Who's Been the NBA's King of Clutch This Season?

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistNovember 29, 2017

Who's Been the NBA's King of Clutch This Season?

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    Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

    Listen hard enough, and you'll hear the entire world clamoring for the NBA to objectively crown a king of early-season crunch-time heroics.

    And so, here we are.

    Assembling these ladders always invites awkwardness and vitriol. What do we weigh most when ranking those vying for gut-check sainthood? Individual numbers? Team performance? Volume?

    In an effort to account for all three, we're turning to a bunch of different metrics. First up: figuring out the clutch-time average for points per 36 minutes, assists per 36 minutes, turnovers per 36 minutes, overall field-goal percentage, three-point accuracy and free-throw success. Every player's own numbers will be compared against those averages to see how much value they're adding in each category. The sum of those differences will then be added to their plus-minus per 36 minutes.

    That total will be tacked on to the result of the following: ((FGA/36 + FTA/36) * (FGM/36 + FTM/36)) * total minutes played. The final number will be divided by 1,000 for aesthetic purposes. It doesn't change the result, just the digestibility of each player's score. (You can view the methodology in action here.)

    Injured players will not be eligible for inclusion. Nor will those who recorded five or fewer crunch-time appearances leading into games on Nov. 28. They will be removed if they land in the top 10.

    Who makes the cut? Some usual suspects—as well as some unusual ones.

Nos. 15 to 11

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    Jordan Johnson/Getty Images

    15. Tim Hardaway Jr., New York Knicks

    Minutes Logged in Clutch: 28

    Per 36 Minutes of Crunch Time: 33.5 points, 1.3 assists, 0.0 turnovers, 50.0/60.0/90.0 shooting slash, plus-37.4

    Total Value Added Score: 17.93

    Deal with this for now. Tim Hardaway Jr. has been an exceptional scorer in crunch time without committing turnovers. This dive down the rabbit hole reflects favorably upon high-volume efficiency.  


    14. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

    Minutes Logged in Clutch: 26

    Per 36 Minutes of Crunch Time: 25.0 points, 5.6 assists, 2.8 turnovers, 50.0/0.0/66.7 shooting slash, plus-29.1

    Total Value Added Score: 18.11

    Giannis Antetokounmpo has attempted 18 free throws in 26 minutes of clutch run. And if he buried them more than 66.7 percent of time, he'd scrap his way up this ladder.

    Ditto for if he added any value as a three-point shooter.

    Double-ditto for if he didn't rank sixth on the Milwaukee Bucks in shot attempts per 36 minutes.


    13. Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves

    Minutes Logged in Clutch: 36

    Per 36 Minutes of Crunch Time: 28.1 points, 0.0 assists, 0.0 turnovers, 52.9/100/75.0 shooting slash, minus-5.0

    Total Value Added Score: 18.88

    Andrew Wiggins is lucky the Minnesota Timberwolves' Nov. 28 loss to the Washington Wizards didn't snake its way into the data. His score would drop from here. But he's still shooting well overall and not doling out free giveaways to the defense.

    He'll rate much higher if he starts passing more and the Timberwolves ever decide to get crunch-time stops.


    12. Jimmy Butler, Minnesota Timberwolves

    Minutes Logged in Clutch: 36

    Per 36 Minutes of Crunch Time: 22.8 points, 4.0 assists, 5.9 turnovers, 35.7/0.0/76.5 shooting slash, minus-6.9

    Total Value Added Score: 19.64

    Jimmy Butler isn't racking up a bunch of buckets, but his free-throw rate is unreal. His 16.8 foul shots per 36 minutes secure his place as an above-average scorer, and he's getting his money's worth as a distributor.


    11. DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans Pelicans

    Minutes Logged in Clutch: 38

    Per 36 Minutes of Crunch Time: 30.7 points, 6.7 assists, 3.8 turnovers, 50.0/25.0/92.3 shooting slash, plus-18.2

    Total Value Added Score: 22.82

    Almost a tie alert!

    DeMarcus Cousins' rounded score lands in lockstep with our 10th-place finisher, but he falls just short when moving to the next decimal (22.817). Some sloppy handles (and excessive force) in the post have cost him a few possessions, and he's not carting the per-minute shot volume of certain peers. He is, however, dancing with perfection at the line and spreading the wealth to cutters.

10. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Minutes Logged in Clutch: 30

    Per 36 Minutes of Crunch Time: 31.3 points, 2.4 assists, 2.4 turnovers, 47.4/0.0/66.7 shooting slash, plus-13.2

    Total Value Added Score: 22.82

    Someone from the Philadelphia 76ers needed to make the top-10 cut. That is, officially, the rule in this new world order. Philly is 7-4 on narrow-escape opportunities and outscoring opponents by 22.8 points per 100 possessions, which is the eighth-best stretch-run net rating in the league.

    Robert Covington's 77.8/85.7/100 shooting slash (not even kind of a typo) deserves a shoutout here, but Joel Embiid's higher-volume role takes the cake.

    Help defenders have their eyes glued to him as soon as he catches the ball, and he's overpowering small platoons on the block. He has yet to drill a three in crunch time, but he keeps his turnovers in check and is journeying to the foul line more often than any of his teammates. 

    Playing with Ben Simmons and alongside shooters who can run through gauntlets of off-ball screens hasn't diminished Embiid's late-game purpose. The Sixers go to him when they need a bucket.

    Simmons dishes to Embiid almost immediately out of the pick-and-roll, even when the lane is congested by two, three or four bodies. Sometimes, the Sixers don't bother to try disguising their intentions. They'll dump the ball to Embiid down low, clear out and wait for him to do his thing.

    Is this the most economical offensive approach? It shouldn't be. And yet, somehow, it often is. Philly owns a top-seven offense in the clutch—stripes it doesn't earn without Embiid clobbering defenses with from-scratch buckets or as one of the league's most convincing decoys.

9. Reggie Jackson, Detroit Pistons

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    Chris Schwegler/Getty Images

    Minutes Logged in Clutch: 37

    Per 36 Minutes of Crunch Time: 30.4 points, 4.9 assists, 4.9 turnovers, 40.0/50.0/92.9 shooting slash, plus-10.8

    Total Value Added Score: 25.57

    Reggie Jackson has put his disastrous 2016-17 campaign behind him. 

    Andre Drummond, Tobias Harris and even Avery Bradley are garnering a majority of the feel-good vibes, but the Detroit Pistons floor general is quietly piecing together a turnaround campaign. Though he's taking a career-low 18.3 percent of his shots inside three feet, he's not avoiding the lane like he did last season on his bum left knee. He ranks in the top 20 of drives per game and isn't skirting traffic altogether.

    Basically, as The Vertical's Chris Mannix wrote, Jackson is in the process of a complete 180:

    "Two years ago, Jackson just missed out on an All-Star berth. He was a swashbuckling playmaker, high scoring, ruthless off the pick-and-roll, worth every nickel of the five-year, $80 million deal Detroit invested in him. Last year he devolved. He was inefficient with on-/off-court numbers so bad the Pistons openly shopped him before the trade deadline.

    "This year? Different story. His shooting percentages are up. His on/off numbers, too. The knee problems that plagued Jackson last season have dissipated, and he has assumed a larger, more vocal leadership role. The offseason addition of Avery Bradley has taken defensive pressure off Jackson ('I jumped up and down when I heard we got him,'Jackson said), and Tobias Harris’ blistering 3-point shooting (47.4 percent) has widened the driving lanes."

    Jackson has not been flawless in the clutch. He has spurts during which he grapples with maintaining possession. Then again, the same can be said for the Pistons overall in late-game thrillers. 

    He isn't shooting well near the rim either; he's 4-of-9 around hoop through his 37 minutes of clutch spin. But he's getting into the lane, forcing defenders to converge and initiating contact. 

    Detroit will live with his junky jumping floaters over the outstretched arms of high-rises if he keeps putting pressure on the paint, flinging kick-outs to Harris and averaging nearly 14 free throws per 36 minutes.

8. Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Minutes Logged in Clutch: 28

    Per 36 Minutes of Crunch Time: 37.4 points, 2.6 assists, 0.0 turnovers, 47.1/50.0/71.4 shooting slash, plus-31.4

    Total Value Added Score: 26.00

    Holy balance, Batman.

    Many of this season's crunch-time magicians (to date) enjoy superficial windfalls from one or two specific areas. A select few are flat-out dominating in every aspect. Kristaps Porzingis sits inside the in-between minority. He's solid across the board and barren of any outlandish boosts.

    Sure, his 37.4 points per 36 minutes seem like a lot. But he's averaging 27 per 36 for the season. Increasing his output down the stretch as the New York Knicks' highest-usage option doesn't equate to that much of a jump.

