? It’s certainly possible, and there are many parts of this discussion that statisticians might never be able to solve or agree upon.

Another possibility is that the minus for defensive focus on star players, combined with the plus from their clutch, causes the stats to be such a wash, in which case, the data could be deceiving. What’s deeper behind the numbers?

With such small sample sizes for clutch shots, alongside some conflicting evidence, it is very difficult to make a concrete decision either way on whether or not clutch exists. If it does, though, its effect is many times smaller than most people assume. Not only does it have little effect on the efficiency distributions, but in terms of number of shots over the course of the game, having a player who’s clutch would only help for a small amount of time, only doing so if the game were close.

So, what do you think? Does clutch exist? Does it matter?

by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University