Breaking Down LeBron James' Performance in the Clutch by the Numbers
Numbers don't lie, and they all support his greatness when the clock is ticking down.
All the players in the ESPN The Magazine poll who decided they'd rather have Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan taking the last shot in a close game should do a little bit more digging into those numbers—then submit their votes again. The results would be a little different, even if nearly a quarter of the anonymous, 26-player poll thought that LeBron would go down as the greatest player of all time.
LeBron's battle against the clutch has been the subject of much discussion over the past few years—Dan Favale has a great piece on his evolution here at B/R—but there's no more room for debate. He thrives when the going gets tough.
Deciding Shots with the Shot Clock Turned Off
Before expanding the definition of "clutch" to include more types of plays, let's first take a look at what happens on shots to either tie or take the lead during the final 24 seconds of either the fourth quarter or an overtime period.
Is there any moment more crucial? The ball is in a player's hands, and he has the opportunity to either ensure victory or defeat. According to Miami Heat beat writer Tim Reynolds, LeBron was pretty darn good in those situations.
LeBron was 7 for 17 last season with games on the line. Others: Pierce 3-16, KD 6-14, Kobe 3-12, PGeorge 1-11, David West 0-7, Melo 1-9.— Tim Reynolds (@ByTimReynolds) October 17, 2013
Not only did he make the most shots—far more than a certain member of the Los Angeles Lakers—but he also shot 41.2 percent from the field. You have to re-contextualize here, as defensive intensity ramps up in these situations. A lower field-goal percentage is to be expected when the game is on the line, and it should be rather telling that only Kevin Durant's mark beat LeBron's.
But these players aren't the only ones who can take game-deciding shots. They can also pass the ball to teammates and have them do the dirty work. It's a concept that not too many superstars are familiar with, as "hero ball" has unfortunately taken over as the method du jour when the contest is on the line.
In the last 30 seconds of a game in which the player's team was tied or behind by three points or fewer, no one in the NBA recorded more assists than LeBron. He, Nicolas Batum and Andre Miller each produced four assists, and LeBron did so while keeping his sheet free from any of those pesky little turnovers.
Paul Pierce was the only other player from Reynolds' tweet to avoid a goose egg in the assist column, and he checked in with two dimes.
The league MVP is already at the forefront of the discussion when isolating scoring, but he pulls ahead by an even wider margin as soon as his elite passing is brought into the conversation. During the 2012-13 season, you wanted the ball in his hands when the game was truly on the line.
But now let's expand the definition of clutch to be much more inclusive, thus raising the sample size enough to draw more conclusions.
Raises Performance During the Final Minutes of Close Games
For the purposes of this section, there are going to be two different definitions of clutch. "Clutch 1" will be considered the last five minutes of a game when teams are separated by five points or fewer, and "Clutch 2" will be the last 30 seconds of a one-possession game, regardless of which team was ahead at the time.
If you look at per-36-minute numbers, LeBron has consistently raised his game as the going gets tougher:
Assuming that you could extrapolate his Clutch 2 numbers to a full 36 minutes of action (an admittedly faulty assumption since things change in a one-possession game), LeBron would put up a triple-double while scoring over 60 points. That's pure insanity.
Lebron James' per-36-minute numbers are impressive enough over the course of a contest. But when we enter into Clutch 1 and Clutch 2 situations, he just goes berserk. He scores with reckless abandon—especially when he decides to start attacking the rim—gets everyone involved, and crashes the boards with a fury.
No one else does that to the same extent. And the trend carries over to the postseason as well. In Clutch 1 situations, LeBron averaged 26.5 points, 10.0 rebounds and 11.5 assists per 36 minutes while shooting 44 percent from the field. All of the counting stats are higher than his normal playoff numbers, and the field-goal percentage was only slightly lower.
However, in Clutch 2 situations during last year's postseason, he completely changed his style of play. He met the criteria in six games, and while he didn't record a single rebound or assist, he did manage to average 55.2 points per 36 minutes on 60 percent shooting from the field.
There was just no decline.
Triple-Double and Game-Winner in the Postseason
And speaking of the postseason, how about the fact that LeBron is the only player to record both a triple-double and hit a game-winner in the same playoff game, as he did against the Indiana Pacers.
He truly made history when he beat Paul George to the hoop for a relatively easy left-handed layup last Eastern Conference Finals, cementing his legacy as a player who could come up big when the moments got tougher.
Now for the rest of this article, I'm going to be changing the definition of "clutch" once more. Throughout each of the next three sections, it will be defined as the last five minutes of a game when the contest is separated by less than five points, and only players who met those criteria in at least 10 games (while playing two or more minutes per contest) during 2012-13 will be included.