    Find the anomaly after that. The 2.6 assists per 36 minutes? A tad high for him, but by no means something worth bringing to the Reality Check Commission. His 47.1 percent clip field is right around his overall mark (46.4). The 50 percent hit rate on threes (3-of-6) won't hold, but he's also not straying far from home; he's flirting with 40 percent shooting from distance on the year.

    That intergalactic plus-31.4 is coming back to Earth. No one finished last season with that score after seeing at least 35 minutes of crunch time. The Knicks, for their part, won't close the year outpacing opponents by a league-best 40.8 per possessions in white-knuckle finishes. They've already set a course for solid ground. 

    But the point stands: Porzingis is shining as the Knicks' alpha, and defenses haven't figured out how to thwart him. Their best bet is affixing an actual big to his hip, rather than a contemporary power forward, so he cannot rise and fire over his half-court chew toys as easily. And even then, he's recognizing the importance of putting the ball on the floor and wielding the full brunt of his matchup-nightmare status.

7. Dion Waiters, Miami Heat

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    Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

    Minutes Logged in Clutch: 27

    Per 36 Minutes of Crunch Time: 55.0 points, 1.3 assists, 3.9 turnovers, 59.3/54.5/80.0 shooting slash, plus-22.3

    Total Value Added Score: 29.82

    Almost 280 players have made at least two crunch-time cameos this season.

    Dion Waiters leads the field in shot attempts per 36 minutes, with 35.4. 

    Who else, right? Kyrie Irving? Damian Lillard? James Harden? Russell Westbrook? Nah. This crown was tailored to the circumference of Waiters' noggin. 

    Shooters shoot. So Waiters has been shooting. And, as of now, he's making more than he's missing. His 50/50/80 slash is obviously sustainable, just like his 55 points per 36 minutes—a ridiculous touchstone only James and Irving have upheld through 15 or more minutes of clutch action.

    Waiters isn't collecting these buckets the easy way. He doesn't reach the free-throw line with exceptional frequency, something that no doubt frustrates Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra. Waiters prefers to jack the more-than-occasional jumper. He's averaging over 14.4 three-point attempts per 36 minutes of crunch time, and he's probably losing sleep knowing that Stephen Curry is hoisting 17.5.

    On the bright, once again totally sustainable side, no one in the league is matching Waiters' 7.9 makes from downtown per 36 minutes. He stands alone, atop a pedestal, living and breathing proof that today's game has room for ungoverned chuckers during its most crucial moments—you know, so long as they're setting fire to the bottom of the net.

    Plus, to Waiters' credit, 10 of his 27 total crunch-time looks have come around the restricted area, of which he's put down nine.

6. Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards

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    Gary Dineen/Getty Images

    Minutes Logged in Clutch: 41

    Per 36 Minutes of Crunch Time: 26.3 points, 0.9 assists, 2.6 turnovers, 27.6/11.1/68.4 shooting slash, minus-22.8

    Total Value Added Score: 31.71

    Bradley Beal sneaking into the top 10 is the only inclusion that makes yours truly feel uneasy. His credentials aren't the least bit tied to admirable efficiency. His shooting slash is ghastly, especially when pitted against last year's 43.3/35.6/81.4 effort.

    To say Beal's "struggles' are surprising would be a stretch.

    The Wizards, collectively, have been Play-Doh during close shaves. Their offense ranks 29th in efficiency, and the defense is 26th on the same scale. Opponents are thumping them by 37.7 points per 100 possessions—the third-worst crunch-time net rating, behind only the Dallas Mavericks and Oklahoma City Thunder.

    In the absence of red-hot shooting, or noteworthy playmaking, or even a remotely above-board plus-minus, Beal has volume on his side. 

    Just three other players have logged as much court time in the clutch while piling on more than 25 points per 36 minutes: Kyrie Irving, LeBron James and Damian Lillard. That Beal gets to the foul line more often than any of them (right now) affords him another bonus boon. 

    Slightly better-than-average ball protection takes care of the rest. You don't have to like it. I'm not enamored with it. But accumulating points en masse is a heavily weighted skill as old as the sport itself. Beal gets his, and then some, and he's shown in the past he can headline hairbreadth escapes with more efficient lines.

5. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Minutes Logged in Clutch: 23

    Per 36 Minutes of Crunch Time: 49.3 points, 3.1 assists, 1.5 turnovers, 52.4/50.0/75.0 shooting slash, minus-3.1

    Total Value Added Score: 36.12

    DeMar DeRozan is the Toronto Raptors' clutch offense.

    This shouldn't come as a particularly comforting thought. The Raptors are 22nd in points scored per 100 possessions during crunch time and have a penchant for reverting back to their ways from yesteryear (aka last season), when their offense buckled under similarly unflattering shot selection.

    But DeRozan doesn't have much of a choice in the matter. Toronto isn't overrun with shot-creators. He needs to be the hub.

    Kyle Lowry spent the first part of this year forgetting how to shoot; he's connecting on 22.2 percent of his clutch looks. Serge Ibaka will no sooner create his own shot than lead the team in assists. Norman Powell isn't yet ready to summon points and defensive collapses off the bounce on command within half-court possessions. He also hasn't been available for most of Toronto's cliffhangers. Neither Delon Wright nor Fred VanVleet is getting free reign while barreling towards a photo finish.

    Fortunately for the Raptors, DeRozan is mostly up to the task. He cannot go it entirely alone. The team is basically a coin-toss in the clutch because his lone-wolf escapades are its sole means of production amid substantial volume.

    Defenses continue to fall for DeRozan's hesitation dribbles. He isn't remarkably fast or explosive with his handles. He's patient, cold and calculated and willing to wait for openings he can glide, if slither, through. He nullifies an aversion to threes with textbook foul-drawing and an acute knack for draining difficult shots.

    DeRozan isn't averaging as many assists per 36 minutes of clutch time as he did last season, but he's a willing passer and seldom forfeits possession—which makes him a terror to guard. The Raptors are 4-4 through their first eight squeakers and should consider themselves lucky they're not worse. DeRozan has been good on offense when it matters. Those around him (cough, Lowry, cough) need to be better.

4. Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets

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    David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

    Minutes Logged in Clutch: 40

    Per 36 Minutes of Crunch Time: 38.1 points, 3.6 assists, 2.7 turnovers, 38.2/18.8/92.9 shooting slash, plus-11.8

    Total Value Added Score: 41.10

    Kemba Walker's shooting slash won't lure onlookers into showering gushy compliments. He does a pretty good job protecting the ball relative to the average player and has been money at the free-throw line, but a sub-40-percent clip isn't going to win the Charlotte Hornets a lion's share of their close calls.

    Still, Walker is a whiz at offsetting any efficiency slumps with secondary devices.

    His ever-improving shot profile carries over to crunch time. Where he once resigned himself to step-back long twos, he's now more inclined to follow through on his drives. His looks from distance aren't falling in these situations—though he's been closer to league average over his past three clutch outings—but defenses still have to respect what has become one of the Association's more dependable long-range jumpers. 

    Smoosh his upgraded decision-making and shot distribution together, and Walker has the tools to scare interior defenses into confounded tizzies. Damian Lillard is the only player who has attempted more free throws in the clutch, and his 12.7 attempts at the foul line per 36 minutes rank seventh among players who've seen more than 30 ticks of crunch time.

    Walker's stock receives further aid from his play on the margins. He is opportunistic when guarding on the ball and hunts for defensive rebounds that allow to him jumpstart offensive possessions before defenses get fully set.

3. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

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    Steve Dipaola/Associated Press

    Minutes Logged in Clutch: 62

    Per 36 Minutes of Crunch Time: 32.7 points, 3.5 assists, 3.5 turnovers, 50.0/23.1/100.0 shooting slash, plus-3.5

    Total Value Added Score: 41.56

    Face it: Damian Lillard was always going to comfortably crack this pecking order. He traffics in taking and making big shots. The less daylight, the better. Finding nylon in tight crevices is hard-wired into his brain.

    Miracle-worker is his default setting.

    Lillard is shooting 50 percent on the season when defenders are within two feet of his person for crying out loud, and he's hiitting on more than 57 percent when he's inside the arc. How are defenses supposed to guard against that? They can hope he settles for a step-back three a few feet beyond the rainbow, but he's comfortable launching from wherever, whenever, however. He doesn't so much settle as remind opponents they're at the mercy of his parking-lot range. 

    Crowd him too much, and he'll hotfoot his way into the paint. Defenders respond with overreaction. They foul him out of pure shock or a last-ditch effort to prevent an easy bucket, or because their rotations come off lazy and clumsy.

