Rant: The Killer Instinct Is Overrated

In basketball popular culture, much revered is the alpha male, score first player with that “killer instinct”. You know the type, when the game is winding down and close, their eyes narrow, jaws clench and their intense focus is almost palpable as they inevitably prepare to take on the opposing defense solo and jack up the last shot(s), consequences be damned.


The players that most closely typify this class of assassin are Michael Jordan and the late, great Kobe Bryant. These players are superheroes, almost deified in the basketball world. They fear no one and shrink from no challenge. For this reason, NBA analysts can often be heard saying, “listen if there are two minutes left on the clock, game on the line, I want, *insert player with killer instinct mentality* with the ball in his hands.”

To be sure, it is easy to empathize with this mindset, and full disclosure, this author’s favorite all-time player is Kobe. However, there are serious logical gaps with this thinking. Often, when these discussions are being had, more all-rounded, higher IQ players are praised, but then ultimately eschewed in favor of the “killer instinct” player. Sure, players like Magic Johnson and LeBron James may “make the right play”, but who doesn’t want a player with that killer mentality when the game is close, and the clock is winding down, right?

Well, since when is “making the right play” dismissed out of hand as an insignificant thing? Unless a player shoots 100% from everywhere, in which case that player shooting would always be the right player, why wouldn’t a player who makes the right play be preferable? The mindset of the assassin player is not only dismissive of the high level of IQ needed to play the game, but also a fantasy. Even the ultimate killer on the court, Michael Jordan, needed to pass to John Paxson to hit the game winner as Phil Jackson correctly reminded him that he had been open much of the game.

Kobe Bryant is a legend because he probably has hit more difficult shots than any other NBA player in history. What is sometimes forgotten though is that Kobe has also missed more shots than any other player in NBA history. LeBron James and Magic Johnson on the other hand are great specifically because they will shoot or drive if that is what their read of the defense deems as the best play, but will also not hesitate to pass to an ostensibly inferior player, again, depending on what the defense was throwing at them, combined with other variables.

Sure, it is unquestionably admirable when a player is willing to take on whatever is thrown at him and accept blame or credit regardless of the outcome. The nearsightedness of glorifying this type of play is making the critical error of forgetting that a basketball game is in fact 48 minutes long and not 2 minutes long. All 48 minutes of the game are crucial to the outcome, not just the last 2 minutes when analysts arbitrarily decide this is “clutch”.

For my money, and I understand this is not always possible, but give me a superstar player that helps ensure the game is not close heading to the last couple minutes to begin with, rather than a gunslinger ready to take on the world. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Stephen Curry are great examples of such players.

The killer instinct mentality bias is also why many are quick to dismiss advanced analytics that often reveal more all-rounded players as more valuable players on average than single minded scorers. Michael Jordan of course is a notable exception to this stereotype as he was an assassin scorer who additionally impacted the game profoundly with ferocious defense.

Also pervasive in these toxic basketball conversations, is the bad math. Analysts will literally say, “a basket is worth more in the clutch”. How? All other things being equal, if a player is hypothetically destined to shoot 4 from 9 from the field in a specific game, does the grouping of those shot attempts affect the score? Of course not.

What you want is a player who can contribute consistently, regardless of the quarter. Consistent production increases a player’s inherent value to a team. Point values do not increase in the 4th quarter and we need to learn to appreciate the players that add value over the course of an entire game.

Last I checked, NBA games are 48 minutes long, not 2.

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