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Tendencies Towards Deterministic Worldviews in Sports Fandom

History is written by winners, and in the NBA we etch those names into stone. But the truth is that these things are far more variable and affected by randomness than we would like to think. Why do we think this way?

Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Clutchness in the NBA is a myth.

Many ardent basketball fans have come to terms with this reality, but an equal or larger faction (consisting especially of new and/or casual fans) is brought up believing in the existence of an "...ineffable quality, so highly prized among athletes, of being able to respond to the highest degree of pressure by pulling out the stops and performing at an even higher level of performance than usual."

But it's understandable that many continue to cling on to the construct of clutchness, long after it's been debunked. It's an easier and more simplistic mode of thought, a sports version of the just-world fallacy where winning players and teams earn their accolades through intrinsic qualities which losers just don't have (until, of course, till they do win, at which point they've "become" a winner, or clutch).

For the most part, we'd rather live in a deterministic world than acknowledge the reality of sports (and life): that randomness, variance, and chance play a far larger role in outcomes than we're willing to acknowledge. We tend to think Michael Jordan was completely responsible for his own success, ignoring the particular advantages he enjoyed. Chris Paul is a loser because that's who he is; it doesn't matter that his teams have never lost to a team with an inferior record in the postseason, that he's only been on a team finishing with a top-two record.

Most Clippers fans should be familiar with the arguments presented in the last sentence, probably having employed them themselves in debate with other NBA fans. These things are far easier to point out when on the losing side of history, often leading to the familiar rebuke of "Stop making excuses!" It's a basketball manifestation of the fundamental attribution error.

We don't have to look far to see that in action. Just scour over the Clips Nation archives from these playoffs; when the Clippers triumped over the Spurs, a victory was a victory — but after losing to the Rockets, we were suddenly hyper-aware of the bad breaks and the misfortune that plagued the losing team in that series.

This is oversimplifying to an extent; certainly many fans were aware and took note of how the Clippers were the beneficiaries of luck in beating the Spurs, acknowledging that if that series was replayed 100 times, the Clippers might have lost nearly 50 of those. And after losing to Houston a far larger faction arose from the woodwork chiding others for not accepting Rockets success at face value and leaving it at that.

The takeaway there? Basketball fandom as a whole is still dominated by those who adhere to more deterministic worldviews, perspectives that seldom acknowledge the role of randomness. In this regard, perhaps a history of perennial failure has had a silver lining for Clippers supporters (à la Gladwell's David and Goliath), exposing us to more complex lenses to see basketball (and the world) through. Maybe that's why we can observe such a sharp divide in level of discourse between longtime Clips Nation regulars and newfound fans (certainly no confounding factors could come into play here).

But I digress, back to our synthesis: life doesn't make sense, and often doesn't follow any discernible rules. Could that be part of why we try to impose a logical structure and order on sports, in so many ways our escape from everyday living?

Unfortunately here, ball really is life, subject to the same confoundedness and unpredictability. Try as we might to deny and minimize its existence and influence in this sphere too, we'd only be foolishly handwaving away reality.

Doc Rivers is someone who understands this, and it clearly informs his coaching philosophy, preaching process over outcome. As sports fans, all we can do is similarly embrace an inherently messy reality, and in doing so become more informed and aware, both as fans and as individuals.

Author's Note: This post began as a straightforward analytical look into the Clippers' struggles in the clutch last year, but quickly [d]evolved into something entirely different, an unfocused and meandering ramble. Hopefully, something closer to what I originally intended to write will be posted in the next few days.