Last season, the NBA debuted a new series of commercials based on the BIG theme, one of them featured the NBA's elite scorer, Kevin Durant. In it, Durant is described as "Kid Clutch", and his shot as automatic, especially in those big moments.
The problem, though, is that Durant wasn't especially clutch last season. He shot just 41.1 percent from the field and 35% from three in those clutch moments (within 5 points within 5 minutes left). While those aren't terrible numbers (defenses tend to lock down in the last clutch moments), it is still worse than his season averages of 50% and 38% from three. Indeed, his much maligned teammate, Russell Westbrook, shot much better, with a 49.3% FG rate and exactly 50% from three. "Kid Clutch" wasn't clutch at all, just the opposite overall.
This takes us to last night's Jazz game against San Antonio, where Mo Williams hit a remarkable buzzer-beating three to end the game. Just 1 minute and ten seconds before, Williams had missed a fairly open 15 foot jumper, and just 9 seconds earlier, had missed a three as the shot clock wound down. This led to a whole series of complaints on the SLCDunk game thread:
And then, of course, he made the shot. The shot that went in, and sent ESA into pandemonium. Mo Williams was a hero. David Locke tweeted about the likelihood of such an event:
Mo wIlliams had missed 12 straight shots with the game on the line and was 2 of his last 23 in final 2 mins of close game #due— David Locke (@Lockedonsports) December 13, 2012
To say that Mo was "due" is also a misunderstanding, that's not how shots work either. When he missed his previous clutch opportunities, he was somewhat unlucky (especially to miss 12 in a row). This time, he got lucky. Sometimes coin flips land heads, sometimes they land on tails.
That's not to say that Mo had a 50% chance of making that shot, not even close. It's a contested three from a good shooter, it probably had roughly 25% chance of going in. It wasn't the right play, but it also doesn't make Mo a clutch player. It makes him one susceptible to chance, as all players are.
Yes, this means even Paul Millsap. During the timeout leading up to the final shot, many were calling for Millsap to take the final opportunity. After all, he has some of the best-remembered clutch moments in recent Jazz history, it makes sense to feed the man who made them, right?
Consider this, though: Millsap shot only 39.7% in clutch situations last season. That ranks last on the Jazz of those who qualified, all of Jefferson, Hayward, and Harris had better percentages last year. Just like with Mo, there are two sides to the coin: despite these struggles, Millsap made a clutch shot to tie the game with just 40 seconds remaining.
You can do this with any player, which tends to put the whole business of clutchness in doubt. Those players who we typically think of as big-shot makers tend to disappoint. Kobe Bryant shot just 32.7% in the clutch last season. Nowitski? 38.6%. Deron Williams? 41%. Chris Paul? 42.5%. Dwyane Wade? 37.8%. Even those players who were excellent, say Paul Pierce, who shot 55% last season in the clutch, don't see that trend continue over their careers (Pierce shot just 42% in 2010-2011).
Once again, I'm reminded of my favorite XKCD comic:
As much fun as the narratives of clutch are, and as much sense of shared greatness as we want to get from observing players who "rise in the big moments", it's all a facade. Mo Williams has shot at least 10,000 threes in his lifetime, all with largely the same technique. Do you really think that the likelihood of him making that shot depends on how many seconds are left on the clock?
What becomes possible to focus on, then, is not whether or not the shot is made or missed, but rather everything leading up to the end of the possession: the play call, the decision making, the movement of the other players on the floor, and the defense, all of which actually do change the likelihood that the shot goes in by changing the shot itself. By moving on from "clutch", we can start understanding what really matters.