Jan 20 2014

Are the Sixers Clutch?

On Wednesday, Thaddeus Young hit a game-winning shot in the closing seconds to lift the Sixers over the Charlotte Bobcats. It was a friendly reminder that Brett Brown’s squad, a 13-27 team with a league-worst point differential (-8.7), has been surprisingly effective in the clutch.

In fact, according to NBA.com’s stats database, the Sixers own a winning record in all late-game situations:

Situation Record
5 minutes remaining, game within 5 points 9-8
3 minutes remaining, game within 5 points 8-5
1 minute remaining, game within 5 points 6-4
30 seconds remaining, game within 3 points 5-2
10 seconds remaining, game within 3 points 5-2

It hasn’t just been the clutch; the Sixers have a -1.8 fourth-quarter net rating, which is better than their marks of -13.2, -6.6, and -15.1 in the first, second and third quarters, respectively. Through 40 games, they’ve been saving their best for last.

Now, let’s not jump to conclusions with such a small sample. If Young’s 3-pointer clanks off the rim and Spencer Hawes’ one-footed miracle falls short, their clutch record goes from extraordinary to ordinary. Also, the numbers might be inflated by a lot of garbage-time data. You can see just how many blowouts they’ve played with this handy chart below from Basketball Reference.  (For reference, the bars measure a margin of victory up to 20 points. The green bars are wins and the red bars are losses, with the red bar furthest to the right representing Friday’s 101-86 loss to Miami).

Screen Shot 2014-01-18 at 10.28.18 AM

Still, the team is 4-1 in overtime, 10-5 in games decided by single-digits, and performing five games better than its 8-32 expected win-loss (based on point differential). Something must be going right, but what?

The defense, statistically, has been the biggest difference. It’s been six points better per 100 possessions better in the fourth than in any other quarter.

The offense, however, has remained well-below average in the fourth quarter, producing 96.9 points per 100 possessions. That’s in part thanks to an Evan Turner-centric attack; ET’s usage get bumped up to 27.4 percent from a mark of 22.9 the period prior and while that gives the Sixers an occasional late-game scoring push, that also leads to more turnovers and more forced field goal attempts, per NBA.com. His assist-to-turnover ratio dips well below one in the fourth while his effective field-goal percentage plummets below 40, and his true shooting percentage is below 50, the only quarter when that’s the case. That, my friends, is the smell of hero ball at its ugliest. Sometimes it works, most of the time it does not.

That’s not to say there is a better alternative. Efficient or not, Turner might be the best late-game scoring option for the young and inexperienced Sixers. And so far, they’ve earned some “clutch” victories with their leading scorer taking charge.

Whether that success in the clutch is because of, or in spite of Turner, the Sixers have indisputably been winning close games at a higher than expected rate. But when it comes to this year’s team, the story remains the same: Take most of the numbers you see with a major grain of salt.

And for tanking’s sake, let’s hope for a regression to the mean.

All statistics current as of Monday Jan. 20.