Metrics 101: Ranking the NBA's Best Clutch Scorers This Season

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 19, 2019

Metrics 101: Ranking the NBA's Best Clutch Scorers This Season

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    Tim Warner/Getty Images

    A three-pointer made during the first quarter of an NBA contest technically counts just as much as a game-winning basket drained from the identical spot at the final buzzer. Without the first, the second wouldn't have changed the outcome. 

    Obviously, though, the stakes are a little different for the latter. Defenders are more focused, fully aware that a single lapse can turn a victory into a loss. The crowd watches with eager anticipation, pumping the arena full of nervous energy. Heartbeats might pound just a bit harder and faster. 

    Some scorers have been better than others at ignoring the pressure and thriving in these clutch situations throughout the 2018-19 season—defined here as the final three minutes of games separated by no more than five points. Allow us to reveal the best of the best by looking at which players have added more points than expected on their possessions. 

    Keep in mind that scoring is, quite literally, all that matters here.

    The league as a whole emerges from the All-Star break with 4,774 points on 4,758 estimated* clutch possessions, which comes out at 1.003 points per possession. By looking at each player's individual mark, subtracting the league average from it and multiplying the difference by the number of possessions, we can calculate the number you'll see listed next to each featured contributor, representing the additional points they've scored compared to what a league-average player might've done with those possessions. 

    Let's take LeBron James as an example. 

    In his 46 clutch minutes for the Los Angeles Lakers, he's scored 51 points on 33 field-goal attempts, 24 free-throw attempts and two turnovers—46 estimated possessions. That's good for 1.109 points per possession, which is 0.106 higher than the league average. Multiply that by 46, and he's scored 4.876 more points than a league-average player might've with his touches. 

    That's a respectable mark, checking in at No. 41 throughout the NBA. It's just not enough to earn featured placement. 

    *The possessions estimate is calculated as field-goal attempts plus 0.44 times free-throw attempts plus turnovers. 

10. Joe Harris, Brooklyn Nets: 10.904

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Points Per Clutch Possession: 1.379

    Clutch Possessions: 29

    Joe Harris wasn't just clutch in the Three-Point Contest during All-Star Weekend, where he emerged from a star-studded field and scored a whopping 26 points in the final round to take down Stephen Curry and Buddy Hield. Making 15 of his 18 moneyballs definitely qualifies as clutch, and it was necessary to topple a red-hot version of Curry who went a staggering 37-of-50 during the competition. 

    But this is nothing new. 

    During the final three minutes of games separated by no more than five points, Harris has drilled all six of his free-throw attempts for the Brooklyn Nets. That's impressive, but it's less important than making 14 of his 25 field-goal attempts (56.0 percent). That's even more impressive, but it's still less important than going 6-of-11 from beyond the arc. 

    That trails only Victor Oladipo (10-of-14) and JJ Redick (10-of-17) for the top three-point percentage of all 48 players who have at least 10 clutch attempts from downtown this year. 

    The sharpshooting wing has scored only 19.5 points per 36 minutes in this particular clutch situation, but he's done so in efficient fashion, allowing him to close the gap between himself and the many high-usage scorers who populate this countdown. A 72.4 true shooting percentage in those pressure-packed moments is nothing to sniff at. 

9. Reggie Bullock, Los Angeles Lakers: 10.92

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    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    Points Per Clutch Possession: 1.458

    Clutch Possessions: 24

    That picture of Reggie Bullock wearing a Los Angeles Lakers uniform is admittedly a bit misleading. 

    Since the deadline deal that sent him to Tinseltown, the shooting guard has suited up in only one clutch situation alongside LeBron James and Co. He appeared down the stretch of a Feb. 12 loss to the Atlanta Hawks just before the All-Star break and failed to record anything more than a single steal off an errant Dewayne Dedmon pass while his troops were unable to close the gap. 

    Instead, his work with the Detroit Pistons earns him this spot. 

    Before he was jettisoned from the roster for Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk and a 2021 second-round pick, Bullock made 22 clutch appearances for the Motor City representatives, helping them go 12-10 in those outings. Scoring 21.7 points per 36 minutes, he slashed a sturdy 55.0/50.0/100.0, and though it doesn't affect his placement in these rankings, he dished out three assists to only a single turnover. 

    No shot was bigger than his five-foot catch-and-push off a baseline pass from Jose Calderon to sink the Toronto Raptors at the buzzer in a Nov. 14 victory over the Eastern Conference juggernaut. He missed two other deficit-erasing attempts in the final minute of various games against the Orlando Magic this year, but that bucket made up for the misfires. 

