Ranking NBA's Most Clutch Players This Season

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistApril 23, 2021

Ranking NBA's Most Clutch Players This Season

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    Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

    Evaluating crunch-time performance in the NBA is a process rife with imperfection. Definitions of "clutch play" vary. Roles within end-of-game offenses vary. There is also—deep breath—more to crunch-time heroism than strictly getting buckets.

    This level of difficulty and inconsistency is presented as a disclaimer: These rankings are not meant to be unimpeachable. They exist relative to one interpretation of clutch value...and because they're fun.

    Scoring is the focus of this exercise. Made shots down the stretch of close games are sexy. Novel, I know. But rather than run with the wider definition of crunch time, we'll instead look at the effectiveness of players during one-possession games—i.e. their teams trail or lead by no more than three points—inside two minutes to play.

    To get there, I've culled the average points generated per shot on twos, threes and at the foul line over these stretches. Every player's average points generated per shot in those spots will then be subtracted from the leaguewide average. That difference will be multiplied by the number of attempts from each area to help account for volume.

    Not all shots from the field are created equal. Some players are manufacturing a lion's share of their own buckets. Others are scoring off assists. In an attempt to reward from-scratch shot-makers, I've also run through the above processing using the percentage of made field goals that go unassisted during this specific sliver of crunch time.

    All four resulting player scores will be added together to form Crunch-Time Value. From there, since the average number of shots taken by a player in this clutch situation is slightly over four, I will filter out anyone who has fewer than five field-goal attempts to their name. Everyone remaining will then be ranked according to their crunch-time value.

    Be warned we're working with extremely small samples. Nobody logged more than 45 minutes or attempted more than 31 shots in these crunch-time situations through games played on April 20. But I wanted to assess scoring efficiency in the highest-leverage moments, and isolating the final two minutes of one-possession games felt like a good middle ground.

    Once more: This is not a perfect formula. It doesn't weigh the difficulty of opposing teams or individual defenders. Nor does it factor in passing or defensive impact. Relative to what we have watched, though, it does provide a satisfactory glance at some of the most clutch scorers this season.

    Emphasis on this season. The goal here isn't to identify the players we want taking the final shot moving forward, just those who have made the most of their gut-check scoring opportunities so far.

15-11: Burks, Middleton, DeRozan, Curry, Doncic

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    15. Alec Burks, New York Knicks

    Minutes Logged in Clutch: 19

    Crunch-Time Value Score: 6.55

    Laugh if you must, but a 3-of-4 clip from downtown and perfect 9-of-9 showing from the foul line during minutes in which the game hangs in the balance is no joke.

               

    14. Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks

    Minutes Logged in Clutch: 27

    Crunch-Time Value Score: 6.73

    Khris Middleton's 3-of-10 from beyond the arc does very little to drag him down when he is 5-of-8 on two-pointers, hasn't missed a free throw (13-of-13) and continues to self-manufacture the majority of his made baskets.

                

    13. DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs

    Minutes Logged in Clutch: 33

    Crunch-Time Value Score: 7.16

    Below-average shooting inside the arc (12-of-26) and a bagel from beyond it (0-of-3) do their damnedest to drag DeMar DeRozan down. And while they succeeded in keeping him out of the top 10, he skates into a rock-solid 13th on the back of a free-throw barrage (17-of-20) and having all 12 of his makes go unassisted.

              

    12. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

    Minutes Logged in Clutch: 21

    Crunch-Time Value Score: 7.42

    Stephen Curry is a victim of his role here—and he still manages to sniff the top 10. Barely half of his made baskets have gone unassisted, so his case predominantly subsists on his efficiency. A 3-of-7 clip from deep and 8-of-8 magazine at the charity stripe inflate his crunch-time score plenty, but going 4-of-9 on twos—along with a relatively middling sample size—has capped his ceiling. For now.

