Nylon Calculus: Russell Westbrook and the importance of clutch play

The idea of clutch performance is a thorny one in the NBA. Some of the most biased and one-sided accounts out there are all about how a specific player isn’t truly a star because he is not clutch. This interpretation is usually subjective and used to denigrate a player. Right now the general consensus is that the Cleveland Cavaliers have a significant advantage in the Eastern Conference, regardless of their win-loss record, because of LeBron James’ “clutchness.” Yet it wasn’t long ago LeBron was derided for his inability to rise to the occasion in clutch situations. Narratives change, even when players stay the same.

The importance of clutch

Last season, the Golden State Warriors had a magical year, breaking the regular season win record thanks to some unbelievable clutch performances. Since clutch stats have been tracked in 1997, we can see they’re the third-clutchest team ever in terms of net rating, behind only two LeBron James teams (the 2009 Cavaliers and the 2013 Heat.) But this season, despite largely the same cast, they’ve been mortal, and in fact they’ve been under-performing in the clutch based on their overall point differential.

One of the under-reported patterns of close games is the fact that better teams usually win them. That may sound trivial, but it’s an important trend because sometimes it’s assumed close games are inherently random. That is not the case. You can see an example in the graph below showing a team’s regular season point differential for the season against the point differential in the clutch. There’s generally a strong correlation between those respective point differentials — if you’re a poor team, you usually perform even worse in clutch situations, and vice versa. There are a few reasons for this — the best teams can play their best players at the same time and leading teams often get intentionally fouled — that accelerate the differences. But there are typically some outliers.

Golden State was one last season, performing much better than expected, and now they’re at the other end of the spectrum. This is reflective of a larger point: clutch stats are noisy and often shift wildly from year to year. The year-to-year correlation of team clutch ratings, when adjusted for overall point differential, is virtually zero. Yes, due to team turnover and other factors, you wouldn’t imagine that teams stay the same, but one would expect some correlation. And the correlation last year for regular season to playoff clutch net rating was -0.1 (the scale is -1 to 1, where 0 means no relationship.) Meaning, we shouldn’t worry too much about the Warriors’ clutch performance in the regular season. The same goes for just about every team.

The grounded Rockets

Referring to the earlier graph, the two other outliers are the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Houston Rockets. The Rockets have the third-best point differential in the league, yet during clutch situations they’re being outscored by nine points per 100 possessions. That’s something you’d expect from a 30-win team, not one well past 50 wins. While they do have some attributes of a team that could struggle during a close game — a fast break-heavy offense with an average defense — I don’t expect that trend to continue in the playoffs because the difference is so large. They are a big enough outlier that we can probably expect some regression to the mean in the playoffs.

The Oklahoma City Thunder, however, are their opposites. They had a regular season point differential a little over 1.0, but in clutch situations they’re outscoring opponents by 23 points per 100 possessions — that’s something you’d see from a team like the Warriors, not one that wasn’t close to securing home-court advantage. This clutch performance helps explain their record — teams with their overall point differential are usually expected to win 42 games. As Steve Ilardi pointed out recently, it’s masking Oklahoma City’s drop in performance after losing Kevin Durant, boosting Westbrook’s MVP case.

Is there a real cause here though? Well, no surprise, but Russell Westbrook has been incredible. He rebounds like Wilt Chamberlain in those situations and scores at a rate that would actually flummox a young Wilt. In fact, his rebounding may actually be key here: the Thunder lead the league in fastbreak points per 100 possessions in the clutch at 17.5. The average is near 9.0 points per 100 possessions, and that’s significantly lower than the rate at other points during the game. This is partly why offenses are less efficient in the clutch: teams are more conservative and fast breaks are rare. The game is usually mired in the halfcourt, but Westbrook breaks free of this mold, bending the game to his will.

The only other player who has an argument for best clutch scorer this season is Isaiah Thomas. He doesn’t have the volume but he was significantly more efficient. Interestingly, by tradition the playoffs and clutch performance are interwoven concepts, like the skills are transferable and related. It’s assumed that you need these type of players to advance in the playoffs, and the teams without them have a ceiling on how great they can be. That hasn’t been applied to Thomas, and the Celtics have been struggling anyway. Crunch-time heroics aren’t a great proxy for post-season excellence, and in Thomas’ case, we won’t use his clutch play as evidence in his favor until he experiences success, not before.

How trends beget prediction

As I discussed a few days ago, my problem with using clutchness as another way to rate is player is that it’s so chaotic that it doesn’t appear to be a player attribute; it’s just noise. For instance, Thunder opponents shot a ghastly 24.1 percent from behind the arc in those situations, and that is not a trend I’d expect to continue unabated. But I’m entertaining the notion that Westbrook’s ability to be a one-man fast break is uniquely valuable at the end of close games, and that this was not noticeable until his rebounding reached extreme levels. Offenses get stagnant and mired in the half-court in these situations; if Westbrook can consistently create decent shots in that environment, then he’s significantly more valuable. Yet I’m still skeptical.

So far, we’ve seen mixed results for how the trend is translating to the playoffs. Russell Westbrook won Game 3 for his team in the closing minutes, and while he did cut into the lead for Game 2 he arguably lost the game for them in the last one, missing a few shots with some turnovers. A seven-game series can be so closely contested that even swinging one game due to your “clutch gene” is immensely valuable, but the Thunder are not showing that skill. They’re staring down elimination against a team that struggled in those high-leverage moments in the regular season, and I hope this makes everyone consider how they view and evaluate clutch stats.

We all want to believe, but there may be less meaning there than we’d like.