Here's the crux of the problem: I hate the question.
I really do. Trying to divine the league's Clutchiest Clutch of Clutchness is futile. Percentages don't work, because not all late-game shots are created equal, by a long shot. Nor do all players receive the same attention, and even for a guy like Kobe Bryant, who has been around for a long time and taken tons of shots in "clutch" situations (by any definition of the term), sample sizes still tend to be too small.
So when I saw this morning's post from Henry Abbott at TrueHoop, declaring definitively that Bryant is not the NBA's King of Clutch, I almost reflexively rolled my eyes. Not because I disagree vehemently with the contention- as Abbott notes, Bryant has missed a ton of shots in those situations, where others hit at a higher percentage. Depending on how you define the question, it's reasonable to argue his success rate disqualifies him from the title.
The problem is in the framing of the issue. To me, the definition of clutch is the absence of choke. With the game on the line you want a guy who will treat a shot- the rise, the release, the follow through- the same as he would a more "routine" play in the second quarter. Someone who won't rush, or short arm the J, or dribble off his foot, and of course someone who is willing to put himself on the line in the first place. By this standard, Kobe is unquestionably clutch. Year-to-year, whether the ball goes in 20, 30, or 45 percent of the time doesn't really matter, because in any given year circumstances can mess with percentages more than "clutchness." Instead, why coaches, GM's, and players gravitate towards him when asked "Who do you want?" in those situations is a) because he's hit some massive shots over the course of his career, b) Bryant has the skill set to get clean looks in unclean situations, often a requirement in late-game shots (particularly near the buzzer), and c) because Bryant never, ever shies away from the challenge.
Abbott contends there's likely some institutional bias, so to speak, in the debate. That we hear so often about Kobe's "clutch" status and have his triumphs replayed endlessly makes it easier to forget the misses. He's probably right, but the makes obviously matter, too.
I don't care if Kobe is statistically the "clutchest" player in the game. He's clutch. More than sufficiently so. He's hit far too many massive shots to say otherwise. I'm all for attacking sacred cows- there's nothing wrong with investigating whether the meme on Kobe's late game uber-moneyness is valid- but to some extent it's also an exercise in navel gazing, because the term itself is extremely difficult to quantify in the form of a ranking.
But while the "is he or isn't he?" question and the evidence Abbott uses to support his argument are a dominant part of the reaction to his piece, drawing the ire of many a Lakers fan, he also makes a different point about Kobe and the Lakers that is far more valid, and quite frankly much more important:
"Over Bryant's 15-year career, the Lakers have had the NBA's best offense, and second-best won-loss record. No other team can match their mighty 109 points per 100 possessions over the entire period. 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 Laker offense regresses horribly, managing just 82 points per 100 possessions. And it's not a simple case of every team having a hard time scoring in crunch time. Over Bryant's career, 11 teams have had better crunch time offenses, led by the Hornets with a shocking 107 points per 100 possessions in crunch time, a huge credit to Chris Paul. 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."
The Lakers are not unique in a tendency to go to an iso-heavy, star-driven offense late in games (whether as the fourth winds down, or literally in the final seconds), but that doesn't make it right. (Talking to one scout, he told me the Lakers aren't necessarily predictable, or more specifically are "no more predictable than any other team.") Kobe starting possessions with the ball, either finding his spot for his own shot or instituting the pick and roll is, by design, the thrust of their attack. It is, to some extent, part of the compromise reached by Phil Jackson and Bryant over the years, and often is extremely effective.
Still, if there's a better question to investigate, it's whether the Lakers are truly best served having Kobe "bring them home" in the way in which it is traditionally defined, as if most nights the generally outstanding work he does in the first half balancing the needs of his teammates and his own game in the context of the team's offense isn't appropriate for the second. Particularly in the final five or six minutes, when "bad" trips are even more painful.
The Lakers are too talented offensively to suffer the sort of dropoff in late game situations Abbott describes, and are uniquely constructed so that they don't always need to shrink the playbook, so to speak, like other teams might.
None of this is meant strictly as an indictment on Kobe's play. He measures games very well, and generally that includes late game situations. It's a question of strategy. Bryant is so much more effective a weapon, particularly late in games, when opposing defenses can't load up on him on every play. High screens or isolations should be part of the playbook, just not the only part. It's a waste when the Lakers become predictable in the most important moments of a game. It makes Kobe less effective, and the team along with it, and encourages the sort of "Hero Kobe" play that tends not to produce as many points.
As always it's not a question of shots, but touches. The more players involved in a possession, the more likely L.A. is to score, even if Bryant ultimately takes the shot.
Kobe can close games in any number of ways. L.A. needs to make sure they use all of them effectively. Their late game offense should be proportionately as good as everything up to that point.
Great ball movement and execution might mean no Laker has to be clutch in the final 25 seconds, because the game is already won.