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Layups: Clutch Players and Wall Street Bankers

Posted by Neil Paine on June 9, 2010

In this Huffington Post piece, MIT Management Professor Dan Ariely looked at two high-pressure jobs -- Wall Street Bankers and NBA basketball players -- to see if some people actually respond positively to stress:

"With the help of Duke University men's basketball Coach Mike Krzyzewski ("Coach K"), we got a group of professional coaches to identify clutch players in the NBA (the coaches agreed, to a large extent, about who is and who is not a clutch player). Next, we watched videos of the twenty most crucial games for each clutch player in an entire NBA season (by most crucial, we meant that the score difference at the end of the game did not exceed three points). For each of those games, we measured how many points the clutch players had shot in the last five minutes of the first half of each game, when pressure was relatively low. Then we compared that number to the number of points scored during the last five minutes of the game, when the outcome was hanging by a thread and stress was at its peak. We also noted the same measures for all the other "nonclutch" players who were playing in the same games."

Their initial finding?

"We found that the non-clutch players scored more or less the same in the low-stress and high-stress moments, whereas there was actually a substantial improvement for clutch players during the last five minutes of the games. So far it looked good for the clutch players and, by analogy, the bankers, as it seemed that some highly qualified people could, in fact, perform better under pressure."

However, upon further inspection, they found that the "clutch players" in the study didn't shoot better in the last 5 minutes... they just shot more. To use the Wall Street analogy, they knew they had to do something to justify their mystique and high salaries, so they make it look like work was getting done, even if they weren't necessarily being truly productive.

Now, creating shots in and of itself is a skill, and that's certainly what the study's clutch players did in the final 5 minutes. However, those players already proved they could create at a high level in ordinary situations, so it's difficult to imagine that creating even more shots in minutes 44-48 is so much tougher than in minutes 1-43, that only the special clutch players can do it in those closing sequences. And remember, they're not even making many of the extra shots, they're just taking them.

I clearly believe in a usage-efficiency trade-off, and in the value of creating shots, but theoretically the clutch players were supposed to be able to increase their efficiency in crunch time as well (or at least hold it constant), not just increase their usage.

6 Responses to “Layups: Clutch Players and Wall Street Bankers”

  1. Jason J Says:

    Neil, that report might not point to the players actually raising their games in the clutch, but it does show a willingness to take shots in clutch situations. I wonder if that isn't the key factor to being considered clutch by the masses, taking enough that we remember the makes.

  2. Myles Says:

    What about the possibility that every players' performance suffers in clutch situations? If a player performs still performs better relative to his teammates in this case, I would still call him clutch.

  3. Federico Says:

    I pretty much agree with Jason J. While most players will shoot the ball when they have a good look, waiting for that moment to come, clutch players know its crucial to score in that possession, so they feel they have to manage a good shot. I can't remember where I read that Kobe shoots a certain percentage in all of his shots. It doesn't matter if it's a wide open mid-range jumper or a contested deep three pointer. Of course there's a difference, but you know what I mean.

  4. el_horse Says:

    I think you should look at percentages rather than total points. How many of the team's shots 'clutch' players shot/made and how many (relative to the whole team) points they scored

    Pure scoring doesn't tell us anythhing as you said above

  5. P Middy Says:

    My feeling (i.e. unsubstantiated in anyway) has been that clutch players maintain their level of play in crunch-time, whereas everyone else wilts slightly under the pressure. It would be interesting to see % of decline in eff during minutes 44-48 of games where scoring diff <5 points.

    What are the things players deal with in the crunch?

    Clock management
    Less officiating, more contact
    Intensified crowd noise
    Rhythm interrupted by frequent time outs

  6. DSMok1 Says:

    A good rough estimate of the value of a player's contributions in crunch time is:


    That accounts for scoring rate and quantity. Incidentally, going off of the clutch data ( ), Lebron has been the best. When adding in assists also (the equation for that is a bit iffy--I'm working on adding in credit for assists and subtractions for being assisted), James is still the best, but Nash is close.

    Top 10 scoring only:
    Team Player Scoring
    CLE James 12.10
    POR Webster 8.55
    DAL Dampier 7.75
    DET Hamilton 7.68
    DAL Nowitzki 7.58
    PHO Nash 7.14
    HOU Landry 6.80
    LAL Bryant 6.60
    CHA Murray 6.40
    PHI Williams 6.30
    (the numbers are in pts added/48 minutes)

    And including assists:
    Team Player Total
    CLE James 13.37
    PHO Nash 11.81
    NOH Paul 8.76
    DEN Billups 6.72
    LAL Bryant 6.50
    POR Webster 6.15
    DAL Nowitzki 5.98
    POR Roy 5.47
    DET Hamilton 5.43
    DAL Dampier 5.38

    I'm still working on a comprehensive way to included assists in the equation listed above.