8. James Harden, Houston Rockets: 11.739

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    Tim Warner/Getty Images

    Points Per Clutch Possession: 1.132

    Clutch Possessions: 91

    During the first half of the 2018-19 season, 14 players have matched James Harden's 10 game-tying or lead-taking attempts in the final minute of fourth quarters and overtime periods. Spencer Dinwiddie is the only contributor who has made more buckets in that situation (six), though his 6-of-14 performance for the Brooklyn Nets doesn't match up against Harden's 5-of-10 showing in two fewer games. 

    A deep three in overtime against the Golden State Warriors is his only true game-winner, though it registers as one of the shots of the season because of the marginal airspace at his disposal against the tight contests of Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. But there's so much more to clutch performances than knocking down buckets in the closing seconds.

    Harden's importance to the Houston Rockets has been unquestionable throughout the year, and he's taken over contests both operating as a solo star and when working in conjunction with Chris Paul and Clint Capela. 

    His 91 clutch possessions are easily the top mark in the league, outpacing Kemba Walker (78), Blake Griffin (75), Kyrie Irving (64) and everyone else. That he's maintained that level of involvement while remaining so efficient is staggering, even if he hasn't heated up enough to rise to the top of these rankings. 

    If you don't want Harden's 56.2 points per 36 minutes on 41.8/28.6/82.5 shooting, that's your loss. After all, he's gotten to the stripe so frequently—12 more times than anyone else in these clutch moments—that the unappealing first two numbers of that slash line still lead to a 63.2 true shooting percentage that sits well above the league-wide mark (56.1). 

7. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks: 11.825

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Points Per Clutch Possession: 1.218

    Clutch Possessions: 55

    During a Dec. 8 contest against the Houston Rockets, Luka Doncic took over down the stretch, willing his Dallas Mavericks to victory and giving James Harden a taste of his own medicine with a pair of step-back triples over Clint Capela.

    Fifteen days later, he hit a remarkable falling-away triple in the corner on an out-of-bounds play that began with 0.6 seconds remaining to force overtime against the Portland Trail Blazers. Less than a month after that, he put on another crunch-time scoring exhibition to key a victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves. 

    That's just a small sampling, but it's already gaining him some adoring attention. Take this quote from The Ringer's Zach Kram, who penned the following while singing the praises of crunch-time Doncic in mid-January: 

    "Yet Luka has shot better in the clutch than at any other time. The varied tricks he's used to score 20 points per game have granted him a special knack for toppling late-game defensive structures. He's not the most explosive athlete, but he can scoot both ways around a screen, and his stepback—or the threat thereof—allows him to absolutely feast when faced with a center after a switch."

    This year, rookies have knocked down 13 go-ahead or game-tying buckets in the final minute of fourth quarters and overtime periods. Doncic alone has accounted for five of them, and his efforts go well beyond that crucial category. 

    During the larger clutch portion of games, he's scored 42.3 points per 36 minutes while shooting 53.8 percent from the field, 38.9 percent from downtown and 72.0 percent from the line. But we should still wait to sing his praises until he faces actual NBA competition, since questions remain about his athleticism and ability to create his own shots against top-tier defenders.

    Just consider this another resume boost for the prohibitive Rookie of the Year favorite. 

6. Al Horford, Boston Celtics: 11.928

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    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    Points Per Clutch Possession: 1.571

    Clutch Possessions: 21

    The Boston Celtics have outscored their opponents by 19 points with Al Horford on the floor in crunch-time situations, and it's not just because of his scoring. That's our sole focus here, but it's worth noting the totality of his line in these crucial moments: 19.5 points, 11.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.2 blocks and 1.2 turnovers per 36 minutes. 

    He contributes on defense. He crashes the boards. He gets his teammates involved (also setting screens to free shooters, which doesn't show up in the box-score analysis). And, most importantly for our purposes, he maximizes his touches as a scorer.

    Horford is knocking down 71.4 percent of his field-goal attempts, 57.1 percent of his triples and 81.8 percent of his freebies, adding up to an 87.6 true shooting percentage that ranks No. 1 among the 114 players with at least 10 shots during live action. That, in a nutshell, is efficiency as a scorer. 

    Only a lack of usage holds him back in this competition. The Celtics aren't going to call many down-the-stretch plays for him when they have so many superior scoring options, though he does end up with some touches because his passing chops allow him to function as both a point-producer and facilitator. 

    As for one of those superior options?

    Well, he's up next. 

