In the NBA, the term ‘clutch', is defined as "the plays that occur during the 4th quarter or overtime, with less than five minutes remaining, and neither team ahead by more than five points". But the public perception of clutch goes beyond that.
Players are usually classified as "clutch" or "unclutch" based solely on their ability or inability to make the final shot of a close game. Basically, the first 47 minutes and 59 seconds are insignificant, as long as you're in position to win the game, and proceed to do so by making a clutch final shot.
Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are the poster children for this discussion.
The Worldwide Leader lauds Kobe because he's won five rings, looks the part – fully equipped with the patented MJ fist-pump – and has made some memorable walk-off shots throughout his career, including a single season where he made an absurd number – something like 10.
On the other hand, LeBron James -– unquestionably the most talented player in the league – is still ring-less and his recent NBA Finals failure has been well-documented. The simple fact that I can only remember one LeBron game-winner (against Orlando in the Playoffs), off the top of my head, yet have the ability to rattle off Kobe game-winners like WIBR rattles off forgotten Philadelphia athletes, is a severe detriment to LeBron's case as a clutch player. It also allows guys like Skip Bayless and tweeps with the word "RINGZ" at the forefront of their Twitter bios to spout off their opinions on "clutchness" as fact, without ever, I repeat, ever, citing evidence to support their opinion.
What Skip and the "RINGZ" fellas fail to mention, is that LeBron James – based on the statistics – has shot a higher percentage than Kobe Bryant in both, "clutch" situations (last 5 minutes of a 5 point game), and shots to tie or take the lead in the final minute of games since 2000.
Because of the various definitions clutch (Only the fourth quarter? The final 5 minutes? The final minute? Last possession? Does the regular season matter? Only Playoffs?), the limited data available and the relatively small sample sizes, labeling players as clutch has become an extremely subjective exercise, and will probably remain so for all of eternity. Mythical factors such as, the "clutch gene" and the possession of "killer instinct/a naturally-protruding-jaw-clinch", also stand in the way of an agreement between the general public on what's clutch and who's clutch in the NBA.
Since the idea of clutch is so vague, no matter how eloquently written, or statistically-stuffed an argument is, most fans, bloggers, analysts and GMs alike will never alter their opinions of who's clutch and who's not. That said, over the past 48 hours I've completed the ultimate exercise in futility by compiling every "clutch" NBA statistic since 2000 (12 years).
These numbers do not represent the end-all-be-all of "clutchness" in the NBA, because there are still a lot of flaws and missing variables (i.e. not all clutch moments are created equal). The objective here is not to identify who's clutch and who's not, but rather provide a statistical snap-shot of what NBA players have both excelled and failed in certain situations that may be considered "clutch" over the past decade-plus, sample sizes considered. It'd be an added bonus if minds were opened to the idea that Kobe wasn't the clutchest thing since sliced bread and that LeBron couldn't close the lid on Snooki's pickle jar. (I just made both those sayings up, and neither worked as planned, although the LeBron-Snooki one is pretty innuendo-ish. I'm hungry).
I gathered all the numbers* from Basketball Reference's shot finder. Without further adieu.
*through February 27, 2012In gathering the numbers, my goal was to have enough players for comparison's sake, while maintaining large enough sample sizes for the data to be significant. I also wanted current players only, so I left out the retired folk.
The first table includes 15 active players who have attempted at least 650 "clutch" shots since the 2000-01 season. Again, for this set, ‘clutch' is defined as "the shots that occur during the 4th quarter or overtime, with less than five minutes remaining, and neither team ahead by more than five points". Playoffs are included.
"Clutch" since 2000 (click column header to sort)
- Of the 15 players listed, Kobe Bryant's shooting percentage (40%) was below average.
- Tim Duncan and LeBron James shot the highest percentage (46%).
- Steve Nash was pretty good during the clutch.
- 5 of the 15 players were assisted on less than 30% of their makes, meaning they created their own shots (most likely isolations). Those players are: Steve Nash (18%), Dwyane Wade (18%), Andre Miller (24%), Kobe Bryant (24%) and LeBron James (24%).
- Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Carmelo Anthony all had %ast'd above 50%, meaning their teammates were creating makes for them more often than not.
- Tracy McGrady shot the lowest percentage in clutch situations.
- Why did Andre Miller shoot so many clutch shots?
The second table is the same as the first, except instead of dating back to 2000, it begins during the 2006-07 season to get a better snapshot of today's stars, and less Andre Miller. I made the cut-off at 370 "clutch" attempts "that occur during the 4th quarter or overtime, with less than five minutes remaining, and neither team ahead by more than five points", because I wanted to include Brandon Roy. 15 active players are compared, playoffs included.
"Clutch" since 2006 (click column header to sort)
- Kobe's percentage (41%) was slightly below average and LeBron had the best percentage (47%).
- The worst percentage, Russell Westbrook at 37%.
