Who Should Take the Last Shot for Every NBA Team?

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 7, 2021

Who Should Take the Last Shot for Every NBA Team?

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    It's a scenario any hoop dreamer can relate to, since they've all walked through it on driveways and blacktops around the globe.

    Ball in your hand. Game on the line. The final seconds ticking away.

    Three...Two...One...Swish.

    In the NBA, clutch buckets can build entire resumes. Just ask Robert Horry, colloquially known as "Big Shot Bob." Or "Mr. Big Shot" Chauncey Billups. Or "Mr. Clutch" Jerry West.

    While coaches and players will argue that no game ever comes down to a single shot, it's hard not to attach that significance to glorious (if they're good) last-second shots. That's why most teams know where the ball is going in those late-game situations.

    Where will it head during the 2021-22 season? That's the question we're out to tackle by using past production and future projections to determine which player will have the most last-second shots for each NBA team.

Atlanta Hawks: Trae Young

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    Several teams require some serious thoughts and number-crunching to identify their closer. The Hawks aren't one of them.

    When the game is on the line in Atlanta, it's all about Trae Young—or "Ice Trae," as he's known in those situations. He has just about everything you'd want from a No. 1 option in crunch time: three-level scoring range, the vision to find open teammates if he's overcrowded by defenders and, so long as the rule changes don't take this away, a knack for getting to the foul line.

    Last season, Young took eight shots in the final 30 seconds of games with a five-point margin or less. No other Hawk attempted more than four. Young also dished six dimes in that situation, or twice as many as all of his teammates combined.

Boston Celtics: Jayson Tatum

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    Jaylen Brown might be closing the star-power gap between him and Jayson Tatum, but there's no question about who gets the last shot in Beantown.

    It's all Tatum, all the time down the stretch. Since Tatum had more than triple the number of isolations as Brown last season, there's no reason to expect a change in the clutch-offense hierarchy.

    Tatum made the most of his chances in 2020-21, leading the league with eight makes (on 15 attempts) in the final minute to tie or take the lead. As for Brown, the only other possible choice for the Shamrocks, he attempted six such shots.

Brooklyn Nets: Kevin Durant

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    Last season's Nets set the NBA's new high mark for offensive efficiency. Almost any direction they turned late in games was a great one—save perhaps for Bruce Brown. (Sorry, Bruce, but you aren't out there for buckets.)

    Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving all offer limitless scoring range, the ability to draw a whistle and the smarts and skills to spot open teammates. Each is a more-than-capable closer, which is why they all attempted at least 17 shots in the final two minutes with a point differential of five or less.

    While Irving had the most makes (10) and attempts (29) in those situations, Durant should be the preferred option for his absurd combination of big-man size and perimeter skill. When the Nets need a kill shot, they should summon the Slim Reaper.

Charlotte Hornets: Terry Rozier

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    If LaMelo Ball doesn't have the keys to Buzz City yet, the mayor of Charlotte isn't doing it right. The 6'6" lead guard had an electric rookie run and promises to perhaps eventually lift the Hornets' ceiling higher than it's ever been.

    As for the keys to Charlotte's late-game offense, though, that's a different story. In that department, Terry Rozier remains the clear favorite for shots, since he's more of a natural bucket-getter than Ball, who does his best work as a facilitator.

    With so much attention paid to Ball's rapid rise and Gordon Hayward's return to near-All-Star production, Rozier's breakout season went largely unnoticed among casual fans. But the Hornets had a front-row view of his tremendous scoring punch, so they put the late-game offense in his hands, and he delivered by shooting 19-of-35 from the field, 11-of-20 from range and 15-of-17 at the line in the final two minutes of clutch situations.

Chicago Bulls: Zach LaVine

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    This should be a more interesting conversation than it will be, since DeMar DeRozan can steer a late-game attack. Last season, he trailed only Jayson Tatum with seven made baskets in the final minute to tie or take the lead.

    However, DeRozan, like Nikola Vucevic, was brought to Chicago to support Zach LaVine. And if the Bulls don't extend their All-Star guard before the season starts, they'll spend the campaign trying to convince him to stick around. That process is already well underway.

    "The one thing that we know is that we're committed to Zach," Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas said, per Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times. "We want him to be in Chicago for a very long time. I think the trade-deadline and free-agency moves kind of proved that."

    The Bulls are trying to build a playoff participant around LaVine, but no one is usurping him as the franchise focal point. He dominated Chicago's clutch field-goal attempts last season, and ripping those attempts away will not be part of their pitch for him to stay long term.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Darius Garland

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    This conversation might spawn a spirited debate among Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff and his assistants.