5. Marcus Morris, Boston Celtics: 11.952

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    Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

    Points Per Clutch Possession: 1.667

    Clutch Possessions: 18

    Marcus Morris barely pushes past Al Horford despite using three fewer clutch scoring possessions and shooting with slightly less efficiency. Take a gander at how he and his teammate stack up against the league in true shooting percentage during the relevant situation (minimum 10 field-goal attempts): 

    1. Al Horford: 87.6
    2. Marcus Morris: 86.2
    3. Thomas Bryant: 84.2
    4. Victor Oladipo: 83.0
    5. Fred VanVleet: 82.7

    VanVleet and Bryant don't have enough possessions (12 apiece) to boost themselves into our countdown, checking in at Nos. 15 and 26, respectively. You'll have to keep reading to see where Oladipo winds up. But this pair of Celtics frontcourt figures top the efficiency leaderboard—the latter doing so while he slashes 69.2/75.0/90.0 and averages 22.0 points per 36 minutes. 

    So what pushes him ahead of his running mate? In a word: turnovers.

    Or, more accurately, "turnover." 

    Horford has only coughed up the ball twice during his 61 crunch-time minutes, but that's one more than Morris has on his ledger. His lone mistake came in a Nov. 16 victory over the Toronto Raptors when he drew a whistle for traveling with 1:17 left and Boston in a four-point hole.

    That slip-up would then be negated when the C's came back and won in overtime (admittedly no thanks to his offensive game, as he failed to register another box-score stat in the fourth quarter or for the entirety of the extra period). 

    That mistake-free play gives him a razor-thin edge over Horford, though incorporating the non-scoring elements of their games would reverse this order. 

4. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics: 14.784

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    Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

    Points Per Clutch Possession: 1.234

    Clutch Possessions: 64

    Yep, that's right. Three consecutive members of the Boston Celtics. And that, of course, begs the question: How have the C's as a whole fared in clutch situations? 

    Twenty-nine times this season, Boston has played in a game that was separated by no more than five points during the final three minutes. The team has gone 16-13 with an 18.9 net rating—the league's No. 6 mark, behind the Denver Nuggets (19.0), Golden State Warriors (20.0), Los Angeles Clippers (24.5), Milwaukee Bucks (26.7) and Indiana Pacers (29.5).

    What gives? How can the Celtics be ranked sixth despite being the only team with two, much less three, members of the top 10 in these rankings? Well, take a gander at the offensive rating leaderboard in these pressure-packed moments: 

    1. Boston Celtics: 134.2
    2. Indiana Pacers: 123.1
    3. Milwaukee Bucks: 123.0
    4. Washington Wizards: 121.2
    5. Sacramento Kings: 120.3

    That's what we call a runaway. It's defense—the Celtics rank No. 24 in clutch defensive rating—that pushes down the overall mark, and defense has zero impact on this particular article. Marcus Morris, Al Horford and Kyrie Irving are still carrying the scoring unit to unfathomable heights. 

    Irving hasn't been as efficient as the other two (65.6 true shooting percentage), but this ball-handling wizard is still averaging 48.2 points per 36 minutes and slashing 50.9/40.9/100.0. He's also gone an impressive 5-of-8 on lead-altering shots in the final minute of fourth quarters or overtimes, and not a single one of the buckets came off an assist. 

    This shouldn't surprise anyone, though. Irving's late-game heroics are nothing new. 

3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks: 14.896

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    Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    Points Per Clutch Possession: 1.395

    Clutch Possessions: 38

    Breaking news: Giannis Antetokounmpo is pretty good at this whole basketball thing. 

    The aptly nicknamed Greek Freak can dominate during opening periods. He can thrive coming out of the locker room for the start of the third quarter. He can even excel during All-Star breaks. But he might be best of all during crunch-time situations, as he averages a jaw-dropping 38.2 points, 9.4 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 2.9 steals and 0.7 blocks per 36 minutes while dropping in 72.7 percent of his shots from the field. 

    That Antetokounmpo hasn't made a single clutch triple shouldn't be surprising. If anything, it should make it even more impressive that he's still finishing such a high percentage of his plays around the rim and generating so many trips to the free-throw stripe. He's one of 55 players with at least 20 relevant field-goal attempts, and no member of that club has posted a higher free-throw rate: 

    1. Giannis Antetokounmpo: 0.955 free throws per field-goal attempt
    2. Joel Embiid: 0.944
    3. James Harden: 0.855
    4. Danilo Gallinari: 0.81
    5. LaMarcus Aldridge: 0.808

    Beating Harden in that category is always impressive, and Antetokounmpo has also found success at the rim even when the whistles don't sound. 

