A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Imagine there’s no choking (and no hot hand too)

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Today is the one year anniversary of that day that will forever live in infamy…in Cleveland. Today is the day when LeBron James supposedly quit on his team and his city. What’s indisputable is that he played terribly, his Cavaliers lost, and it became clear to us all that the Boston Celtics had an extra gear that the Cavs did not.

Seems an appropriate day to ask y’all to participate in a little thought experiment channeling John Lennon:

Imagine there’s no choking.

Just for a minute. Don’t argue with me, just…imagine.

Think about every case of choking you’ve seen in basketball, and think about how you would explain it if you couldn’t blame it on choking.

My revisionist history

So Tracy McGrady didn’t get past the first round because he was never on a team with better talent than his opponents.

Dirk Nowitzki struggled in the Finals against the Heat and the next year against the Warriors he just had some bad days mixed in with some bad (strong, athletic) match ups for his finesse-oriented frame.

And LeBron James ran into a buzz saw playing some of the best defense we’ve seen in the current era, all while dealing with some injuries.

Shocking, how easily I can come up with plausible alternatives to what “really happened”, no? Almost as if I didn’t have to make them up.

Of note is that all three of these legendary chokers actually tend to see their statistical performances go up or at least hold steady in a typical playoff game which is not normal. Defense is tougher in the playoffs, and so most players, even most stars, see their stats go down. They should actually be guys for whom the choking label should make people recoil because of what they’ve actually see them pull off at other times, but it doesn’t.

In fact, this contrast between conventional wisdom and statistical evidence is rampant when it comes to identifying the reasons for changes in player performance through a particular stretch of time. The best known, because it’s easiest to study is the Hot Hand. As in, a player gets “hot” and all of a sudden it seems like he’s turned into a vastly superior player. Pretty much every fan of the sport believe the Hot Hand exists, and yet scientific studies have actually shown that when players make multiple shots in a row they become less likely to make their next shot.

Real, but not Spectacular

Now I’m not actually here to tell you that choking doesn’t exist, or that players cannot get into groove with their shot. I actually do think there was a mental side to LeBron’s disappointing game a year ago (it’s easy to get discouraged once you know you’re going to lose), and all you have to do to know that player groove matters for shot making is to watch the way a guy hesitates with his stroke when he’s been shooting poorly.

I think the more productive way to look at it though is just that factors such as these are a lot less powerful than people think. And while studies could never definitively prove that something like the Hot Hand doesn’t exist, if the effect was big enough to warrant changing your team strategy on it based on seeing a few possessions play out, then it would jump out the moment we had large amounts of data to study.

I’ll leave you with one parting shot: Among sports, basketball is among the least clutch-choke dependent out there despite the amount of verbiage that gets spent talking about it.

The reason for this is that the basketball shot by its very nature is both made a lot and missed a lot, and this is really the case for everyone. If I look at the volume scoring guards (>20 PPG) during the last NBA season, the maximum FG% was 50, the minimum was 43.6%. Conceivably, that may sound like a lot, but consider that means that over a typical run of 20 shots, the best of the lot makes 10 shots, and the worst makes 9 shots. 1 shot difference in 20 shots, and these guys typically take less than 20 shots per game, which means that you basically have no hope of telling who the better shooter/scorer is based off of one game’s statistics alone.

So if you’re a star guard in the NBA, you’ve dealt with missing shots at around this clip your entire career. You’re simply not going to get neurotic about missing even several field goals in a row.

The guys to watch for for choking in the NBA are the guys who legitimately feel like they’re in actual danger of getting yanked if they make one mistake. The young guys, who have not yet been paid $50 mill in salary, they are the ones who can be frail.

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Written by Matt Johnson

May 11, 2011 at 3:37 pm

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