It's a rather broad definition, but, again, it's a necessary one so that we can have at least a fairly substantial sample size.
One of the things that makes LeBron so special is his impact in all major categories during the closing minutes of a game. In fact, no player has as big of an across-the-board impact.
Obviously, it's hard to play a lot of minutes in this type of clutch situation because, by definition, it's just five minutes in any game unless there's an overtime or two. So keep that in mind when you see numbers that are far lower than you might expect.
LeBron didn't score the most points per game in this type of clutch situation, but he wasn't far off the mark.
That wasn't the only area in which he excelled, even if Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving were the only ones in the above graph with higher field-goal percentages. LeBron also crashed the boards quite often during the closing minutes of tight games.
Think we're done yet? Think again. Assists matter too!
LeBron and Rajon Rondo were in a league of their own when it came to passing the ball during the closing stretch of a tight game. They were both willing and able to find openings in the suffocating defenses thrown at them, and the rest of the league just wasn't even close.
Now, how many of the 15 names are repeats? The answer is rather simple: only one.
LeBron appears on all three graphs, and no other player in the NBA finds himself on more than a single top-five leaderboard. He's an elite scorer, rebounder and distributor when the pressure cooker is turned up to its highest notch.
Literally, no one else can say that. And did this change in the postseason? Of course not!
Once the playoffs rolled around, the Heat star finished No. 1 in clutch scoring, No. 4 in rebounding (behind Chandler Parsons, Joakim Noah and Boris Diaw), and No. 7 in assists (trailing Kirk Hinrich, Russell Westbrook, Josh Smith, Manu Ginobili, Mike Conley and Luol Deng).
Still pretty darn elite.
PIE vs. Winning Percentage
Player impact estimate (PIE) hasn't entered the collective consciousness of NBA fans yet, but it's a wonderful tool used by NBA.com to show how involved a player is. Instead of usage rate, which omits assists, rebounds and anything that doesn't finish a play, PIE "measures a player's overall statistical contribution against the total statistics in games they play in."
During clutch situations, no player had a higher PIE than LeBron's 29.7. He was just ultra-involved in the contest at all times, more so than Kobe Bryant (26.5), Kevin Durant (24.3), James Harden (23.3) and everyone else.
But, that's only good if it results in success. Being highly involved can be a bad thing if wins aren't the result.
For that reason, I've put together this graph, which correlates PIE (X-axis) with winning percentage (Y-axis) for the 20 most "involved" players in the NBA:
That's a pretty telling image, as LeBron both had the highest winning percentage and the most involvement. He's the dot in the top right, and he's joined at 80 percent on the Y-axis by his teammate, Chris Bosh.
No one else is close in either category. But now, let's break it down even further and look at his involvement in the Heat's scoring plays.
Involvement in Scoring Plays
Two new stats are relevant here: percent assisted and percent field goals made.
The former represents the number of made shots by teammates that were assisted by the player in question when he was on the court, and the latter shows the percentage of made field goals credited to the player when he was playing.
At this point, it shouldn't surprise you to learn that LeBron James was elite in both categories during crunch time among those who played at least 20 games that met the parameters.
In fact, he finished fifth in percent assisted, behind only Ricky Rubio, Rajon Rondo, Will Bynum and Raymond Felton. As for percent field goals made, he was significantly lower, but still doing pretty well for himself with at 15th.
But let's take this a step beyond and combine the two to show overall involvement in scoring plays, something that I'm just going to call percent scoring. It's calculated rather easily, just by adding percent assisted to percent field goals made.
As you might expect, LeBron is right near the top of the leaderboard:
LeBron and Kobe should stand out to you. The rest are all point guards—yes, that's Will Bynum benefiting from a small sample size, not Andrew Bynum—which makes sense, because floor generals are naturally more involved in the playmaking.
There's also a major benefit gained from being a superstar on a lackluster team. That's giving Kyrie Irving and Jrue Holiday an artificial boost, as there simply weren't other intriguing options on the Cleveland Cavaliers and Philadelphia 76ers, respectively.
For those reasons, you should be most impressed by LeBron, Kobe and CP3, considering their teammates.
Whose hands do you want the ball in during the closing seconds of a tight game?
And across the board, you should just be in awe of how great LeBron is with the game on the line. Although there's already a large gap between him and the rest of the league no matter how much time is left on the clock, there's an even larger disparity when nearing the final buzzer in a tight game.
His scoring prowess, willingness to make the right play, and consistent ability to come out on top make him stand out in a big way.
Go ahead—keep denying LeBron's ability to come up big when it counts. The rest of us will be over here trying to contain our laughter.
Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from NBA.com's statistical databases, and all graphics were created with Infogr.am.
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