    Of his 22 field-goal attempts, the Milwaukee Bucks' MVP candidate is 16-of-18 from inside three feet and 0-of-4 from further out. He's misfired on two triples, a hook shot from four feet and a mid-range jumper from 14 in a failed tiebreaking attempt at the buzzer of a Dec. 1 contest with the New York Knicks. Six of his 16 makes have been classified as dunks. 

    Ninety-two players this season have completed at least one clutch slam. Willie Cauley-Stein and DeAndre Jordan are the only other players to tie Antetokounmpo's league-leading total, but they've each missed at least one attempt. 

2. JJ Redick, Philadelphia 76ers: 14.904

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    Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

    Points Per Clutch Possession: 1.417

    Clutch Possessions: 36

    JJ Redick has been undeniably impressive for a Philadelphia 76ers squad that has produced quite a few high-quality clutch scorers.

    While the Duke product ranks No. 2 in our metric, Jimmy Butler (No. 21) and Joel Embiid (No. 43) have also excelled. Unfortunately, Ben Simmons (No. 351) falls on the opposite end of the spectrum but has at least generated 7.9 assists per 36 minutes. Then again, Tobias Harris also checks in at No. 17 for his season-long efforts, though he's shot 0-of-2 from the field in clutch situations since arriving in the City of Brother Love.  

    We'll be more than willing to sing Redick's praises here. 

    The veteran marksman has averaged 28.7 points per 36 minutes, which sits well above his game-long mark of 21.4—a career high for a man blending in perfectly with the Philadelphia schemes. Those buckets come while he shoots 59.3 percent from the field, 58.8 percent from downtown and 81.8 percent at the stripe, allowing him to earn an 80.1 true shooting percentage

    But Redick's lofty placement also speaks to the year-to-year volatility of clutch rankings. We're working with undeniably small samples for this analysis, and that allows for plenty of fluky results. A player can be classified as clutch one year only to flounder in the biggest moments the next. So now, let's take a quick peek at Redick's high-stakes shooting over the last 10 campaigns:

    If you can find a pattern there, please consider applying to your local codebreaking college with haste. 

    But the point here isn't to pick on Redick, who deserves plaudits for his work in the pressure cooker. This applies to pretty much every clutch scorer in the history of basketball, as it's virtually impossible to fare consistently well in this area, one that's so rife with small samples. 

    Just enjoy him posting such lofty marks while they last. 

1. Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers: 22.893

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Points Per Clutch Possession: 1.59

    Clutch Possessions: 39

    Victor Oladipo comes out of the All-Star break tied with CJ McCollum and Donovan Mitchell for No. 34 on the possessions leaderboard, and he won't be climbing any higher during the 2018-19 campaign. After going under the knife to fix the ruptured quad tendon in his right knee, he definitely won't be on the floor to assist the Indiana Pacers in any more crunch-time performances. 

    But this isn't about the future. It's about what happened before the midseason festivities, which saw Oladipo replaced with D'Angelo Russell as an Eastern Conference representative. And that's good news for this 2-guard, who excelled in the clutch to such an extent that the gap between him and No. 2 JJ Redick (14.904) is nearly as large as the yawning chasm between Redick and No. 21 Jimmy Butler (6.895). 

    He was that good on a per-possession basis, posting an astounding 54.7 points, 8.6 rebounds and 7.2 assists per 36 minutes while shooting 63.2 percent from the field, 60.0 percent from downtown and 76.2 percent at the stripe. Better still, he turned the ball over just twice in his 50 relevant minutes. 

    Narrow the focus, and Oladipo only gets more impressive. He was 4-of-5 on lead-altering shots during the final minute of fourth quarters and overtimes before suffering his devastating knee injury, and every single attempt came from beyond the arc. 

    First came a Nov. 3 game against the Boston Celtics in which he single-handedly steered the Pacers back into the lead, knocking down a 22-footer with 52 seconds remaining, a pair of free throws to narrow the gap to a single possession with 29 seconds left and the game-winning, pull-up triple 25 seconds later. Two nights after that, he made a game-tying trey with just under a minute remaining against the Houston Rockets, though he couldn't get another attempt to fall later in the period.

    Then, during a Jan. 4 contest with the Chicago Bulls, he made the game-tying hoist with 55 seconds left in overtime before sinking the game-winner with one tick left—a ridiculously deep pull-up jumper that left Chicago utterly defeated, both visibly and on the scoreboard. 

    Oladipo may only have suited up 36 times in 2018-19, but he produced a full season's worth of clutch memories and key performances. 

            

    Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @fromal09.

    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats accurate through the All-Star break and courtesy of Basketball Reference, NBA.com, PBPStats.com, NBA Math or ESPN.com.