For a conference about numbers, MIT Sloan’s Sports Analytics Conference certainly has a lot of narrative behind it.
The main panels – Revenge of the Nerds, Basketball Analytics, etc. – are simply discussions about the past and the future of analytics, with less focus on changes in the now. It’s a chance for big names in the sports analytics community to strut their knowledge, background and opinion on statistics’ crucial role in decision-making processes and helping our general understanding of sports (and life).
But if the star-studded panels are an informal conversation, then the research papers are data-driven reminders of why everybody’s at the conference in the first place: to figure out new ways to view and analyze sports.
One of this year’s research papers, “Live by the Three, Die by the Three? The Price of Risk in the NBA,” by Matthew Goldman and Justin Rao, examines the relationship between two-pointers and three-pointers, how teams react to either leading or trailing at a given point in a game, and how team performance in the clutch usually correlates to overall team success.
While the entire paper and presentation was fascinating – I recommend you read it – that last point captivated me. Basically, “elite” teams get much, much better in crunch time. As such, those elite teams saw notable increases in their offensive and defensive efficiencies, and in most close games, the balance tilted heavily towards the better team.
Upon hearing this, my initial reaction was: How do the Clippers fare under this assumption? Are they an elite team? Do they improve in crunch time? What does this mean?
I contacted Goldman and asked him if elite teams — or better yet, the finals representatives over the four years of his study — all improved in the crunch time, and if I could compare that to how the Clippers have fared this year. He sent me the data, pinpointing the teams that advanced to the NBA championship during that time period (2007-2011). Here are the results:
I didn’t get the exact data points from Matt (he was kind enough to send them to me while he was busy at the conference, and these championship teams aren’t the crux of this post), but from the above photos, it’s clear that almost all the teams that made the finals from 2007 to 2011 — the championship winners in particular — saw increases in their offensive and defensive efficiences in the clutch; this is to show a visual correlation more than anything.
Now, let’s take a look at how the Clippers compare to the league’s top three teams — the Heat, Thunder and Spurs — in terms of regular efficiency, clutch efficiency and net efficiency, as this will be a solid foundation to show the difference among the teams:
Los Angeles Clippers
Oklahoma City Thunder
San Antonio Spurs
As you can see from the net differentials, the Heat are absurd in crunch time, which ESPN Tom Haberstroh has covered in depth. However, the Spurs and Thunder have also been good, or at least able to post a positive rating. The Clippers have not been as fortunate, and have been outscored by over 4 points per 100 possessions of crunch time. This constitutes over a 10-point per 100 possession drop off from their overall efficiency, compared to the other three teams who all get (somewhat) better in the clutch.
Overall, the Clippers rank just 18th in crunch time net rating, which pales in comparison to the Heat (1st), Thunder (2nd) and Spurs (9th). There are certainly a lot of different factors that can affect this rating, and a lot of variance in crunch time overall (i.e. the opponent, score, importance, injuries, foul trouble), but only one playoff team – the Boston Celtics – ranks lower than in the Clippers in crunch time net rating.
The other teams at the top – Warriors (3rd), Pacers (4th), Grizzlies (6th), Bulls (7th), Nuggets (10th) – are pretty good, so it’s not as if there’s a lot of random or bad teams making up the top of the crunch time list. The highest-ranking non-playoff team is the Portland Trail Blazers, who clock in at 12th.
While the Clippers’ half-court struggles have provided fodder for debate over their proverbial playoff ceiling, their defense late in games has actually been their undoing.
The Clippers’ 118.2 points per 100 possession in crunch time is good for second-best in the league, behind Miami’s off-the-charts 121.8 figure. On the other end of the floor, however, the Clippers’ 120.4 points per 100 possessions is the second-worst mark in the league, with only the New Orleans Hornets (124.1) allowing more points in clutch situations.
That’s a major problem. I’m not being hyperbolic; the Clippers haven’t been able to get stops recently, with last night’s loss in Sacramento the latest example. Opponents are shooting 50.7 percent from the field, 46.3 percent on 3-pointers (!) and 83.6 percent from the line in clutch situations. Compared to opponent’s shooting in regular circumstances – 44.2/37.9/74.7 – this is an absurd spike in efficiency.
Two of the Clippers’ three main fourth quarter lineups have double-digit negative ratings –Hollins-Odom-Barnes-Crawford-Bledsoe (-24.5 points per 100 possessions) and Odom-Griffin-Barnes-Crawford-Paul (-10.2 points per 100 possessions). Anytime you have a lineup with Griffin and Paul on the floor getting outscored by over 10 points per 100 possessions, you know something’s wrong (especially when it’s the team’s closing lineup).
The top-three most used lineup that has a positive rating? A Tribe Called Bench — Turiaf-Odom-Barnes-Crawford-Bledsoe (+25.7 points per 100 possessions). Remember though, they usually play in the fourth quarter when a game is out of reach, so that stat is misleading. The lineup to watch out for is the closing one of Odom-Griffin-Barnes-Crawford-Paul. With DeAndre Jordan in instead of Odom, the net rating increases to +74.5 points per 100 possessions. No, that is not a typo. That’s been the Clippers’ best lineup all season, and it’s a shame it doesn’t play more.
Granted, this is an extremely small sample size. The Clippers have only played 89 crunch time minutes, the fewest by far in the league (29th-place Philadelphia has logged 115 minutes). As such, any crunch time minutes wil significantly shift the Clippers’ efficiencies. If they play a few more close games, and things go their way, we could be looking at a completely different picture. Still, something has to be said that the Clippers have struggled this much, especially three-quarters of the way into the season. It’s weird, too, because Chris Paul-led teams have notoriously been good in the clutch.
Almost every playoff team has a positive net rating in crunch time. The three “elite” teams all rank in the top-nine, and Miami and OKC are No. 1 and No. 2. Those are the teams the Clippers have to get through to win a championship, and will likely have to beat in a close game or two (or many). Since the Clippers haven’t had too many crunch time situations thus far, I doubt that changes down the stretch run. We’re going to have a small sample size of their crunch time woes, but a sample size nonetheless.
So when the Clippers are in a close playoff game in May, and the clock is dwindling down, we will see just who the better team really is. To clarify, though, the offense has been anything but the problem. The Clippers are going more frequently in crunch time than any team but Miami. Their defense, on the other hand, has been atrocious, and is the main culprit of their recent tailspin out of command of the three-seed.
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