    Cleveland let Collin Sexton pilot the offense last season, and he responded by averaging 24.3 points on 47.5/37.1/81.5 shooting. Clutch offense was no different, as the scoring guard paced the club in points, makes, shots and assists.

    And yet, it feels like the tide is turning toward Darius Garland, who rebounded from a rough rookie season to flash the off-the-dribble offense and playmaking that helped make him the fifth overall pick in 2019. Cleveland.com's Chris Fedor reported that "many" inside the organization began regarding Garland "as the team's best—and most important—player moving forward." Sexton, meanwhile, was reportedly "very available" this summer in trades, per The Athletic's Jason Lloyd.

    The numbers say Sexton should be the choice here, but the momentum points toward Garland.

Dallas Mavericks: Luka Doncic

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    Imagine seeing anyone other than Luka Doncic in this spot. You never could, because if I went a different direction here, I'd be out of a job before the article published.

    Despite being 22 years old, Doncic already ranks among the NBA's elite and appears on the trajectory of an all-time great. That should be impossibly hyperbolic praise for someone with all of three seasons under his belt, but the numbers don't lie. Last season, he joined LeBron James and Oscar Robertson as the only players ever to tally 5,000 points, 1,500 assists and 1,500 rebounds within their first three years.

    Dallas has no misgivings about the kind of offensive superpower it possesses in Doncic. Last season, he had as many clutch assists as any of his teammates had clutch field-goal attempts (21).

Denver Nuggets: Nikola Jokic

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    Theoretically, the Nuggets would have options here—especially when they're full strength. Between Jamal Murray (sidelined by an ACL tear in his left knee) and new max-money recipient Michael Porter Jr., Denver has a pair of powerfully potent offensive weapons on the perimeter.

    But this offense runs through the MVP, Nikola Jokic—early in games, halfway through games, late in games.

    He's a unique point-producer as a 6'11", 284-pound center who can punish opponents in the post, rain down threes from distance and feed open teammates from all angles. The Nuggets don't need to overthink this, and they haven't. Last season, he had 42 more clutch shots and twice as many clutch assists (22) as any of his teammates.

Detroit Pistons: Jerami Grant

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    If I wanted to be bold, I'd go with top pick Cade Cunningham here. The Pistons probably aren't going to the playoffs this season, so why not let the rookie wet his feet in crunch-time moments, right?

    If I wanted to get reckless, I might offer up Killian Hayes, the No. 7 pick in 2020. Sure, his rookie season was rocked by injury and inefficiency, but his ceiling rivals a skyscraper's if he can find a jumper.

    In the end, though, I'm aiming for accuracy here, so Jerami Grant is the obvious choice. He may not be a No. 1 option in most markets, but in the Motor City, he's been free to devour the offensive opportunities buffet-style. He had Detroit's highest usage percentage last season (27.8), and that number climbed in the clutch (32.0).

Golden State Warriors: Stephen Curry

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    No. Brainer.

    Imagine the absolute-best-case scenario for the Warriors this season: Klay Thompson returning better than ever; Draymond Green awakening a three-point shot that's been dormant for five seasons; James Wiseman and Jordan Poole jostling for Most Improved Player; Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody earning Rookie of the Year votes; Andre Iguodala looking like he'd never left the Bay.

    You know what all of the above wouldn't change? Stephen Curry's position atop the late-game offense. With the best three-ball in the business, dribble moves to ditch defenders at any moment and a free-throw stroke that almost never misses, the reigning scoring champ has the full arsenal for crunch-time attacks.

Houston Rockets: Jalen Green

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    Few NBA teams find themselves in the position of needing to entrust a freshman with their clutch offensive opportunities, but that's where the Rockets reside.

    Christian Wood will get his touches, and Kevin Porter Jr. will have chances to shine, but Houston's rebuild is in the hands of No. 2 pick, Jalen Green.

    The 19-year-old product of the G League Ignite looks like a future scoring champion-in-training. He's an explosive athlete with a wicked handle and the courage to fire from anywhere at any time. He'll be prone to streaky shooting, which could knock him out of this role at times, but by season's end, he will have hoisted the most of Houston's biggest shots.

Indiana Pacers: Caris LeVert

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    Malcolm Brogdon might take issue with this, as he should. His game might not have loud enough moments to elicit major All-Star arguments outside the Circle City, but he's a 50/40/90 club member who netted 21.2 points per game last season.

