Who Are the NBA's Best Scorers When It Counts?

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistAugust 15, 2019

Houston Rockets' James Harden (13) follows Boston Celtics' Kyrie Irving (11) upcourt following a timeout during the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game in Boston, Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

Every kid who grew up shooting in the backyard or on the playground has played the situation out in his or her mind countless times: Andy brings the ball up the court. The clock is winding down. Five...four...three...two...He shoots! He scores! The crowd goes wild!

Now, this is a safe space. No one needs to admit how many times they'd have to repeat that inner dialogue before the shot went in. Suffice it to say, scores of kids around the world have imagined themselves taking the big shot in the big moment.

NBA players, especially the stars, are the ones who get to live out that fantasy.

Determining who the best players are in these situations isn't easy. Teams don't spend a ton of time in the "clutch" (defined by the league as the last five minutes of games separated by no more than five points). That means sample sizes are relatively small, and outlets like Basketball Reference and NBA.com don't house multiyear data on the subject.

Still, with a handy-dandy spreadsheet and a little old-fashioned sticktoitiveness, we can compile our own three-year sample.

To get a more accurate look at the game's best clutch scorers, we only included players who attempted at least 100 crunchtime shots since the start of the 2016-17 campaign (and even that's a pretty low threshold). That qualifier left us with a nice, round 70 names.

It bears mentioning that two 2018-19 rookies, Luka Doncic and Trae Young, nearly made the list with just one season of experience. Luka took 92 shots in the clutch. Trae took 91.

But before we get to the true analysis, let's look at some totals, starting with the top 10 in points scored in the clutch over the last three seasons:

  1. Russell Westbrook (541)
  2. Kemba Walker (473)
  3. James Harden (445)
  4. Damian Lillard (432)
  5. DeMar DeRozan (421)
  6. LeBron James (415)
  7. Kyrie Irving (411)
  8. Bradley Beal (402)
  9. Jimmy Butler (391)
  10. Paul George (377)

PORTLAND, OR - APRIL 23: Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers shoots the three point basket over Paul George #13 of the Oklahoma City Thunder to win the game as time expires during Game Five of Round One of the 2019 NBA Playoffs on April 23, 20
Zach Beeker/Getty Images

It makes sense that all 10 could be classified as guards here. Sure, LeBron, Butler and George may be more like small forwards (or power forwards, in LeBron's case). But let's just say they're all ball-handlers.

When the game gets tight, it's those ball-handlers who often command every aspect of their teams' possessions. They're the ones counted on to get buckets when everything else breaks down.

But that list is heavily influenced by the quality of the team each player is on. Stephen Curry hasn't had as many opportunities to score clutch points because the Golden State Warriors have ended so many games long before the final five minutes.

So instead of totals, let's now look at points per 36 clutch minutes.

  1. Isaiah Thomas (44.6)
  2. James Harden (43.5)
  3. Kyrie Irving (39.9)
  4. LeBron James (39.8)
  5. Russell Westbrook (39.3)
  6. Stephen Curry (37.2)
  7. Kawhi Leonard (36.3)
  8. Donovan Mitchell (35.1)
  9. Kemba Walker (35.0)
  10. Jimmy Butler (34.7)

"Some of the things he did this year will be remembered forever," Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum said after Isaiah Thomas was named "Most Clutch" in the 2017 Players' Voice awards for his late-game contributions to the Boston Celtics.

Oh, how quickly we forget.

PORTLAND, OR - APRIL 7: Isaiah Thomas #0 of the Denver Nuggets shoots the ball against the Portland Trail Blazers on April 7, 2019 at the Moda Center in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or usi
Sam Forencich/Getty Images

Due to his last two injury-plagued seasons, memories about the ridiculousness of 2016-17 IT may have faded. That season, he played 165 minutes in the clutch and scored 48.7 points per 36 with a blistering 65.4 true shooting percentage.

The rest of that list doesn't feature many surprises—perhaps with the exception of Utah Jazz shooting guard Donovan Mitchell, who's only played two seasons. He's been tasked with carrying a responsibility few first- and second-year players typically shoulder.

And that responsibility may be having an adverse effect on Mitchell's efficiency. In clutch minutes, his true shooting percentage is just 48.8, well below the league average (54.8) over the last three seasons.