- Why did Andre Iguodala attempt so many clutch shots? Because there's an ‘Andre' quota of one, and he shot a better percentage since 2006 than: Ray Allen, Kevin Durant, Joe Johnson, Russell Westbrook and Paul Pierce – that's why.
- Chris Paul was assisted on the least amount of makes (12%), while Ray Allen was assisted on the most makes at (70%). Damn those Celtics and their great play-calling.
- Brandon Roy, though.
The third table brings us a little closer to Kobe time – the public's perception of clutchness – which included shot attempts to tie or take the lead in the 4th quarter or overtime of a game, playoffs included. The sample size is considerably smaller as the range in attempts is 95 (Ben Gordon) to 230 (Kobe), so the list is cut to 10 active players, instead of 15, and dates back to the year 2000.
Final minute since 2000 (click column header to sort)
- Dirk recorded, far and away, the highest percentage (44%)..
- 34% was the average in these scenarios. Dirk, LeBron, Ray Allen, Ben Gordon and Kobe were above average.
- 35% of LeBron's attempts were three-pointers, of which he shot an atrocious 15% on.
- Ray Allen (53%) and Vince Carter (52%) had the highest percentage of makes assisted, while LeBron (17%) and Wade (16%) had the lowest.
The fourth table is the same as table three, except it includes 15 players instead of 10 – I wanted to get more notable guys from today's NBA – and instead of dating back to 2000, data begins with the 2006-2007 season. As always, playoffs included.
Final minute since 2006 (click column header to sort)
- Rudy Gay, Deron Williams and Brandon Roy (sad face) all shot above 40%, which is 6 percent higher than the average.
- The three worst guys were Wade (23%), Iguodala (26%) and Rose (28%).
- LeBron and Kobe were both above average.
- Again, LeBron shot a lot of threes (37% of his attempts) and converted an extremely low percentage (15%).
- Ray Allen was assisted 68% of the time, while Brandon Roy was assisted just 8% of the time.
- Kobe, Ray Allen and Kevin Durant all had higher three-point percentages than overall field goal percentages.
The final table (so you think) finally gives the people what they want – a collection of shots to tie or take the lead in the final 24 seconds of games in both the regular season and playoffs. Both the sample size and field goal percentages diminished in this scenario. We took the top 12 active guys of the past 6 years (since 2006-07). Now we're down to the nitty gritty – the clutchest of all clutchness.
Final 24 seconds since 2006 (click column header to sort)
- The three most efficient-shooting players in this scenario were: Brandon Roy (42%), Ray Allen (41%) and Deron Williams (40%).
- Ray Allen's percentage can be mis-leading, because once again he led the group in %ast'd, meaning he was probably taking the easiest shots, thanks to his teammates.
- At 30%, LeBron was below average (31%) and made only 2-26 three pointers.
- Kobe was above average with 35% and 37% from beyond the arch.
Finally, I threw in three small bonus tables to touch on two sentiments. First, that Kobe has performed significantly better than LeBron in "the clutch", specifically "when it matters" aka the Playoffs. And two, that LeBron is clearly the Robin to Wade's Batman because, like Kobe, Wade has proven to be so much "more clutch" in big moments.
The following three tables compare Kobe, LeBron and Wade in the three areas of clutch we covered in this post:
1. "Clutch" = "the shots that occur during the 4th quarter or overtime, with less than five minutes remaining, and neither team ahead by more than five points"
2. Shot attempts to tie or take the lead in the 4th quarter or overtime of a game
3. Shots to tie or take the lead in the final 24 seconds of games
These numbers ONLY include the playoffs, dating back to the year 2000, to include all of Kobe's championship runs (except 1999-2000) and every playoff appearance from LeBron and Wade.
Final 24 Sec (Playoffs since 2000)
Final Minute (Playoffs since 2000)
"Clutch" (Playoffs since 2000)
- Based the three definitions of "clutch" used throughout this exercise, LeBron has been a more efficient shooter in the playoffs than both Kobe and Wade.
- The extreme volatility of the average ‘Best season' and ‘Worst season' of the players suggest "clutchness" can vary from year-to-year.
- LeBron ranked ahead of Kobe in 7 of the 8 samples, including all three playoff samples.
- Indeed, Brandon Roy could cook.
- LeBron is obviously in a major clutch slump right now, but it happens to every player, because the sample sizes are so small every year. The statistics indicate he will bounce back at some point.
- If being the "best closer" means "converting shots at a fairly average rate in any and all ‘clutch' situations since 2000", Kobe Bryant is clearly the best.
In no way shape or form does this statistical look at who has performed well "in the clutch" in the NBA since 2000 definitively tell us which players are more clutch than others, because we still aren't clear on what "clutch" is, or whether it actually exists.
Statistics clearly cannot measure the fear Kobe Bryant puts into opposing teams when he disses Chris Rock on the bench of a playoff game, or the innate weakness shown by LeBron James every time he bites his nails.
The only thing we learn from these statistics is how often the insignificant event of the ball going through the hoop when a player shoots at the end of close games occurs.