    Domantas Sabonis, Indiana's lone All-Star, could have beef here, too. As the best passing big man not named Nikola Jokic and a perpetually improving scorer, Sabonis will serve as the Pacers' offensive hub for much of the game.

    Down the stretch, though, new Pacers skipper Rick Carlisle will most often call upon Caris LeVert, an effortlessly smooth swingman with more shake than a water glass when a T-Rex is near. (That's a Jurassic Park reference for the younger members of this audience.)

    Once LeVert debuted for the Pacers in mid-March, he immediately seized control of the crunch-time offense and fired off 41 clutch shots in 18 games—or just 26 fewer than all of his teammates combined.

Los Angeles Clippers: Paul George

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    Welcome to center stage, Paul George.

    He's already familiar with the spotlight, of course, as a seven-time All-Star, but this space would normally be reserved for Kawhi Leonard. Even if the Clippers view the partnership as a 1A-1B situation, it's clear which player is A and which one is B. Last season, Leonard had a healthy lead on George in clutch usage rate (36.2 to 32.0).

    However, Leonard is out indefinitely with a partial tear in his right ACL, leaving George to run unopposed as L.A.'s primary option.

    "I've been in this position, so it gives me a level of comfort being the No. 1 guy to start, and I'm ready to lead," George told reporters at media day last month.

Los Angeles Lakers: LeBron James

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    Russell Westbrook is more than comfortable commandeering crunch-time offense. Since his debut in 2008-09, the fiery floor general has fired up 805 clutch shots.

    That's the second-most in the entire Association over that stretch, but guess who tops that list? Westbrook's new teammate, LeBron James. Westbrook's offseason move to Hollywood put him in the King's court, and Westbrook sounds ready for a supporting role.

    "My job is to make sure that I'm able to make his game easy for him," Westbrook said of James.

    Last season, James was third on the Lakers in clutch minutes and first in clutch field-goal attempts—by 33 shots. L.A. might have other options with Westbrook and Anthony Davis, but James wears the crown for a reason.

Memphis Grizzlies: Ja Morant

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    There isn't much of a debate in Memphis.

    Dillon Brooks took nearly as many clutch shots as Ja Morant (58 to 67), but the latter was miles ahead in free-throw attempts (35 to eight) and assists (23 to six). That all added up to a 35.7 percent clutch usage rate for Morant, which trounced Brooks' 23.3.

    And remember, that was before Morant went off in his playoff debut, averaging 30.2 points and 8.2 assists in the Grizzlies' first-round loss to the Utah Jazz. Memphis' late-game offense is in great hands with its young point guard.

Miami Heat: Jimmy Butler

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    There aren't many modern closers who lack offensive range, so if Jimmy Butler were to lose this gig, he'd likely have his plummeting three-point percentage (24.4 the past two seasons) to blame. In that scenario, Miami might wind up looking toward Kyle Lowry or even Tyler Herro for its big-time buckets.

    Having said that, Butler shot 38.1 percent on all of his jumpers last season and still paced this squad in clutch shots (46) and usage percentage (33.7). His knack for drawing whistles helped cement him in that spot, as he accounted for 35 of the Heat's 89 clutch free-throw attempts.

    While the Heat lean heavily on their offensive system for points—dribble handoffs from Bam Adebayo, catch-and-fire shots for Herro and Duncan Robinson—they'll dial up isolations for Butler when they need a score.

Milwaukee Bucks: Khris Middleton

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    Two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo has a stranglehold on Milwaukee's offense until the game clock dictates that he doesn't. When the Bucks are desperate for a late-game dagger, they turn not to their superstar, but rather his All-Star sidekick, Khris Middleton. And Antetokounmpo is OK with that, which is probably why it works.

    "It comes down to trust," Antetokounmpo explained after Middleton netted 10 of Milwaukee's final 12 points to secure a Game 4 win in the NBA Finals, per ESPN's Tim Bontemps. "I trust him."

    If the mythical "clutch gene" exists, Middleton has it. He splashed 15 game-tying or go-ahead shots in the fourth quarter and overtime during the 2020 playoffs, which ESPN Stats & Info noted matched LeBron James (2007) for the most such makes in the last 25 years. The late-game formula worked well enough for the Bucks to snag their second-ever world title, so don't expect any tinkering this season.

Minnesota Timberwolves: D'Angelo Russell

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    This could cause some debates, as the obvious answer here seems like it should be Karl-Anthony Towns. He's a 6'11" center who splashes threes like a long, lost Splash Brother and dances around defenders in the post.

    But something about D'Angelo Russell kept the Wolves coming back to him last season for their biggest shots. Maybe it's that famed ice in his veins. Perhaps it's the 70 points he scored in 71 clutch minutes in 2020-21.