                 

    11. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

    Minutes Logged in Clutch: 23

    Crunch-Time Value Score: 7.89

    Kudos to Luka Doncic for not tumbling lower than 11th place. The Dallas Mavericks still rely on him to do everything in these tightly contested stints. Nearly 86 percent of his made baskets go unassisted, and his 38.7 usage rate during these minutes is higher than it was last year.

    Yes, the degree of difficulty ascribe to Doncic's buckets gives him a nice boost. It also contributes to a 3-of-10 clip from distance. That he still remains among the most efficient clutch-time weapons is a testament to the pressure he puts on defense when attacking downhill (6-of-9 on twos) and his ability to reach the foul line, where he's 8-of-9 during pressure-cooker minutes.

    Next Five: 20. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics; 19. Terrence Ross, Orlando Magic; 18. D'Angelo Russell, Minnesota Timberwolves; 17. Coby White, Chicago Bulls; 16. Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets

10. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Minutes Logged in Clutch: 22

    Crunch-Time Value Score: 8.10

    Giannis Antetokounmpo's top-10 finish is propped up by a strong showing inside the arc. He is shooting 5-of-6 at the basket and 6-of-9 on twos overall. Just four players have added more total value inside the rainbow during crunch time.

    The rest of his case isn't as predictable. He gets a bump for hitting his only three-point attempt, and for shooting 4-of-5 at the foul line.

    A relatively self-dependent role helps solidify his argument. The Milwaukee Bucks will use him as a screener and diversify their late-game offense through Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, but over 71 percent of Antetokounmpo's buckets are going unassisted.

    Whether this holds into the postseason is a separate matter. If it does, the rest of the league is in trouble.

9. CJ McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    Minutes Logged in Clutch: 18

    Crunch-Time Value Score: 8.30

    CJ McCollum has registered the fewest 11th-hour minutes among everyone in the top 10, but he still doesn't want for volume. His 13 total shots are comfortably above the league average, and they translate to a pace of 26 field-goal attempts per 36 minutes.

    Remaining uncomfortable with the Portland Trail Blazers' recipe for winning is fair. They are perpetually on the brink of loss and their knack for eking out close-call victories is simultaneously impressive and harrowing. Final-minute romps are cool and all, but can this sustain into the playoffs, when they'll be exclusively facing opponents with records above .500?

    Conventional wisdom suggests—screams, really—that they won't. McCollum is among the primary reasons why they might.

    The skeleton of his game doesn't change during gut-check time. He isn't living at the rim or vacationing at the foul line. He has attempted exactly zero free throws through these clutch minutes.

    Perimeter looks are how he butters his bread, and he's currently on a carboload. He is shooting 3-of-6 on twos outside the restricted area and 4-of-8 from long distance. And more than 71 percent of his buckets have gone unassisted.

    How you're supposed to limit a guy who traffics in mind-meltingly tough shots is beyond me. How you're supposed to reconcile that with his playing beside Damian Lillard, Mr. Clutch himself, is beyond comprehension.

8. Collin Sexton, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Minutes Logged in Clutch: 20

    Crunch-Time Value Score: 9.05

    Self-creation plus misnomer shooting is a great way to crack the top 10 of this exercise. Collin Sexton is checking both boxes.

    At 4-of-7 on twos and 3-of-6 on threes, he is a decidedly positive scorer in these high-pressure scenarios. And the manner in which his shots are coming run somewhat counter to the norm. 

    Slightly under 55 percent of his baskets have been unassisted this season. That share explodes to 85.7 percent in the final two minutes of one-possession games.

    Thirteen-shot samples aren't substantial. In this situation exactly, though, it's a real workload.

    Only 11 other players have attempted at least as many crunch-time shots and seen more than 80 percent of their makes go unassisted. And they're all stars: Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Damian Lillard, De'Aaron Fox, James Harden, Stephen Curry, Donovan Mitchell, Jimmy Butler and D'Angelo Russell.

7. Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Minutes Logged in Clutch: 27

    Crunch-Time Value Score: 9.16

    Full disclosure: Bam Adebayo's cameo in the top 10 surprised the hell out of me. The Miami Heat are just 10-12 in games that fall under this clutch umbrella—and 8-11 when he plays them. Even as one of the team's primary playmakers overall, Adebayo doesn't have the profile of a high-usage option during the waning minutes.

    Just one-third of his made buckets are coming unassisted, and he hasn't attempted a single three. His 83.3 percent success rate at the foul line is firmly in the green, but he's only taken six free throws.

    What gives?

    His efficiency inside the arc.

    Adebayo is 9-of-10 on twos. And at 1.8 points per shot attempt, he provides more value on looks in front of the rainbow than anyone else—by a comically, cosmically wide margin.

    Looking at his exact shot profile doesn't neutralize the shock factor. He is shooting 5-of-5 at the basket but also 4-of-5 on twos outside the restricted area. That's pretty gnarly, even if he's not teeing himself up for most of those attempts.

6. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Minutes Logged in Clutch: 40

    Crunch-Time Value Score: 9.92

    Crunch-time possessions are typically reserved for guards and wings—anyone who can swish off-the-dribble jumpers and put traditional downhill pressure on the rim. Nikola Jokic has flipped that script, torn it up and thrown it into the highest-grade incinerator.

    Here is everyone this season who has made more shots in the final two minutes of one-possession games:

    •    

    Hopefully you're not exhausted after reading all those nonexistent names.

    Jokic is shooting a WTF 56 percent on twos (14-of-25). These aren't bunnies he putting down, either. Only six of his attempts have come at the basket, and he has found nylon on 50 percent of his two-pointers outside the restricted area.

    In the grand scheme of this crunch-time window, Jokic isn't engineering an anomalous amount of his own baskets. Exactly 50 percent of his makes have gone unassisted. But that is unique relative to the way he's used as the fulcrum for everything the Denver Nuggets do. No other center with at least five clutch appearances comes close to matching his 40-plus usage rate.

    Expectations for the Nuggets must be adjusted following Jamal Murray's torn left ACL. Write them off entirely at your own risk. They lost—spoiler alert—one elite crunch-time anchor, but Jokic arms them with another.

5. Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Minutes Logged in Clutch: 28

    Crunch-Time Value Score: 10.16

    Zach LaVine's shot-making difficulty does most of the heavy-lifting here. His efficiency is unspectacular when compared to his peers; he yields only slightly above-board value on twos (9-of-19) and from the free-throw line (16-of-19). His of 4-of-12 clip from long distance is better than the league average, but just by a hair.

    Viewed against the backdrop of how LaVine's shots come, what at first appears unspectacular is actually steadying. He is turning in net-positive production on twos, threes and free throws while operating in an almost exclusively self-sustaining capacity.

    Over 92 percent of his makes from the floor have gone unassisted and no one else has attempted as many shots in these touch-and-go spots (31). LaVine's relentlessness on the ball has also translated to foul-line trips. He is tied for fifth, along with James Harden and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, in total free-throw attempts.

    A certain amount of efficiency can be sacrificed under these circumstances. LaVine preserves enough of it to earn this nod.

4. Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Minutes Logged in Clutch: 30

    Crunch-Time Value Score: 13.04

    This at once sucks and is absolutely awesome.

    On the one hand, Jamal Murray is the second member of the Denver Nuggets to appear in the top 10. Even if you quibble over the methodology used to get here, the end result is overwhelming and it speaks to the lethality of this two-man dynamic.

    On the other hand, Murray's inclusion is bittersweet. He's out for the season—and probably most of next year—after suffering a torn ACL. The Nuggets are far from helpless without him, but his crunch-time importance is yet another reminder of all they lost.

    Reviewing Murray's waning-minutes performance is still kind of, sort of, extremely entertaining. He endears himself to these rankings with a 5-of-6 clip from three (83.3 percent) and an intense reliance on himself. Jokic is the Nuggets' guiding light, including when it matters most, but 70 percent of Murray's made baskets in the final two minutes of one-possession games have come absent a helping hand.

