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The NBA's best clutch scorers

There's a theory that the first three quarters of an NBA game bear little resemblance to the action of a close game down the stretch in the fourth quarter. Defenses get tighter and more physical, the fastbreak baskets of the early going become a distant memory as grinding halfcourt sets take over, and under pressure some players fold while others come to life.

Any basketball fan worth his hops loves watching a close game in the waning minutes. A task for us number crunchers to investigate, is which players excel when games are on the line?

Please note that we are defining clutch moments in a game as:
the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime when neither team has a lead of more than five points.

1) Field Goals Attempted
"Hold on," you're saying, "I don't rank great clutch shooters by who takes the most shots!" Well, actually the number of attempted shots in crunch time is an important indicator of a player's pressure ability. The great ones (and some of the not so great ones) want the ball in the endgame, but we can also find a fair number of guys who jack it up without a thought in the early stages of a game but suddenly are passing the rock when it matters the most.
Field Goals Attempts per 48 Minutes
Player
Team
Clutch
All
 Bryant
LAL
35.2
23.5
 Richardson
GS
34.7
24.5
 O'Neal
IND
30.3
26.7
 Francis
ORL
29.9
21.9
 Cassell
MIN
28.9
21.3
 Marbury
NY
28.3
18.9
 Webber
SAC
27.9
26.4
 Iverson
PHI
27.8
27.2
 McGrady
HOU
27.8
24.4
 Gordon
CHI
27.7
25.5

The top ten here are all ready to step up and take the make or break shot. While the cynic would say that the best way to get a reputation as a clutch scorer is to take a lot of shots (after all, you are bound to make some of them), the fact these guys can take so many shots indicates that the coaching staff and their teammates do to some extent believe they are the go-to guys, and more importantly, they can create their own shots.

Three players on this list increase their FGA per 48 by more than nine shots (and are the NBA "leaders" in that area) -- Bryant, J-Rich, and Marbury.

Notable players who have shied away from taking the clutch shots, or at least deferred to teammates, include Chris Bosh (-10.9 fewer attempts per 48 minutes), Troy Murphy (-10.3), Emeka Okafor (-9.1), Josh Howard (-7.7), Mo Peterson (-7.5), Ben Wallace (-7.0), and Amare Stoudemire (-7.0).

2) Points Scored
All right, we've had the appetizer, let's turn to the main dish: points scored per 48 minutes of clutch floor time. Some guys do it from outside, some drive the lane, other take a pass and dunk it. The best also get to the line for some charity stripe points. It all counts!
Points Scored per 48 Minutes
Player
Team
Clutch
All
 Bryant
LAL
46.3
32.4
 Gordon
CHI
45.5
30.3
 Francis
ORL
43.5
27.6
 O'Neal
IND
43.1
33.5
 Nowitzki
DAL
42.7
32.2
 Ginobili
SA
41.6
25.7
 Wade
MIA
41.4
29.6
 Richardson
GS
41.3
28.2
 Nash
PHO
39.5
22.4
 Stoudemire
PHO
38.9
34.8
 Hughes
WAS
38.1
27.6
 Arenas
WAS
37.5
29.9
 Rose
TOR
36.2
26.0
 Redd
MIL
36.1
28.6
 Cassell
MIN
35.3
24.3
 Marbury
NY
34.9
25.3
 Stackhouse
DAL
34.8
24.3
 Iverson
PHI
34.3
34.4
 Boykins
DEN
33.8
22.5
 Kidd
NJ
33.5
18.1
 Smith
NO
33.3
19.1
 Randolph
POR
33.2
26.0
 Billups
DET
33.2
21.5
 James
CLE
32.9
30.0
 McGrady
HOU
32.0
28.8

We've listed the top 25 scorers and the names that make the grade read like the proverbial who's who of the NBA. These numbers it might be added are not 'pace adjusted' so some of the run-and-gun teams help their players a little in this kind of look.

There at the top of the list is the player who would win a fans poll of "most clutch"...yes, Kobe. Of course as we alluded to in the first table, the number of shots taken has something to do with the number of points you score, and Bryant's .337 FG% in the clutch this season, doesn't exactly scream "best!" to us. Let Kobe have his due though, he does score more points per minute in the clutch than any other player this season, although Ben Gordon, who looks like a shoe-in for the sixth man award, is challenging for the top honors and could pass Bryant by year end.

Most of these players are perimeter types with excellent abilities to create their own shot, drive to the hoop, hit the three pointer, and when all else fails, draw the foul.

In terms of which players increase their scoring output the most from normal minutes to clutch minutes, it's Nash (+17.1), Ginobili (+15.9), Francis (+15.9), Kidd (+15.4), and the aforementioned Gordon (+15.4).

The players who saw their scoring rates decline the most, include Troy Murphy (-15.7), Joe Johnson (-13.3), Mohammed with NY (-13.2), Mike James (-12.0), Bogans (-11.6), Bosh (-11.5), Mihm (-11.0), Kirilenko (-10.7), Wesley with HOU (-10.5), and Brand (-10.2).

