Chicago Bulls: Is Ben Gordon Really Mr. Fourth Quarter?

Charlie DanoffCorrespondent IJanuary 9, 2008

Republished with permission from The Chicago Sports Review

Following Jim Boylan's coaching debut and Ben Gordon's superhuman fourth-quarter effort to secure the victory, Michael Redd summed up the performance .

"Mr. Fourth Quarter did a great job tonight making plays."

Last Thursday I attended the Bulls vs. Blazers game and got a chance to watch "Mr. Fourth Quarter" in action as the Bulls battled the Blazers into double OT. Big shot after big shot fell for Gordon—until his final attempt.

Guarded by Brandon Roy, Gordon made a quick move then went up for the shot. Roy put his arms up for the block, but did not touch the ball. Some sort of strange magic was afoot, as the ball drifted out of Gordon's hands just as he elevated. Next thing I knew, Gordon had fouled Jarret Jack on the opposing end and the Bulls had lost.

The detective in me got his interest piqued following the debacle, and I decided to do a thorough investigation of Gordon's career to see if he deserved the noble title Mr. Redd had given him. Starting with 2004-05, when he was the first-ever rookie to win the Sixth Man of the Year Award, I sorted through the details to uncover the truth.

Despite being the third overall pick in the draft, Gordon started only three games as a rookie, coming off the bench behind fellow rookie (pick No. 37) Chris Duhon and Kirk Hinrich. Many rookie lottery picks would sulk if they lost their starting spot to a second rounder—Gordon, on the other hand, took the high road, apparently understanding that the decision was made to give the Bulls the best chance to win.

Overall, his first year numbers were nothing earth-shattering: 15.1 PPG, 2 APG and 2.7 RPG. What was special was his uncanny ability to have victory-saving fourth quarters.

To prove my claim, I turned, as usual, to mathematics' least-refined and most-exploited school: statistics. I began by looking for splits by quarter, to see how Gordon's numbers compared across each 15-minute segment. For some cruel reason, stats by quarter are not regularly kept.

The best proxy I could find was on 82games.com, in their Clutch Statistics section. Clutch is defined as, "in the 4th quarter or overtime, less than 5 minutes left, neither team ahead by more than 5 points." These precious moments are when the game's result is still dangerously undefined. Players that find a way to excel in these moments end up immortalized in the minds of fans.

There is no live NBA spectator experience more brag-worthy than watching a ball fly through the air as the clock expires, not even touching the netting as it floats back to earth, with the shooter's team winning by one.

If you don't believe me, ask anyone who saw a last-second Jordan shot. Pay attention as a fire lights up in their pupils and they become exceedingly animated, most likely personally reenacting the shot as they tell their tale.

Since Elvis left the United Center, the Bulls have been hard pressed to find guys to fill the role of preeminent, ballsy late game performer. Elton Brand? For whatever reason, big men rarely are the ones to score game winning baskets (see Tim Duncan & Shaq). Ron Mercer? Uh, next. Jalen Rose? Maybe, MAYBE, at Michigan… Unfortunately, Chris Webber somewhat denied him the chance to really prove himself. As a pro all he proved to be was an overpaid prima donna, not someone to make a big basket.

Gordon changed all that. The main reason he won the Sixth Man award was his consistent virtuoso, late-game performances. In the table below, you can see Gordon's per-40 minute numbers over four quarters of play and in the clutch. Comparing based on his per-40 numbers, as opposed to averages, allows for a better understanding of whether Gordon played differently with the game on the line. To say he averaged 20 PPG and 2.0 in the last five minutes is not quite as helpful.

2004-054 Quarters8.721.141%48%48%5%4.624.8
2005-064 Quarters7.918.642%49%48%6%3.521.8
2006-074 Quarters9.019.846%51%45%4%5.625.9
2007-084 Quarters7.718.841%46%54%5%4.021.1
Average4 Quarters8.319.642%49%49%5%4.423.4
(4 Quarters)

Over the course of his rookie season, Gordon shot a very respectable 48 percent—but in the Clutch moments, he had a Reggie Miller-esque 58 percent eFG%. Even if you just wanted to look at his regular FG% of 48 percent, it is crazy to think that, with the game on the line and the entire opposing team keying on him, this diminutive rookie shooting guard made nearly 50 percent of his attempts.