    Either way, he seems like the preferred choice down the stretch—for now, at least. It's possible Towns or Anthony Edwards will take the torch at any time, but Russell will enter the campaign in pole position.

New Orleans Pelicans: Zion Williamson

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    The numbers won't agree with that assessment. Or last season's didn't, at least. When New Orleans needed a last-second look, it typically tasked Brandon Ingram with the assignment. He took 72 clutch shots to Zion Williamson's 54, and Ingram's 30.3 clutch usage rate had a comfortable lead over Williamson's 26.1.

    So, why the change this season? A couple of things.

    First, the Pelicans focused on weaponizing Williamson more as the 2020-21 campaign progressed. His usage rate jumped from 27.5 before the All-Star break to 30.3 after. That's when New Orleans dabbled more with its Point Zion look, a terrifying development for opposing defenses that have to contend with a 6'7", 284-pound juggernaut leading the attack.

    Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, New Orleans needs to calm down any talk of discontent within Williamson's camp regarding his future with the franchise. The Pels should be bending over backward to ensure they'll be the club fortunate enough to watch him realize his skyscraper ceiling. Handing him the keys to their crunch-time offense seems like a natural step in that direction.

New York Knicks: Julius Randle

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    Knicks skipper Tom Thibodeau has a narrow circle of trust, and Julius Randle has worked his way to its epicenter.

    Last season, the veteran forward paced the league in total minutes and minutes per game. It's been right back on the bicycle, with Randle logging a team-high 30 minutes in the club's preseason opener.

    That trust runs right through New York's late-game offense, which Randle dominated last season. His 83 clutch shots were 30 more than anyone else fired in the Big Apple, and he also led the team in clutch free-throw attempts (34), clutch assists (19) and clutch turnovers (12).

Oklahoma City Thunder: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

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    This feels like a riddle a basketball troll might make you answer before crossing a bridge: Where does a team turn for its final shot when it's most beneficial to let the losses and attached draft-lottery odds pile up?

    If OKC is OK with outright tanking—it sat Shai Gilgeous-Alexander for good on March 22 and promptly lost 26 of its final 29 games—then just about everyone other than SGA might be an option. Let Aleksej Pokusevski run wild. Give rookie Josh Giddey complete control. Heck, start a promotion where one lucky fan comes down from the stands and takes over for the closing minutes.

    But if we're operating under the assumption the Thunder actually want to build some habits, then Gilgeous-Alexander might be the most obvious answer in this entire exercise. Among players with at least 10 appearances in clutch situations last season, his 45.3 usage rate topped them all.

Orlando Magic: Jalen Suggs

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    A word to the wise among the Magic faithful: Have distractions at the ready when this team hits the offensive end of the floor.

    It was bleak last season, when the team landed 29th in efficiency despite having players like Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon rostered up to the trade deadline. With those three gone, and Terrence Ross seemingly up next on the chopping block, this attack could be barely functional.

    Even getting back Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz—neither of whom will be ready to return from reconstructive knee surgeries by opening night, per The Athletic's Josh Robbins—won't help much, since they aren't accomplished contributors on offense. Orlando's best option, it seems, would be green-lighting rookie Jalen Suggs to take over and hoping some of his miracle makes at Gonzaga carry over to the NBA.

Philadelphia 76ers: Joel Embiid

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    No offense to Tobias Harris, Seth Curry or whomever the Sixers bring back for Ben Simmons, but there's no debate here. Joel Embiid is Philadelphia's closer. And its opener. And its...I don't know...mid-gamer?

    Few players in the profession can match his potency. He was hard enough to handle when he was a low-post maestro with a shaky jump shot. But now that he's hitting 37.7 percent of his threes and 44 percent of all his jumpers? Forget about it.

    Dating back to his debut in 2016-17, he has attempted 32 shots to tie or take the lead in the final minute. The next-closest Sixer over that stretch is Simmons—with 12. Philly is built to live or die with Embiid's late-game heroics, and those could prove more lethal than ever if the Sixers emerge from the Simmons saga with a more properly spaced offense.

Phoenix Suns: Devin Booker

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    Last season, the Suns dialed up a near-even split of crunch-time opportunities for Devin Booker and Chris Paul. The former took 44 shots in the final two minutes with a point differential of five or less; the latter attempted 43.

    Optionality is good late in games, as it keeps opponents on their toes. With that in mind, it's possible Phoenix goes with a similar arrangement.

