The idea of a "clutch" gene doesn't really hold water in the NBA, as I expounded upon recently. But while the idea of clutchness itself is a construct, crunch time is a very real thing in the NBA. Games are won and lost on the random bounces in the final minutes of close games. In those situations, the line between a win and a loss can be razor-thin, even though the distinction between the two outcomes is closer to a chasm.
All this, of course, is just a roundabout way of saying that a team's record isn't necessarily the best indicator of a team's ability and potential (injuries aside). Most readers of this blog are already familiar with this concept, and are aware that metrics such as point differential and net efficiency rating are better predictors of a team's performance. Ranking teams by point differential rather than win percentage, you'll notice the two sets of standings match up for the most part. There are a few discrepancies, though.
Record in close games is one of the main factors that create this separation. Getting lucky in close games can skew your record enough to make a good team look great in the standings; getting unlucky can make good teams look mediocre. For example, the Portland Trail Blazers started the 2013-14 season a blazing-hot 24-5, thanks to a ridiculous 11-1 record in clutch games (defined here as games where a team was ahead or behind by three points or less — one-possession games — in the final three minutes). That mark proved to be unsustainable, and the Blazers regressed to the mean, going 13-14 in those situations for the rest of the year.
However, that sort of course correction doesn't always happen over the course of a full season. And as we'll see, it didn't for the Clippers last season.
Let's begin by looking at clutch records from last season, also seen on the left (the bottom few teams have been cut off, for the sake of space).
Although clutchness is highly impacted by randomness and luck, it shouldn't be surprising that good teams tend to do better in those situations and bad teams tend to do worse, as is the case for the other 3.5+ quarters of the game. There's still a ton of variance involved, as seen by the Spurs finishing in the lower half of these rankings (we'll address that) while the Bulls and Mavericks both ended up in the top five teams.
At first glance, you wouldn't think the Clippers look that bad, finishing eighth in winning percentage in these games with a solid 19-13 record. But there's more nuance to be explored.
Remember that clutch games aren't just ones that go back and forth in the final minutes. They include any game that gets within one possession at any time in the last three minutes, even if that's only the case for ten seconds. They include close games where one team leads or trails for the entire duration without any lead changes occurring.
Luckily for us, the NBA's stats website allows us to dig deeper into this. By default, it shows us games where teams are leading or trailing in clutch situations, but we can subdivide this into situations where teams are either "Ahead or Tied" or "Behind or Tied" in clutch situations.
We'll start with the former of the two situations. Again, the Clippers come out looking fine — they're 19-5 in clutch situations when leading or tied. That's good for fourth overall, behind only Chicago, Golden State, and Dallas, and tied with Atlanta.
That shouldn't come as a surprise that good teams are typically good at closing out games, and most teams in general have winning records in this situation. The few games in the loss column here are ones Clippers fans remember immediately — painful defeats to Brooklyn, Portland, and Houston in the playoffs (the latter is not counted in these stats). The idea of Clippers as chokers is certainly overblown, isn't it? Then just why are they so unclutch?
Flip it, and it becomes immediately apparent. In situations where the Clippers were tied or trailing by a possession in the final three minutes, they finished with a much worse 5-13 mark. That put them in the bottom 10 teams in the league, and the only contender remotely close to them is San Antonio, languishing with a similar 6-15 mark.
This explains a lot for the two teams, who both significantly underachieved Pythagorean expectations despite finishing with the second- and third-best point differentials in the league. For some reason, both teams lost a large majority of their close games when trailing. Most contending teams finished around or above .500 in these situations, and Memphis led the league with an astounding 15-10 record in these games. But the bounces just wouldn't go the way of the Clippers and Spurs for most of the regular season (and for the Spurs, it occurred in close games where they were leading, too).
We can take this one step further to see just how terrible the Clippers were in clutch games when trailing. When we look only at "superclutch" situations (games within three points in the final 60 seconds), the disparity becomes even more shocking. In superclutch situations when ahead or tied, the Clippers went 13-2, behind only the Mavericks and Rockets. They were phenomenal at closing games out and putting the other team away.
But in superclutch situations when behind? That explains a lot of the Clippers' struggles last year, and was certainly part of the reason they were less memorable than they were in the 2013-14 season.
More than that, it explains the difference between real and expected win-loss records. The two teams that top this list are the Grizzlies and Rockets, not coincidentally the two contending teams who most overachieved their Pythagorean expectation.
Where are the Clippers on this list? Last place, 30th out of 30 teams. In these games, the Clippers were a league-worst 1-13. It doesn't say much, other than that they were probably ridiculously unlucky (as were the Spurs). It doesn't have much bearing on how they'll do in these situations in the coming season. But it goes a long way towards explaining how they ended up where they did last year.