On the heels of the Los Angeles Lakers' fifth straight defeat, a 120-106 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, the only important question to be asked of Lakers Nation is "How much stock do you put in the Lakers recent run of poor form?" On the one hand, there can be no doubt that much this 5 game losing streak can be attributed and written off to poor effort and lack of focus. How else can one explain the team with one of the league's best offenses failing to top 100 points per 100 possession for four straight games, or one of the cleanest teams in the league (the Lakers are currently ranked 3rd in the league in turnover ratio) coughing the ball up 18, 19, 17, and 17 times respectively before yesterday's 10 turnovers.
On the other hand, as DexterFishmore pointed out last night, there can be no doubt that the Lakers did not mail in yesterday's game against the OKC Thunder, and yet they still are on the end of a double digit loss at home. How much concern should we have over that loss? How much should that concern be increased because of the four losses that precede it? As usual, there are certain aspects that don't pass the eyeball test of being a cause for alarm. After all, the Thunder received above average shooting performances from just about everybody on their team besides Russell Westbrook (and even he hit 60% of his 3s, nearly double his season average) and James Harden (who got to the line 10 times). When you are getting production along the lines of 9 points on 4 possessions from the likes of Thabo Sefalosha, it's what we in the business call "having a good night".
But the aspect of last night's contest that scares the hell out of me is the continuance of a season long trend; the Los Angeles Lakers are struggling to close out close ball games. The Lakers held a one point lead with just 3:10 remaining in last night's contest before getting outscored 17-2 down the stretch, and this is closer to the norm than it is to an outlier. This season long trend has fanned the flames on one of the season's most unpleasant debates, the question of whether Kobe Bryant is or is not one of the best players in the league in the crunch. Based on history, it seems a no brainer. Kobe has a litany of big shots and big plays that can be retrieved from any Laker fan's mind on request. Statistically, however, the picture is far less rosy, with Kobe's shooting percentage not very good, among other factors. No matter which side of the debate you are on, I think we can all agree that Kobe's performance in crunch time this year has been pretty bad. Instead of providing us with memories of big shots, we've been treated to a slew of big turnovers. So I did a little digging to find out just how bad things have been. After careful review, it seems that the real King of crunch time is whoever happens to be facing the Lakers.
In general, the Los Angeles Lakers have not played very well in the 4th quarter of basketball games this season. It is by far their worst statistical quarter. On the season, they are averaging 102 points per 100 possessions (as compared to their 111 season average), and giving up 105 points per 100 (their season average is 104.4). But, as one of the better teams in the league, and a team that has a tendency to build up big early game leads, a fair chunk of the Lakers' 4th quarter minutes fall under the "garbage" category, so these numbers aren't necessarily reflective of the overall picture, right? As it turns out, they aren't, but not because the numbers are skewed towards Laker opponents in crunch time. Once we account for a game being close, the numbers show the Lakers in a much less favorable light.
In situations in which the score is within 5 points at any point in the 4th quarter (emphasized so that you know I'm not talking about the same conditions that other statistical sites define as "clutch"), the Lakers offense is downright ghastly, averaging just 98.5 points per 100 possessions. The sharp decrease as compared to their overall offensive performance is entirely due to poor shooting and a lack of the offensive rebounds that usually make the offense tick, because their turnovers in these situations are actually lower than normal, losing the ball on only 11% of their possessions (season average is 12.4%). How much of this failure lies at the feet of Kobe Bryant? Within 5 at any point in the 4th, Kobe has taken roughly 31% of the team's overall shots (he is responsible for 24% of the team's shots overall). On the surface, it's pretty damning.
But the story changes a bit in "true" crunch time situations. With the score within 5 points and less than 5 minutes to play (the same definitions of crunch time used by sites like 82games.com), Kobe's involvement in the offense shoots up dramatically, taking 43% of the team's shots overall. This predictability is exactly what many who argue against Kobe as a crunch time player point to as reason why Kobe isn't as great as we think he is. By taking so many of the team's late game shots, he gives himself the most opportunities to hit a big shot that we might remember, and we more readily forgive all the misses that go along with it. Further, because the other team knows that Kobe will be taking these shots, the Lakers become easier to prepare for in the crunch. The only problem with that narrative is that the team's overall performance increases significantly as compared to the previous snapshot of data. When the game is close down the stretch, the Lakers offense scores 109 points per 100 possessions, which is very close to the 111 they usually score. So, the argument against Kobe as one of the prime performers in crunch time is slightly misleading.
In close games, the Lakers offense has been bad outside of the last 5 minutes, and decent within the last 5 minutes. The defense, on the other hand, has been horrific throughout. With the score within 5 points throughout the 4th quarter, the Lakers are allowing 116 points per 100 possessions (much worse than the worst defense in the league). And in true crunch time, as the Kobe-centric offense improves more than 10 points per 100 possessions, the defense is even worse. With the score within 5 points and less than 5 minutes to play, the Lakers are giving up an astronomically bad 119 points per 100 possessions. Normally, crunch time offenses struggle significantly. Team defense is played with more focus, refs are less likely to call cheap fouls and outside shots are more difficult to make due to pressure and fatigue. These factors and others combine to show a statistical trend that nearly all teams are worse offensively in crunch time situations than during the normal course of a game. And the Lakers are allowing 7 points more per 100 possessions than the worst defense in the league. Considering those numbers, it's actually somewhat of a miracle the Lakers haven't been hit nearly as hard in terms of wins and losses than they have. Despite being outscored significantly in crunch time situations, the Lakers record in games in which these circumstances arise is 21-15.
There can be no question that Kobe Bryant's crunch time performance has not been very good this season. He's had as many high profile failures this year as he's had high profile successes in years past. However, anybody placing the blame at Bryant's feet for the Lakers lack of crunch time success this season is off the mark. Down the stretch, as the Lakers offense gets more and more Kobe centric, it achieves close to the same overall success as the team normally does. The offense is not the what is failing the Lakers down the stretch. It is the appallingly bad defense that is losing the Lakers close games.
So, the next time you run up against someone bagging on Kobe Bryant's merits as a crunch time closer, feel free to argue with him if you like. But, if his only point is that Kobe Bryant isn't the King of crunch time, he's absolutely right. That title belongs to whichever member of the other team just happens to have the ball at the time.