*Editor's Note: NBA Lead Writer Josh Martin and National NBA Featured Columnist Grant Hughes co-authored this article.
"Clutch" can be a tricky term to define in the NBA. Kobe Bryant has long been praised for his late-game moxie, while LeBron James has only recently garnered wider recognition for his crunch-time exploits, even though the numbers have favored the latter over the former for some time.
In the case of Damian Lillard, though, there wouldn't seem to be such ambiguity. Back-to-back game-winners for the Portland Trail Blazers against the Detroit Pistons and the Cleveland Cavaliers in mid-December shined a spotlight on Lillard's penchant for nailing important shots.
To be considered a clutch player after less than a season-and-a-half of pro ball is a feat in itself. But is it too soon to suggest that Lillard, the reigning Rookie of the Year, is the most clutch player in the Association?
In brief: It depends.
Not to knock Lillard's ability to drain jumpers against middling Eastern Conference clubs in the fall or anything, but the reputations of the game's most venerable clutch performers—from Kobe to LeBron, from Dirk Nowitzki to Kevin Durant, from Jerry West to Larry Bird to Michael Jordan and beyond—aren't established in the regular season; rather, they're forged in the playoffs, when the lights are brighter, the stakes are higher and the competition is more intense.
As good as Lillard has been and as many flashes of greatness as he's shown to this point, he's yet to so much as sniff the postseason. His Blazers were in the mix for much of 2012-13, before the lack of anything resembling a competent bench precipitated a late-season collapse in Rip City.
That should change come spring of 2014. Portland currently owns the second-best record in the Western Conference at 24-6. It boasts a combination of young talent, long-range shooting and team chemistry that—for now—makes playoff participation look like a foregone conclusion.
For the time being, Lillard is doing quite well to bolster his credentials as a crunch-time killer whenever and wherever possible.
By most conventions, "clutch situations" refer to the final five minutes of a game in which both teams are separated by five or fewer points. How we arrived at that convenient definition is unclear, but it's as good a dividing line as any.
In those situations, Lillard has scored 62 points on 51.5 percent shooting this season, per NBA.com. Sure, Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving have each accumulated more points in those scenarios, but they've also shot substantially more often and have had far less success in the efficiency department.
Lillard stacks up like this in conventional "clutch" situations:
Again, note that Irving, Kemba Walker and John Wall have all played many more clutch minutes than Lillard has this year. In a strange way, that fact might also be a favorable one for the Blazers point guard.
See, good teams tend to take care of their opposition more thoroughly than bad ones. In other words, clutch scenarios arise less frequently when one team is blowing out the other. Portland's overall per-game differential of plus-six points per game—a figure Lillard has everything to do with—shows that it typically plays well enough to avoid the kinds of situations in which clutch play is even necessary.
That means Lillard is doing plenty to keep games from being close in the first place. But when contests get tight, he's performing brilliantly.
If you really want to hone in on pressure-cooker situations, it helps to look at one-possession games with 30 seconds remaining. In those instances, one mistake is fatal; one shot decisive.
When nerves are tightest, Lillard has been especially brilliant. In the final half-minute of one-possession games, he has amassed the second-most points, the best plus/minus figure in the league and has been shooting the lights out, per NBA.com.
Per Jeff Caplan of NBA.com, Lillard's career statistics in overtime are also exceptional:
His career overtime stats are mind-boggling (courtesy NBA.com/Stats): 45 minutes, 43 points, 15-for-19 from the floor (10-for-10 inside the arc), 8-for-8 on free throws and a plus-31 rating. Portland is 7-1 in those games.
Since Caplan tallied those numbers, Lillard has played another five minutes in extra time, going 2-of-2 from the foul line in a win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Dec. 26.
Put simply, Lillard's credentials for the Most Clutch Award (if one existed) are stronger than just about anybody's this season.
Caveats and Such
By nature, clutch measurements include small sample sizes. And really, that's just one of the problems that crops up when trying to measure a situation that has so many immeasurable characteristics. Composure and confidence aren't easily broken down into units we can quantify.
But from the information we have at hand, it's hard to argue against Lillard's late-game supremacy. And even though he's only been around for a year and change, he's already built a reputation for himself as a closer.
I'll be honest: I'm always tempted to cop out of discussions of so-called clutchness because I'm reluctant to admit that such a thing exists. Or, at any rate, it's hard to find enough information to draw reliable conclusions about a player's late-game prowess.
"Clutch" is hard to define because we have a tendency to focus on isolated incidents instead of overall numbers when trying to suss out which players perform best with the game on the line.
Lillard, though, is the rare case where the anecdotal evidence—heroic shots, fourth-quarter highlights and game-winning heaves—actually come along with plenty of supportive data.
So, if you've been watching NBA TV on a nightly basis, you've been seeing the snippets of Lillard winning games with icy daggers as the clock winds down. Typically, those highlights could create the same kind of false perceptions that surround Bryant's mythical status as a closer.
But if you're poring over the wealth of available statistics, you're also finding corroborative proof of what your eyes are telling you: Insofar as "clutch" has a real definition, Lillard's the best in the business right now.
Because postseason accomplishments factor so heavily into the equation, it feels a little premature to say that. We haven't even seen him log a playoff minute yet, so there's no telling how he'll respond in the most nerve-racking setting an NBA player can encounter.
The guy is confident, though. So much so that he dedicated one of his famous four-bar Fridays to the topic:
If you want to hold off on crowning Lillard as the NBA's most clutch player until he does something in the playoffs, that's fine. But there's no denying that he's been the best finisher in the Association so far this season.