3) Effective Field Goal Percentage
The casual NBA fan would probably stop the analysis with points, but we are NBA stat junkies. That and we don't think pure points per minute gets at who is ultimately the best crunchtime scorer. A selfish player who elects to take all the shots (even ill-advised ones) might put up some numbers without actually helping his team.
Best Effective Field Goal %
Player
Team
Clutch
All
 Stoudemire
PHO
80.0%
56.6%
 Griffin
MIN
72.2%
44.8%
 Atkins
LAL
72.0%
53.3%
 Evans
SAC
70.0%
50.2%
 Terry
DAL
69.2%
58.0%
 Gooden
CLE
68.8%
50.5%
 Marshall
TOR
68.1%
55.8%
 Williams
MEM
66.7%
50.5%
 Bowen
SA
66.7%
52.4%
 Haywood
WAS
66.7%
56.4%

Well, this is a suprising list -- particularly the presence of the three-point specialists, who apparently stand behind the line and wait for the go-to guy to make his move and then kick it out to them for an open shot.

Some of the sample sizes are tiny, but it does look like NBA teams are catching on to how effective an open three-pointer can be (if the ball is in the right hands). Since defenses tend to focus so much on the star clutch performers, it makes sense that the supporting characters could get good looks -- and probably should be given more opportunities!

The guys who increase their shooting the most in the clutch are Stoudemire (+23%), Evans (+20%), Boykins (+20%), Atkins (+19%), and Gooden (+18%). On the other hand, the players with the biggest drop-off in clutch time accuracy are Mike James (-33%), Joe Johnson (-33%), Troy Murphy (-31%), Battier (-30%), and Deng (-30%). Again the shot attempts are very limited though in many cases.

4) Foul Drawing Ability
Field goal percentages are not the complete story either. The tough inside players earn a lot of their points the hard way: drawing a usually punishing foul and converting the free throws.
Foul Drawing on Shot Attempts
Player
Team
Clutch
All
 Bosh
TOR
39.1%
20.1%
 Stoudemire
PHO
39.0%
23.0%
 Collins
NJ
38.9%
15.4%
 Haywood
WAS
33.3%
22.6%
 Ratliff
POR
30.0%
17.4%
 Foyle
GS
30.0%
9.6%
 O'Neal
MIA
29.5%
23.3%
 Ginobili
SA
28.6%
15.4%
 Odom
LAL
26.7%
15.3%
 B.Wallace
DET
26.7%
16.0%

It used to be that Shaquille was the runaway leader here thanks to hack-a-Shaq in action, but with his lesser role on offense in the clutch this season with Miami, a number of other players getting perhaps a dose of the "O'Neal treatment" have pulled ahead.

It's also likely a big factor is the guys who don't take shots often other than on follow-ons to offensive rebounds get hacked a lot. Smaller players not afraid to go into traffic are a rarity this season although not in past years, so Ginobili gets kudos for his excellent foul-drawing, and he is of course also very reliable at the line.

5) Free Throw Shooting
You can't look at foul drawing without a similar review of which players could brush aside the noise, the pressure, the fans waving strange floppy souvenir things, and calmly sink clutch shots from the line.
Free Throw Shooting
Player
Team
Clutch
All
 Stojakovic
SAC
95%
92%
 Iverson
PHI
92%
83%
 Okur
UTA
91%
86%
 Rose
TOR
91%
85%
 Croshere
IND
90%
88%
 Billups
DET
90%
90%
 Hamilton
DET
90%
90%
 Maggette
LAC
89%
86%
 Redd
MIL
89%
85%
 Nowitzki
DAL
88%
86%

We set a minimum here of 20 attempts, and Peja's 19 of 20 is the high mark at this stage. You think it helps Detroit to have two guys who don't miss down the stretch? All of the leaders were solid free throw shooters to begin with.

Some players who have been better at the charity stripe in the crucial moments include Duncan, Iverson, Boozer, Wade, LeBron, Hughes, Odom and Kidd. However, the numbers lack statistical significance in most cases, so we are better off looking to put together a multi-year study to determine clutch free throw shooting.

Perhaps more interesting is which players falter: Gasol, Andre Miller, Simmons, Grant Hill, Bibby, Jefferson, Atkins, Yao Ming, and Stackhouse have been noticeably worse under pressure this season.

6) Who is the best Clutch Scorer?
The number that many NBA sabermetricians are fond of, namely a player's points per possession, is something we could present to try and answer this question. An accepted formula for calculating possessions amounts to Field Goal Attempts minus Offensive Rebounds plus Turnovers plus Free Throw line trips earned. However there is some inherent unfairness in this scheme on many levels (i.e. a bad pass costs you but an assist gets you nothing, giving free possessions to prodigious no-shoot offensive rebounders, not differentiating between whether the player created his own shot or was fed a 'gimme' dunk, usage levels and skill curves, etc) that have us refraining from taking this step at this moment.

Instead, we will be rolling out more articles on other areas of clutch play in the next few days, to better answer the real question of importance -- which players make the biggest difference in helping their teams win down the stretch of tight games -- to produce our take on who are the NBA's top clutch performers.

Also see the Clutch Players, part II article.


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