    However, with the 36-year-old Paul aging out of his prime and the 24-year-old Booker probing deeper into his own, it might make sense to start the separation. While Paul could keep initiating a lot of these actions, Booker should finish more of them. There's more volume in his three-point game, more free passes to the charity stripe and sneaky-good effectiveness on his post-ups (83 points on 77 possessions last season).

Portland Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard

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    I mean, do I even have to explain this one?

    The fact that "Dame Time" is a recognized period across the entire hoops community speaks volumes about the late-game excellence of one Damian Lillard. He's cooler than an ice pick when the clock is winding down—and just as dangerous. Last season, he was one more three-ball away from going 50/40/90 in the final two minutes of close games (he "settled" for a 53.3/37.5/97.9 slash line instead).

    Powerful out of pick-and-rolls, brilliant off the bounce and in shooting range as soon as he steps off the bus, Lillard is nothing less than a late-game assassin. Dating back to his 2012-13 debut, he has splashed an NBA-best 80 shots to tie or take the lead in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime.

Sacramento Kings: De'Aaron Fox

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    Six qualified players had higher clutch usage rates than De'Aaron Fox's 38.5 last season. When it's closing time for the Kings, they know where to look.

    Would it help if he was a more accurate shooter from range? In theory, sure, but that's only an issue if defenders can stay in front of him. They rarely can, and when they do, they often send him to the line (team-high 38 clutch free-throw attempts in 2020-21).

    Sacramento could diversify some of its late-game offense if Tyrese Haliburton makes a sophomore leap and rookie Davion Mitchell hits the ground running, but Fox will sit atop the crunch-time pecking order regardless.

San Antonio Spurs: Dejounte Murray

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    It's transition time for what has typically been the most stable team in Texas—if not the NBA at large. Among the many issues for the Spurs to tackle as they embark on their first youth movement in decades is who takes over for DeMar DeRozan as the last-second-shot supplier.

    Last season, it was DeRozan over everyone down the stretch. He took 93 clutch shots; no other Spur topped 45. He also accounted for 61 of the team's 120 clutch free-throw attempts.

    With DeRozan off to the Windy City, the late-game burden might not fall on the shoulders of Dejounte Murray. That's by no means guaranteed—Derrick White, Keldon Johnson, Lonnie Walker IV and Devin Vassell could all audition for the role—but Murray might offer the best blend of attacking, mid-range shooting and shot-creating to win the job.

Toronto Raptors: Pascal Siakam

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    Pascal Siakam didn't always look the part last season, but he remains the toughest cover on the Raptors roster.

    That should get him the late-game nod over Fred VanVleet, who paced the team in clutch shots last season with 49 but only converted 14 of those attempts.

    When Siakam has it rolling, he can use his size to bully smaller defenders and his speed to race around bigger ones. He isolated more than any Raptor last season and wound up in the 63rd percentile on those plays. That may not be jaw-dropping efficiency, but considering he posted his worst true shooting percentage in four seasons, it's fair to assume some positive regression is coming.

Utah Jazz: Donovan Mitchell

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    While Utah has upped its scoring power around Donovan Mitchell across his first four seasons in Salt Lake City, that hasn't lessened its reliance on the high-scoring guard. In fact, his 33.5 usage percentage in 2020-21 was the highest of his career.

    That's never more obvious than in crunch time, where Mitchell is clearly the first option. His 43.4 clutch usage percentage ranked third-highest among all qualified players, and he paced all Jazz players in clutch points, shots, free throws and assists.

    This isn't a Mitchell-or-bust offense as it sometimes appeared early in his career. Mike Conley, Jordan Clarkson and Bojan Bogdanovic offer alternatives for coach Quin Snyder to explore. But if the Jazz get backed into a corner, Mitchell is the player they'll task with finding a way out.

Washington Wizards: Bradley Beal

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    Bradley Beal basically spent all of last season on a scoring binge, but he wasn't always assigned with closing duties. He took the most clutch shots for the Wizards, but only by a minuscule margin: 99 for Beal, 97 for Russell Westbrook.

    But Brodie is out of the District, and his replacement, Spencer Dinwiddie, hasn't seen regular-season action since partially tearing his ACL in his right knee in December 2020. Even when Dinwiddie was healthy, he never dominated an offense the way Westbrook has, so Beal's competition for the final shot is minimal at most.

    Washington has positioned Beal front and center of its short- and long-term plans—hence the Wizards haven't brokered the oft-speculated blockbuster trade—and its late-game offense is just as Beal-centric.

                    

    Stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball Reference and Stathead unless otherwise noted.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.

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