Why Clutch Is Overrated

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Sports fans shouldn't value the fourth quarter more than the second—but they do.

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Who said LeBron James isn't clutch? In the fourth quarter of last night's loss to the Boston Celtics, he went 4-of-7 from the field for 11 points, carrying the Heat while the rest of the team went 1-of-15 for seven points.

Whoops, I lied. That wasn't the fourth quarter. It was the second quarter. In fact, James actually put up just four shots for the final 8:10 of the game, leading most of sports media to once again question his so-called "clutchness." But the fact that I lied isn't important. What's important is: Did the fact that I lied in the first paragraph matter? Is there any reason to think that the fourth quarter is really more important than the second?

The good sports fan's answer to this question is that of course it matters. Clutchness is next to greatness. Players don't go down in history for random second-quarter lay-ups, but rather for game-clinching fourth-quarter buckets. It's not how you start, but how you finish, and so on.

The mathematical answer is more boring, but also more accurate. Clutchness is a myth. It's not just a myth for the fact that the sample size of "clutch shots" is almost always too small to make a meaningful judgment, nor just for the fact that many players tend to perform very close to their overall average in "high-pressure" situations (i.e.: being clutch really just means not choking). It's a myth because we fetishize an athlete's performance at the end of a game even though we know--or should at least allow ourselves to recognize--that games aren't won and lost exclusively in the closing seconds.

Let's stick with basketball for our purposes. Consider this thought experiment. Imagine a guard who makes every shot he attempts, forever. What is his most valuable point? You'll agree the answer is: none of them, and all of them. They are all equally valuable. There is a boring sameness to his performance.

But when confronted with randomness and less-than-100-percent field-goal percentages in the real world, we are more likely to judge certain shots as being more important--and, implicitly, more valuable--than others. James notched 30 points on 25 shots with 13 rebounds in 45 minutes. Does the distribution of those points make them more or less valuable? No. Is fourth-quarter performance more statistically important than second-quarter performance? No. The only difference between two points scored at 8:30 in the second quarter and two points scored at 0:01 in the fourth quarter is the significance we attribute to it.

There are all sort of psychological explanations for this misattribution, but I think the most important is one that Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky have called "availability bias." The short story is that last-second makes and misses are easy to remember--i.e.: they are "available" to our remembering brains--so we're more likely to assign meaning to them.

The longer story is this. Humans are fond of explanations. This gets us into trouble when we're faced with the task of judging probability or frequency. So, to easily reach conclusions, we rely on heuristics, or short cuts, to explain away probabilistic events with stories. Why did LeBron miss a three-pointer toward the end of last night's game? The boring answer is that he, like practically every player, is a less-than-50-percent three-point shooter and there is a less-than-50-percent chance that he'll make any given three-pointer. But, as any sports announcer will tell you, the "real" answer is that LeBron isn't clutch. Nevermind that he made all the team's three-pointers in the second quarter. Who remembers a second-quarter three? Nobody. It's not "available" to us. And, therefore, it's less likely to shape our opinion of LeBron.

Sports media is availability bias on steroids. Consider this ostensibly fair take from ESPN: "Which is worse, LeBron's teammates essentially letting him down for the first three quarters of the game, or LeBron letting his teammates down in the game's most critical minutes?" The fact that this question is being asked is absurd, when you think about it. It is obviously worse to play poorly for 30 minutes than for 5 minutes. But we consider the end of a game to be "most critical," as if the points literally are worth more. The last points of a game aren't special. They're just the last. The most available. The most likely to leave an impression.

Keeping availability bias in mind, I'll conclude with this summation: The fourth quarter matters--just as much as the first. The final five points of a game count--just as much as the second five points of a game. In close contests, we give preference to the field goal that breaks a last-minute tie, and discount the bucket that extends a lead from three to five in the third quarter. Why do we do this? Because sports are random, and the search for meaning is primal. A match is ultimately captivating because, unlike everything else in life, it ends, and there are easy losers and winners, and we want our conclusions about games to be as cut-and-dry as the outcome. In doing so, we miss the forest for the last tree.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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