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Game Winning Shots

by Roland Beech,

Ah yes, when it comes to requests for updated stats on features we've done in the past, nothing comes close to the clamor for another look at "game winning shots" in the NBA. The last time we investigated this was way back on 4/13/2006 as part of the Random Stat collection, and Carmelo Anthony came out on top for the most shots made by the definition we used (see below) as well as doing it with a wonderful .647 field goal percentage. That is a long time ago though, so let's see what the current word is!

First off there's really one main issue -- what exactly do we want to define as a game winning shot? If we make it too restrictive, as in a real last second shot at the buzzer, then you are dealing with tiny, tiny sample sizes. So instead, we proposed the following filter:

Game Winning Shot Opportunity = 24 seconds or less left in the game, team with the ball is either tied or down by 1 to 2 points.

Why use this definition?

  1. With 24 seconds or less, then it truly is a "last possession" situation potentially
  2. With a margin from tied to down 2, the team can take the lead with a made basket (including 3's)
  3. By excluding a down 3 situation, we don't have the "gimme two point buckets" that defenses will sometimes yield to the quick bucket/intentional foul strategy option you often see exercised.
Obviously though this definition means a shot may not actually be a game winner -- it may only tie a game (if down two points) or it may allow enough time for the opponents to get a game winning shot of their own. Still it seems a reasonable compromise.

Data sample
Regular Seasons: '03-04, '04-05, '05-06, '06-07, '07-08, '08-09 (thru 2/4)
Playoffs: '03-04, '04-05, '05-06, '06-07, '07-08

So we're looking at five full regular and playoff seasons, with additionally the current 08-09 season so far.

Leading "Game Winning Shot" Players
 League Wide 853  2858 
610  815  352  296 
 LeBron James 17  50 
14  20 
 Vince Carter 16  51 
10  11 
 Ray Allen 15  39 
 Kobe Bryant 14  56 
12  15 
 Carmelo Anthony 13  27 
 Allen Iverson 13  33 
 Ben Gordon 12  34 
 Dirk Nowitzki 12  37 
13  18 
 Joe Johnson 12  45 
 Paul Pierce 11  32 
15  17 
 Dwyane Wade 11  40 
13  17 
 Jamal Crawford 11  43 
 Rashard Lewis 10  26 
10  13 
 Ricky Davis 10  28 
11  11 
 Antawn Jamison 16 
 Pau Gasol 18 
 Steve Francis 22 
 Tim Duncan 23 
 Gilbert Arenas 28 
18  18 
 Michael Redd 30 
 Tracy McGrady 32 
 Kevin Garnett 33 
 Hedo Turkoglu 16 
 Derek Fisher 20 
 Chris Paul 21 
 Mike Bibby 22 
 Richard Hamilton 22 
 Andre Iguodala 22 
10  11 
 Jason Terry 26 
 Mehmet Okur 15 
 Zach Randolph 17 
 Brandon Roy 19 
 Baron Davis 22 
 Raymond Felton 24 
 Travis Outlaw
 Carlos Boozer
 Jalen Rose 10 
 Josh Smith 11 
 Grant Hill 12 
 Damon Jones 12 
 Caron Butler 13 
 Damon Stoudamire 13 
 Kevin Martin 14 
 David West 15 
 Tyronn Lue 16 
 Shawn Marion 16 
 Tony Parker 16 
 Tayshaun Prince 17 
 Deron Williams 17 
 Yao Ming 18 
 Richard Jefferson 19 
 Chris Webber 19 
 Manu Ginobili 21 
 Chauncey Billups 37 
18  19 
 Eddy Curry
 Peja Stojakovic
 Kevin Durant 14 
 Rudy Gay 14 
 Danny Granger 14 
 Mike James 15 
 Ron Artest 16 
 Stephen Jackson 20 
 Rasheed Wallace 30 
 Ronald Murray
 David Lee
 Andrew Bogut
 P.J. Brown
 Udonis Haslem
 James Posey
 Michael Finley
 Devin Harris 10 
 Larry Hughes 10 
 Eddie Jones 11 
 T.J. Ford 15 
 Mike Miller 20 
 Jermaine O'Neal 22 

The first thing to note is that these types of shots are very difficult on a league wide basis: a .298 Field Goal percentage doesn't exactly inspire confidence!

Part of this is that game winning chances may come with just a couple of seconds or less remaining in the game from the inbounds. So manufacturing any shot at all in some cases is to the player's credit. In some cases it can even be a half court heave!

