Kobe, one of the great clutch shooters of all time. It’s undeniable.


The legacy of Kobe Bryant is complicated, not helped by his own transparent attempts to insert himself into debates where he obviously doesn’t belong. Half a generation saw him as heir apparent, and the other half saw him as a fraud.

But one aspect of Bryant’s game that has largely transcended dispute (at least outside of hardcore basketball nerds) is his clutch shooting. It spawned a generation of pickup basketball players who inevitably yelled “Kobe” as they shot turnaround fallaway jumpers from two feet behind the three point line. Bryant is remembered for countless moments like the one in the video above; a casual peruser of YouTube might think that his whole career was just game-winner after devastating game-winner.

But more rigorous analyses have shown that Bryant was actually fairly pedestrian in the clutch, and his teams often got worse in crunch time, not better.

Maybe the most surprising thing, given his actual performance, is that Bryant’s teams so often handed him the ball at the end of games. Opponents knew what was about to happen and surely designed defenses appropriately. Why did the Lakers coaching staff believe that Bryant was their best option?

The answer is largely a product of a psychological phenomenon called the availability heuristic. The availability heuristic is the human mind’s tendency to overweight memories that come easily to mind (for example, epic last-second baskets) and underweight events that are difficult to remember (all those potential game-winners that missed). We experience the availability heuristic every day; it’s why you might think accidents cause more deaths than cancer, even though cancer kills more than four times as many people. The difference is that cancer rarely makes the news (unless the victim is a celebrity), while accidents are prime content. It’s much easier to remember the last story you watched or read about a fatal accident, and our minds seize upon those memories and distort our perception of their commonness.

Millions of basketball fans fell victim to the availability heuristic in believing Kobe Bryant was an elite clutch scorer. And once the narrative began, media outlets started showing his successful attempts more often, which in turn made fans more likely to remember them, and so on.

You may have a hard time believing that the best minds in basketball haven’t become aware of this bias yet, and you’d be onto something. Within the last few years, smart coaches and general managers have adjusted. In this year’s women’s NCAA semifinal, Notre Dame guard Arike Ogunbowale hit this remarkable shot.

But in the championship game two days later, with that shot fresh in her memory, coach Muffet McGraw resisted the temptation to call Ogunbowale’s number when a game winner was needed. Instead, she called for a high-percentage post-up look (look at #23 in blue calling for the ball but getting double-teamed) and trusted in her offense. Ironically, the defense took away option A, Ogunbowale was forced to ad lib, and she went on to repeat her last-second heroics – drawing this amusing compliment from our friend Kobe Bryant:

Despite this result, Muffet McGraw and her fellow basketball coaches are becoming increasingly aware of the availability heuristic and changing their playcalling accordingly. In a few years, it’s likely that only the very most talented players (or the ones with the worst coaches) will be permitted to play “hero ball” at the end of games.

Another cognitive error that we often see in sports is the use of arbitrary endpoints – choosing a limited sample specifically to produce data that is not truly representative. “Since Week 3, Russell Wilson has the highest QB rating in the NFL.” “Malkin leads the league in goals since the All-Star break.” Color commentators dispense this sort of wisdom painfully often. But if you’re able to pick exactly what set of data to consider, especially with a relatively small sample, it’s easy to find a section of time where a given player was particularly good (or particularly bad).

And these fallacies apply to off-court hot streaks, too. Say we’re interested in climate change and want to look at temperature trends in the US. The average temperature in the United States in 2008 was almost 2 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than in 1998 (data). Pundits in 2008 might use that data to trumpet the success of green energy initiatives, or perhaps to question the legitimacy of global warming. A more rational observer, however, would notice that 1998-2008 is an arbitrary choice of sample. In fact, if you revisit the data, the majority of 10-year periods actually show an increase in temperature across the nation, reflecting a potentially cyclical but definitely upward trend. 1998 just happened to be a particularly warm year for its era, and 2008 a cool one.

When these cognitive biases enter our discussion of sports, they might frustrate our friends and lead us to incorrectly assess an athlete’s abilities. But when the issues are more significant, the consequences of our mental failures can mean life or death. When policymakers make these mistakes – or their constituents do, en masse – government enacts laws that hurt more than help. They fight one problem at the expense of a much more serious one, or allocate funds to a marginally valuable cause instead of a truly important one.

And it’s vital to be vigilant about these mistakes, because the politicians, the media, and people around us propagate them. While the effects of these decisions are rarely as obvious as the effect of a coach calling the perfect play, they may profoundly impact thousands of lives. So when you read about the dangers of terrorism or the huge gains of the Dow Jones since Christmas, ask yourself: “Is this an accurate description of the world? Are my biases, or others’, affecting my views?”