    Denver will miss that brand of shot-making more than anything else. So many of his hits come under duress, an amalgam of step-backs, pull-ups and fadeaways he fires off after sizing up the defense. The Nuggets do, of course, have another elite crunch-time option on their docket. But they don't have a ready-made replacement for Murray's probing face-ups.

3. Terry Rozier, Charlotte Hornets

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    Minutes Logged in Clutch: 20

    Crunch-Time Value Score: 14.96

    Try not to be surprised. Terry Rozier has defaulted to supernova shot-making all season.

    Other players are more responsible to setting up their own looks. What Rozier lacks as a self-creator he makes up for with flame-throwing amid higher volume.

    Nobody has downed more makes from beyond the arc (seven), where he's shooting a blisteringly hot 66.7 percent in these moments. His 9-of-9 blitz from the foul line nudges efficiency score even further, and he is a cool 3-of-4 inside the three-point line, because why not?

    Making the most of his crunch-time opportunities results in mind-melting combined efficiency. Rozier's true shooting percentage during tightrope situations checks in at 94.9.

    Nine. Four. Dot. Nine. Seriously.

    Dismiss this as low-volume noise if you're so inclined. Relative to the confined space in which we're working, though, Rozier places in the top 25 of total shot attempts among 396 players who have tallied a second of high-wire action.

    Streamlined responsibility—when the Charlotte Hornets are at full strength, anyway—buoys his efficiency. But that's hardly a knock he's buried this many high-stakes looks.

2. James Harden, Brooklyn Nets

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Minutes Logged in Clutch: 93

    Crunch-Time Value Score: 18.85

    James Harden's crunch-time accolades have somehow flown under the radar, lost amid his exit from Houston, arrival in Brooklyn and a seemingly endless run of injuries and absences suffered at the top of the Nets roster.

    Consider this your public service announcement: James Harden has been outright dangerous in high-leverage moments.

    He pairs a 9-of-17 showing from the floor with a perfect 19-of-19 display at the free-throw line. Most impressive, though not the least bit surprising, all of his makes from the field have gone unassisted. Only one other player has converted as many baskets without getting dimed up: DeMar DeRozan.

    Harden's efficiency doesn't just stand out. It leaps, extravagantly, off the page. He's posting a true shooting percentage of 80.6, the absolute best mark among all rotation players with a late-game usage of 35.

1. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Minutes Logged in Clutch: 30

    Crunch-Time Value Score: 22.17

    Who else?

    Damian Lillard's crunch-time reputation resembles a work of fiction. It's actually a matter of fact.

    His clutch gene is such that his value cannot be hyperbolized. High-stakes, ultra-difficult jumpers are his forte and they feel inevitable. No other player currently inspires that genre of trust—and make no mistake, he has earned it.

    Lillard ranks second in total made shots, threes and free throws during this clutch window. His marriage of volume and efficiency on twos and threes is friggin' absurd. Nobody touches it. Twenty-two players have appeared in at least five of these under-the-wire games and are notching a usage rate of 35 or higher. Lillard's effective field-goal percentage leads the field. And he adds a 25-fo-25 clip at the charity stripe for should-be-illegal-to-be-this-good measure.

    That this body of work is business as usual remains unfair. He leads the league in clutch win probability added by a wide margin, according to Impredictable—making this the second successive season in which he has done so.

    Somewhat ironically, Lillard's 11th-hour charm is part of the Portland Trail Blazers' fragility. They have won a league-high 17 games that enter one-possession crunch time. Combined with their place in the Western Conference (sixth) and record against teams .500 or better (8-17), they're juuust getting by.

    Such thin margins for error look and feel unsustainable. The Blazers shouldn't be any different, except that they are, because they have the Goliath of all exceptions captaining their last-gasp offense.

                 

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball ReferenceStathead or Cleaning the Glass and accurate through Tuesday's games. Salary information via Basketball Insiders and Spotrac.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by NBA Math's Adam Fromal.

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