LeBron James was just 4-19 in our previous look at game winning shots, so in the ensuing two and a half seasons, he has come up with a very respectable 13-31 (.419) record and just the other day had a pure game winner at the buzzer to top the Warriors. In addition he has six assists and a healthy number of free throws earned.

Vince Carter doesn't get a lot of love from fans for the most part but is actually #2 in the standings for most game winners over this period.

Ray Allen is in third overall but also leads in most 3's made under our game winning defined situation specifics, with eight three pointers. Long live the NBA's arguably best pure shooter (Ray also currently leads the NBA in Midrange 2pt FG%).

...and then we get to Kobe Bryant. Kobe fans don't like to hear it, but while their man is #4 in the league in total game winners hit, he holds the top spot in a less glamorous category: most game winning opportunity missed shots!

42 - Kobe
35 - Vince Carter
33 - Joe Johnson, LeBron
32 - Crawford
31 - Billups

Now we're not Kobe haters by any means and I will readily give him his due as one of the best NBA players (note however, I didn't say the best) but he certainly has an overblown reputation when it comes to the clutch shot: people remember the ones he hits, but not the ones he misses, and heck you think a 56 FGA to 1 assist ratio might be part of the problem? He does have a better record in the playoffs though, which we'll get to down below.

Carmelo Anthony has slipped from the former top spot, but still a worthy challenger with the best fg% of any player with at least 10 makes.

Beyond that, you see a lot of familiar names, most with low success rates, and a lot of players with very low assists.

Paul Pierce is an exception as he stands at the head of the class for 'game winning assists' with nine, ahead of Nash, Kidd, Billups, and the rest.

Oy! you say, what about the up and comers who may not have been playing all that long? Obviously Chris Paul (8-21), Igoudala (8-22), and Bradon Roy (7-19) are climbing the charts rapidly. Let's do a quick tab of the season by season leaders (fgm-fga):

Stoudamire 5-9
J.Rose 4-4
Yao 4-7
Carter 4-11
R.Allen 3-5
Z.Randolph 3-5
Redd 3-8
Iverson 5-7
Francis 5-8
P.J. Brown (!) 4-6
B.Gordon 4-7
Da.Jones 4-7
Pierce 4-9
Wade 4-11
Carmelo 7-10
Gasol 6-9
R.Allen 5-11
J.Johnson 5-16
Fisher 4-6
Crawford 4-8
Webber 4-9
R.Lewis 5-7
B.Gordon 5-14
R.Davis 4-8
Carter 4-9
Paul 4-9
LeBron 6-14
T.Outlaw 5-5
Ginobili 3-4
R.Allen 3-7
Granger 5-7
Roy 4-7
R.Mason 3-3
Durant 3-8
Felton 3-8

Now let's turn back to giving Kobe fans the ammunition they need to continue telling us how Mr. Bryant is the most uber-clutch guy in the NBA...with a look at Playoff Game Winning Shots

Leading "Game Winning Shot" Players: PLAYOFFS
NBA 45  159 
28  37  17  19 
 Kobe Bryant
 LeBron James
 Dirk Nowitzki
 Dwyane Wade
 Caron Butler
 Gilbert Arenas
 Tim Duncan
 Manu Ginobili
 Chauncey Billups

So now you have select company with only eight players, all of them all stars, with at least two makes. And yes, Kobe Bryant is indeed tied for first and with an excellent .500 percentage as well.

The truth seems to be that while we want to believe in the infallible hero who comes through every time, in the NBA even the brightest of the bunch are lucky to come through one out of three times.

Ultimately though while this kind of thing is fun, it's not to my mind particularly meaningful, other than indicating that the league as a whole could probably get more efficient in "end game" easy place to start might be to try and be less predictable! It's nice to have a go-to guy, but when the other team knows without much doubt that a certain guy is getting the ball, it is going to be a lot easier to defend!

Jordan won a lot of championships, and personally hit a lot of clutch shots, but there were also games where classic second/third option guys like Paxson and Kerr were the ones benefiting from his greatness by getting open looks and delivering...

So instead of "does my team have a great clutch go-to guy" you might want to ask do we have a plan B?

For better quality analysis of clutch play, I prefer a filter of "last five minutes of fourth quarter/overtime, with neither team ahead by more than five points." Each player has a page for the stats accrued under these circumstances, and we also have sortable tables, eg see
    - '07-08 Clutch Player Leaders
    - '08-09 Clutch Player Leaders

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