Summit Push

Posted by Ian Levy on May 6, 2011 under Commentary | Be the First to Comment

Screen shot 2011-05-06 at 6.03.43 PM

Ian Levy is the author of Hickory High, a contributor to Indy Cornrows, and a part of The Two Man Game family. He’ll be bringing his intelligent brand of — mostly quantitative — analysis here on a weekly basis. You can follow Ian on Twitter at @HickoryHigh.

The story of the Mavericks-Lakers series has already undergone a significant rewrite. In Game 1, the Mavericks applied white-out with surgical precision, erasing a seven-point deficit in the fourth quarter to steal a win. They continued their editing in Game 2 using broad strokes of liquid-paper, and erased presumed Laker advantages in propelling themselves to a convincing 12-point win on the road. Both teams will be looking to retake control of the narrative in Game 3 tonight. Even with the next two games being played in Dallas, one would be a fool to not anticipate a tightening of the series. The series should be expected to be closer the rest of the way…but that’s not necessarily a bad thing for Dallas.

The Mavericks were 18-9 this season in games decided by five points or less. We’ve looked at their performance in the clutch this season at least once before; they were simply one of the best in the league at making the plays needed to pull out a win in hard fought contests. Obviously the Mavs would prefer not to play the Lakers down to the wire, but have to feel confident about their ability to win in such situations should they arise.

The Lakers are in a slightly different situation. Their performance in crunch time has been a persistent topic of discussion this season, specifically due to L.A.’s reliance on Kobe Bryant. Observation and precedent tell us he’s a crunch time all-star and one of the best closers the game has ever seen. Statistics tell a slightly different story. Kobe scores a lot in crunch time situations, but not very efficiently. He averages more assists, but only because he uses more possessions. Relative to shot attempts and turnovers, Kobe isn’t any more likely to share the ball at the end of the game as he is at any other point.

Los Angeles has just two players who have been very efficient in clutch situations this season, and neither is Kobe Bryant. Lamar Odom shot 61.5% in the clutch, Pau Gasol 46.3%. Luckily for the Mavericks, those two players averaged a combined 26.7 FGA/48 in the clutch, while Kobe alone shot 40.2% and averaged 38.8 FGA/48. When you factor in a combined 22.2 FGA/48 in the clutch for Ron Artest and Derek Fisher — who shot 30.8% and 31.3% respectively in such situations — the Mavericks have to feel pretty confident about their ability to outscore the Lakers in late-game scenarios.

I’m sure many of you are sick of this the ongoing debate over Kobe’s clutch performance, but my apologies — I’m not quite done with it. I’m certainly not the first to point this out, but shot selection is a huge factor in his inefficiency. The table below shows the percentage of Kobe’s shots which have come from each location over the past five seasons.

SeasonAt the Rim<10ft.10-15ft.16-23ft.3PTFTA/FGA

Kobe is taking roughly the same percentage of his shots from inside of 10 feet. The difference is that a much smaller percentage of them are coming right at the rim; Bryant is more and more reliant on his jumpshooting, which makes him much easier to defend effectively late in games. What makes Kobe so theoretically dangerous is the sheer number of ways that he can punish defenders, but 48,235 career minutes played over 14 seasons have taken some of those options away.

In late-game situations, Kobe’s shot distribution becomes even more rigid. This second table shows his shot breakdown in clutch situations for this regular season, and the small sample from this year’s playoffs:

At the Rim<10ft.10-15ft.16-23ft.3PTFTA/FGA
Regular Season14.0%13.4%14.6%29.9%28.0%0.476

He’s certainly confident in his ability to win games with mid-range jumpers. Still, that patter of decision making has made the job of the defense that much easier. Many have credited Bryant’s supreme confidence as the key to his perceived success in the clutch, but oddly enough, the only way for Bryant to break a cycle of inefficiency is to relinquish his ultimate alpha status. Does anyone think that’s a realistic possibility right now? It may be in the future, but I have to imagine it would take significant failure to prepare him for that mental transition.

Despite Kobe’s relative inefficiency in clutch situations, the formula has continued to work for the Lakers, a fact no APBRmetrician can argue with. But it won’t work forever. With the inevitable age-related decline of his athletic abilities, there’s not much Kobe can do to change his shot distribution and maintain a semblance of efficiency. We know where Kobe’s story is going because frankly, the nature of aging doesn’t allow for it to unfold any other way. Bryant’s ability to push the Lakers to victory with contested crunch time jumpers can’t persist forever, and though the critical turning point in L.A.’s late-game performance may still be a ways off, it feels closer than ever.