Commentary

Kobe or LeBron king of crunch time?

Updated: December 23, 2010, 11:11 AM ET
By Tom Haberstroh | ESPN.com

Bryant/JamesUS PresswireKobe and LeBron are both cold-blooded closers. But the stats show that only one reigns supreme.

Closer.

Assassin.

Cold-blooded killer.

Over the past few seasons, these labels have become synonymous with Kobe Bryant, the NBA's preeminent king of clutch. Time and time again, we have witnessed Bryant's heroics at the end of games. The Lakers star had a league-leading six game winners in the final 10 seconds of games in 2009-10, with his flair for the dramatic seemingly becoming a weekly fixture.

Bryant is, by all accounts, the player you want to have the ball when the game is on the line.

So why do the numbers say otherwise? Or, more to the point, why do they suggest LeBron James, not Bryant, has performed better in the clutch recently?

The hard data

To be clear, no two people will have identical opinions of when a basketball game enters the proverbial game-on-the-line territory. But if we stick to the generally accepted criteria of clutch -- thanks to the go-to crunch-time source 82games.com -- we draw the line at less than 5 minutes left in the fourth quarter or overtime, with the game within five points. Using those thresholds, we see some eye-catching facts: Despite Bryant's six game winners last season, James bested him in just about every statistical category down the stretch in clutch situations.

Here are the facts: James has posted a mind-boggling 47.2 Player Efficiency Rating while averaging 48.1 points on 45 percent shooting, 10.9 rebounds and 5.6 assists per 40 minutes in the clutch over the past two seasons. Bryant? He checks in at a 37.6 PER, with an average of 44.5 points on 43 percent shooting, 4.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists. Statistically, James outperformed Bryant on the defensive end as well, averaging 1.8 blocks and 2.1 steals. Kobe, on the other hand, has averaged 1.6 steals with no blocks in crunch time.

That's just an absurd level of production from both players, but James clearly has the upper hand. (And career-wise, James has the edge as well).

The team context

So the question then becomes: Is James selfishly piling up stats at the expense of his team's success?

It appears to be the opposite.

James' teams have outscored opponents by 126 points in his 228 minutes of clutch play, debunking the theory that James is merely a compiler of empty stats; his individual play has coincided with winning basketball. Bryant is another story. Even with far superior teammates than James' former Cavs crew, Bryant has posted a minus-13 plus-minus in his 224 minutes of clutch situations. That is to say, the Lakers have, quite shockingly, been a losing team with Bryant on the floor down the stretch over the past two seasons.

This is a critical point. Boiling down clutch performance to six last-second shots is an extremely narrow view of the game. The circumstance happens so rarely that it is virtually a trivial exercise in randomness. To put it in perspective, Bryant and James have played a combined 7,871 minutes over the past two regular seasons, and only 17 of those minutes were played when their respective teams needed a "big shot" (tied or trailing by no more than three points with the game clock at less than 24 seconds). That's 0.02 percent of the time.

These numbers reveal James' teams haven't needed last-second heroics because his monstrous late-game play pushes the close game out of reach, rendering a game-winning shot unnecessary. Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey once said, "Good teams don't win close games -- they avoid them." And the player who personifies that ethos is James.

The highlight reel conundrum

We can direct some of the blame to the construct of the highlight reel. As a game's CliffsNotes, highlight reels capture the awe-inspiring plays and dramatic game-changing events in snapshots. They give us the game-winning shot, but the rest gets tossed to the cutting-room floor. And the truth is, we don't get to see all the times a player fails in critical moments; we see only the ones when he succeeds.

Highlight reels, by design, help facilitate our inherent confirmation bias -- a fallacy of the human mind that causes us to remember what confirms our preconceived notions and throw out the contradictory evidence. Bryant holds the reputation as the game's most clutch player, and who are we to disagree when we see Bryant with a game winner seemingly every fifth day? No one has the time or the interest to watch all 96 of Bryant's missed field goal attempts in clutch situations since 2008-09. But those happened, and we need to account for them.

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty ImagesKobe's close-out style lends itself to the dramatic.

Also, there's a certain flair to Bryant's typical game winners that lends itself to immortality. We watch in anticipation as the ball leaves Bryant's fingertips on a contested perimeter jumper, which is the toughest shot in the game. But the degree of difficulty of the shot works both ways. When he hits the back-breaking shot, it is heroic. But when he misses, it is understandable. All of James' seven makes have come within 8 feet, while all nine of Bryant's makes have come outside 12 feet (he missed his only attempt inside 12 feet, a layup).

So as scorers, James and Bryant have different styles, and this certainly has a dramatic effect on how we remember them as clutch players. Bryant's outside game provides better theater, whereas James' bruising attack leads to comparatively sleepy trips to the free throw line. But they provide the same means to an end.

Ultimately, Bryant and James are two all-time legends, and it seems silly to boil their greatness to a few seconds of play. While the debate between LeBron James and Kobe Bryant will never die, the clutch badge has always rested on Bryant's sleeve. Now we're seeing that it isn't quite that simple.

If you want a game-winning shot, you might choose Bryant. But that happens no more than a handful of times per season.

If you want a player to carry the team down the stretch in the fourth quarter, we find that James, not Bryant, boasts the winning track record in the clutch.

Research courtesy of Alok Pattani and Albert Larcarda of ESPN Stats & Information.