    Either way, they get screwed. Outmaneuvering the help renders Lillard a pesky threat even when his outside shot isn't falling with palatable frequency. He averages 12.3 free-throw attempts per 36 minutes of crunch time, which is somehow a tick off last year's pace (13.2). 

    And Big Game Dame doesn't miss once he gets to the charity stripe. He's shooting a career-best 92.6 percent from the foul line overall and has yet to miss in the clutch. He is a perfect 21-of-21 and has attempted at least seven more free throws than anyone else in the league.

    Not all heroes wear capes. But, when the game's on the line, Lillard should seriously consider donning one for the occasion.

2. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    Minutes Logged in Clutch: 40

    Per 36 Minutes of Crunch Time: 53.7 points, 7.2 assists, 5.4 turnovers, 62.2/41.7/52.9 shooting slash, plus-23.3

    Total Value Added Score: 55.33

    LeBron James, in his 15th season and on the verge of turning 33, leads the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring and is just altogether dismantling opponents down the stretch of close games.

    Watching him deconstruct defenses with a dab of unchecked abandon often becomes an out-of-body experience. We're not used to seeing James so consistently aggressive, and he still sets the table for his teammates. His first instinct is to defer—to find shooters lurking in the corner. 

    But his 33.1 field-goal attempts per 36 minutes of clutch time is a career high and just the second time he's ever cleared the extrapolated 30-shot benchmark. His first brush with comparable volume came in 2009-10, his age 25 season, right before he left the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat. Make of that what you will. 

    Isaiah Thomas' return will knife into James' uncharacteristic let-it-fly-fest. A ballooning sample size will do the same. At least, it should. If it doesn't, and an aging James is tasked with ferrying unprecedented personal burdens when it matters most, something's wrong.

    In the meantime, we can revel in this hyper-assertive version of James. And for that, we must thank Kyrie Irving, whose departure paved the way for the four-time MVP to more regularly tap into his selfish gene. As James said, per ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst:

    "The last couple years, Kyrie obviously being as great as he was in the fourth quarter, we kind of pick our games. There was games half the time that he had it going and, 'Hey, go get it.' There was games half the time where I had it going, and I'd go get it.

    "Right now my teammates look at me and they're like, 'OK, like, this is your quarter, you've done this your whole career. Let's try to make some things happen.' It's very important that I try to come through for them."

    And come through for them he has, in demonstrative fashion. Irving is the only player who has tallied more total points in crunch time, and James is tied for third in assists, trailing just Irving and Jrue Holiday.

1. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Minutes Logged in Clutch: 42

    Per 36 Minutes of Crunch Time: 55.9 points, 8.6 assists, 0.0 turnovers, 61.5/30.8/81.3 shooting slash, plus-21.5

    Total Value Added Score: 63.27

    Non-surprise of the year!

    No team has seen more of its games dip into crunch-time waters than the Boston Celtics, who, at 11-4, own the second-highest winning percentage through contests in which neither side leads or trails by more than five points. (The San Antonio Spurs own the best victory rate, at 7-2, because who needs Kawhi Leonard?)

    Kyrie Irving has served as a launching pad for this success. His dazzling handles and controlled jolts and twitches on drives are impossible to defend. All of his shots look extremely difficult from afar, because reverse layups in traffic and contested pull-ups over skyscrapers are supposed to be extremely difficult. But they're routine for him.

    Crunch time in general is just another part of the game to The Ankletaker.

    "I don't really see it as a pressure situation," he said after scoring seven of Boston's final nine points to down the Golden State Warriors on Nov. 16, per the Associated Press (via USA Today). "It's just like playing basketball, man. It's just like being in a park, 7-7, and game is eight."

    Talk about maintaining a sense of cool. Irving doesn't even seem concerned that his hypothetical playground exhibition isn't win-by-two. That takes gall. 

    Boston's collective performance in the clutch will grind to a halt. It already has in some ways. The Celtics have dropped each of their past two games that entered gut-check time. But Irving's nonchalance in the face of high stakes is absurdity at its most sustainable.

    Even if his shooting percentages slip and he vomits turnovers, he won't shy from attacking and firing away at pivotal junctures, which makes him a must-have weapon for a Boston team leaning on more youth and inexperience than most other contenders.  


    Unless otherwise cited, all stats are courtesy of NBA.com, or Basketball Reference and current leading into games on Nov. 28.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.


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