That shouldn't be a red flag. Again, he's young, and the pressure-packed moments of games can impact the shots of some of the game's most experienced pros.

All the more reason to reward those who can continue to score efficiently when the game is on the line, right? So let's add one more qualification: an above-average true shooting percentage.

If we take every player from the last three seasons with 100-plus shots and a 54.8-plus true shooting percentage in the clutch, then sort them by points per 36 clutch minutes, here's where we end up:

Scoring in the Clutch
PlayerPTS/36TS%
1. Isaiah Thomas44.662.6
2. James Harden43.558.0
3. Kyrie Irving39.958.5
4. LeBron James39.862.5
5. Stephen Curry37.166.9
6. Kawhi Leonard36.357.2
7. Kemba Walker35.056.1
8. Jimmy Butler34.758.9
9. Mike Conley33.158.0
10. Victor Oladipo31.165.9
NBA.com/stats

Once more, we see IT at the top, this time with a predictable cast falling in line behind him. Plenty of guards and superstars are found here.

But with all due respect to Thomas, the last two seasons make it difficult to definitively proclaim he's the game's best clutch scorer. In 2017-18, he was just 5-of-18 in clutch minutes. He was 0-of-2 in 2018-19.

Fortunately, there's a better way to reward both volume and efficiency.

Over the last three seasons, NBA players have scored 32,233 points in roughly 32,894 clutch possessions (possessions estimate is calculated as field-goal attempts plus 0.44 times free-throw attempts plus turnovers). That works out to 0.98 points per possession.

Now, we need to take those same 70 players with 100-plus relevant attempts over the last three seasons and estimate the clutch points per possession each has accrued. Then we subtract the league average from the player's points per possession and multiply by total attempts to calculate how many points he generated above the league average with his shots.

The top 10 reads as follows:

  1. LeBron James (41.1)
  2. Stephen Curry (37.7)
  3. Kyrie Irving (36.2)
  4. Victor Oladipo (31.5)
  5. Isaiah Thomas (27.6)
  6. Jimmy Butler (25.9)
  7. Paul George (22.5)
  8. Kevin Durant (22.5)
  9. CJ McCollum (22.0)
  10. Kemba Walker (21.9)

And just for the heck of it, the bottom five:

  1. Nikola Vucevic (minus-33.8)
  2. Andrew Wiggins (minus-33.2)
  3. Jrue Holiday (minus-29.0)
  4. Carmelo Anthony (minus-24.2)
  5. Zach LaVine (minus-23.4)

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 07:  LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers shoots a jumper over Andrew Wiggins #22 of the Minnesota Timberwolves during a 114-110 Lakers win at Staples Center on November 7, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: U
Harry How/Getty Images

Like most basketball analysis, this isn't an exact science. That's especially true when looking at clutch situations. Compared to entire games, these minutes are pretty rare.

But that top 10 comes with few surprises.

Even as he approaches the twilight of his career and despite missing a big chunk of 2018-19, LeBron is at No. 1. And only 26.1 percent of the shots he's hit in the clutch have been assisted over the last three seasons.

Curry's ridiculous efficiency gives him a boost, though he's played far fewer minutes than many of the group's other members. But 44.6 percent of his makes were assisted.

In fact, only two players from that top 10 were assisted on a lower percentage of their clutch buckets than LeBron since the start of the 2016-17 season:

  1. Kyrie Irving (23.2 percent)
  2. Kemba Walker (23.2 percent)
  3. LeBron James (26.1 percent)
  4. Victor Oladipo (27.1 percent)
  5. Jimmy Butler (29.7 percent)
  6. Isaiah Thomas (31.4 percent)
  7. CJ McCollum (35.0 percent)
  8. Paul George (43.9 percent)
  9. Stephen Curry (44.6 percent)
  10. Kevin Durant (48.6 percent)

Father Time seems to have little ability to slow LeBron down. And as the Lakers look to get back to the playoffs and become serious title contenders, they have arguably the game's best clutch scorer leading the way.

In combination with Anthony Davis (12th in total clutch points scored and 26th in clutch points added above average over the last three seasons), L.A. has an attack that should have defenses trembling down the stretch of close games.

And it's the kind of attack kids all over the world will be emulating on the pavement.

All stats, unless otherwise indicated, courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference.

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