In addition to shooting better, Gordon also shot more often in the clutch, scored roughly 10 more points per 40 minutes, and made about twice as many free throws. For his first year, anyway, I think it is safe to say Gordon was about as cool as a cucumber when the pressure was at its highest.

The following season, Gordon's average minutes (24 to 31), points (15 to 17) and assists (2 to 3) all rose as he moved primarily into a starting role. In addition, Gordon also took on additional responsibilities his sophomore season. He was required to put in more effort on defense—though he was still weak—and spell Hinrich at point guard from time to time.

Though becoming a more complete player must have drained his energy, Gordon saved enough to still be markedly better in the clutch. His per-40 numbers in the last five minutes were still ten-plus points greater than his four-quarter scoring. Compared to the year before, his clutch shooting percentages and free throws made dipped slightly; but he still managed to score more, because he took more shots.

The next season, Gordon's four-quarter numbers continued to steadily climb. For the first time, his eFG% over the course of a game was above 50 percent. He also shot more, and thanks to the increase in his percentage of makes, his scoring numbers went up as well. While his overall numbers were better, the last five minutes of a close game were a different story.

The 2006-07 clutch was the first time in his career that Gordon performed markedly worse than he did over the rest of the game. Whether it was the case of a year-late sophomore slump, defenses catching up to him, or overall fatigue trying to live up to his increased expectations, Gordon's eFG% in the clutch was more than 10 percent worse than regular. He made a paltry 36 percent of his attempts.

Hard to say he was Mr. Fourth Quarter in his third season.

Even with all the bricks he was throwing up, Gordon's scoring in the clutch still went up relative to the year before. Part of the increase can be attributed to shooting more, but the biggest reason was a significant increase in the number of free throws he made—from 6.5 to 14.7.

This is an aspect of the game where Gordon is strangely deficient. It is not that he has problems making the free throws he takes—an 85 percent career free throw percentage is actually quite impressive. The problem Gordon has is actually getting to the line in the first place.

Free throws are (or should be) the easiest way to score points in basketball. I mean, they are called free throws for a reason. For big-time scorers, in times where your shot is not falling, aggressively taking the ball to the hoop to draw fouls is a surefire way to make sure you still get your points.

Gordon, however, seems to ignore this—he takes almost all of his shots from the perimeter. In other words, Gordon scores a lot, but does it in the most difficult way possible. Is it easier to make a 3-foot bank shot, or a fade away three-pointer over a taller defender, as he recently did against Orlando?

At least Gordon seems to have recognized that he needed to improve this aspect of his game. Once again in 07-08, his clutch numbers have seen an increase in FTM; and, consequently, his overall points. His clutch eFG% has also returned to his previous level, at 52 percent.

Anyone who has been watching the Bulls over the past couple of weeks would definitely have to say Gordon's fourth quarter magic has returned since he returned to his sixth man role. For the year, he is scoring nearly twice as many points in the clutch (per-40) as he does in regulation.

When he needs to score with the game on the line, he gets to the line. But over the rest of the contest, he chooses to make life difficult for himself. Over four quarters, he only makes about four free throws per game! This year it is particularly annoying, as he is shooting over 92 percent from the line.

Maybe he just doesn't like the rough play that follows from attacking the hoop looking to draw a foul. Maybe he cannot stand the smell of NBA big men. Whatever it is, compared to the NBA's best short 2-guard, Allen Iverson, who makes almost eight free throws per game (twice as many as Ben), Gordon has a lot of work to do.

So, then—is Gordon deserving of the nickname or not? Certainly it seemed appropriate in his first two seasons, but not as much in his third. So far this season he has largely lived up to the lofty title, especially since he has resumed his—dare I say—proper role of sixth man. If the Bulls are to have any hope of making this year's postseason dance, Gordon will have to find a way to continue to elevate his clutch performance.

A good start would be getting more of those points they give away for "free."

* * * * * * * * *

Écrit près Charlie Danoff