Pressure point

When a researcher does try to tell you that clutch is a skill, it's usually because his data are about to regress to the mean. Example: In January 2011, John Schuhmann of NBA.com found that "the numbers prove Chris Paul is clutch," based on the incredible record CP3's teams had in close games. But since then, Paul's clubs have gone 26-24 (through Feb. 11) in games decided by five points or fewer, considerably worse than their overall record. Paul is a great player, maybe the best guard in the NBA. But there's no evidence that he or anybody else (sorry, not even Derek Jeter) predictably outperforms his regular skill level when he's under pressure. And really, this shouldn't be hard to grasp. The very essence of clutch plays is that they surprise us.

Let's take these findings as ground rules then and change the entire way we talk about clutch. To traditionalists, I say: Go right ahead and appreciate game-changing plays. But define your terms so that clutch doesn't mean one thing on Monday and another on Thursday just so you can defend your favorite player. Likewise, measure clutch performance with smart tools like Win Probability Added, but don't expect to predict it. And since clutch isn't detectable as an inherent quality, please don't ascribe it to character -- which is an inherent quality.

For stat geeks, my message is simpler: Respect clutch achievement, even if it's not predictable. Don't be killjoys.

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