They're more likely to choke -- that is, shoot 5-10 percent worse than normal -- according to a paper by three academics in economics published this month in the Journal of Sports Economics.
Graduate student Zheng Cao and professor Daniel F. Stone at Oregon State and professor Joseph Price at Brigham Young analyzed NBA free-throw data from the 2002-03 through 2009-10 seasons.
Some of their findings are somewhat intuitive, such as performance declining as pressure increases, and choking being more likely on the second of two free throws after the first shot is missed.
Other findings are more surprising.
- Shooters who average 90 percent from the line performed slightly better than that under pressure, while 60 percent shooters had a choking effect twice as great as 75 percent shooters. That suggests that a lack of confidence begets less confidence, and vice versa.
- The choking effect is not significantly influenced by being in the playoffs.
- Performance does not decline at all in the last 15 seconds when the score is tied, as opposed to the margin being one or two points.
Or it might be related to the behavioral economics theory of loss aversion -- that losses are, in a sense, especially painful, and people really want to avoid them.
"When (the game is) tied, shooters may only think of gaining a win, which is low pressure. For other scores, they might mainly think of avoiding a loss, which would create higher pressure."
Another possibility, Stone said, is that the tie-score result is an anomaly of the data.
The recent paper is an expansion of, and uses different methods than, a 2009 study by other researchers that also found a choking effect -- and that ties were an exception.
Stone and Price are no strangers to analyzing NBA data. They also collaborated on a 2009 paper that alleged NBA referee bias, which NBA brass denounced but which gained credibility recently: It will be published in the Journal of Economics and Management Strategy.
-- Rachel Bachman
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