Identifying Clutch Players in the NBA: 2016/17 Analysis

Recalling my playing days in the NCAA, our coach would have us run two- and three-minute drills to replicate clutch scenarios. “Down five with two-minutes to go” would be the most common of these drills. Our top player, one practice, proclaimed that he should always get the ball because he’s the top scorer and “always gets the job done.” In response our coach did two things:

  1. Reply with “Taking five shots to score two points doesn’t mean shit.”
  2. Scrapping the drill and having us run until that player “realizes team comes first.” That drill was the twenty suicides in twenty minutes; where the first is in 45 seconds with 15 seconds break…. the last is in 26 seconds. I still have nightmares about that one today.

Back in the 90’s and early 00’s, our team prided on efficiency, but used the metric of points over field goal attempts. A slightly adjusted version of this metric today is the effective Field Goal percentage, which has its advantages (truer form of field goal efficiency) and disadvantages (down-weights players that are effective at drawing fouls; sorry Westbrook) as well.

The moral of the story is this: when games come down to the wire, who should have the ball in their hands? Is it the one with the best efficiency? Or is it the one who has the better ability to score? These two players are rarely the same. A classic example is a three-point specialist versus a volume shooter: Steve Kerr vs. Michael Jordan. Both options have their pro’s and con’s. But the question really comes down to this more real-life scenario for a team like the Sacramento Kings: Would you rather have Darren Collison or Buddy Hield shooting in crunch time?

This question is tougher to answer.

Defining Clutch – Old School

Crunch time has been commonly suggested as “within five points with five minutes remaining in the game.”  Taking this suggestion at its word, we look at all 1,230 games in the NBA for the 2016/17 season and select all scoring attempts that are within five minutes and within five points. Note that if a basket is made that pushes the score to 7, then all possessions are no longer counted until we are back within the desired 5 point threshold. Taking this one step further, let’s also consider players that pick up assists in these situations.

In these situations, we find that there are 368 players who have attempted at least one scoring attempt. That’s 75.7% of all possible NBA players for the season! To be careful, however, there are 119 players that have three or less field goal attempts in this scenario. These players are commonly closer to the five-and-five boundary than at the “under a minute and one possession” scenario.

If we include assist men; players with no scoring attempts within this scenario… we obtain four extra players: Nick Collison, Yogi Ferrell, Omri Casspi, and Kris Humphries. If we separate players who played for two teams, we obtain a few added entries, such as Yogi Farrell (actually had scoring attempts with Dallas; none in Brooklyn), Tyreke Evans, Terrence Ross, Taj Gibson, Quinn Cook, and so on. The list balloons from 368 players to 409 players.

Top Clutch Scorers

The top clutch scorers are those who produce the most points in the five-and-five crunch time. First, let’s look at the distribution of the 409 players that recorded a scoring statistic during this period of time.

Clutch5

Distribution of points scored during the “5-and-5” crunch time. Points are aligned along the vertical axis; player order is along the horizontal axis.

We immediately see that Russell Westbrook (OKC) leads the league with points scored at 209. After that, Isaiah Thoms (BOS) is second at 172 points scored. After that DeMarcus Cousins (half-season SAC) is third with 150 points, along with Damian Lillard (POR) at fourth with 148 points. These four players are clearly separated before a series of eight players are tangled together between 133 and 117 points. These players are C.J. McCollum (133), Jimmy Butler (130), John Wall (128), Eric Bledsoe (124), Kemba Walker (123), Bradley Beal (119), Devin Booker (119), and Andrew Wiggins (117).

That’s the top 12 scorers during the 5-and-5 time. However, these players are not necessarily the top shooters. For that, we take a look at effective field-goal percentage and our college version of points per attempt.

Top eFGP Shooters

If we look at the most efficient scorers, we see quite a different story. First, we partition the shooters by their number of scoring opportunities. If a player has had at least 20 scoring attempts, they are considered for effective Field Goal Percentage. We define a scoring attempt as either a field goal attempt or a trip to the foul line modulus 2. This will account for all scoring opportunities with adding extra opportunities for “and-ones” while including at least two or three free throws as a single attempt.In doing this, we reduce the number of clutch players from 409 down to 145.

As a wild phenomenon, who is the worst clutch shooter in this situation? Klay Thompson (GSW). Thompson has a stat line of 4-21 (.1905) FG, 1-14 (.0714) 3FG, 6-7 (.8571) FT, and 15 points. His eFGP is an atrocious 0.2143.

The top clutch shooter in this situation? DeAndre Jordan (LAC). Jordan has a stat line of 20-23 (.8696) FG, 11-35 (.3143) FT, and 51 points. His eFGP is 0.8696. Note that his free throws do not affect his eFGP; despite being a severe liability late in games due to his free throw shooting. We’ll touch on this in a little bit.

The distribution of eFGP across the 145 players shows that Jordan is far and above the top eFGP guy in the league. Then there are two groupings of higher players with the first group being Justin Holiday (NYK), Patty Mills (SAS), and Andre Drummond (DET) with eFGP in the 0.7000 range; the second group being Marcin Gortat (WAS), Tim Hardaway Jr. (ATL), Matt Barnes (SAC), Courtney Lee (NYK), and Rudy Gobert (UTA) with values between 0.6667 and 0.7000. What should be noticed here? None of the top scorers are listed.

ClutcheFGP

Distribution of clutch effective Field Goal Percentages in the 2016/17 NBA Season. Minimum 20 scoring opportunities.

In fact, we find that the top scorers are relatively mediocre (for NBA) shooters. So let’s include free throws into the mix.

Top Points Per Opportunity (PPO) Players

If we include free throws into the mix, then every and-one attempt is appended to a made field goal attempt and every other free throw pairing (2 or 3) attempt is viewed as one opportunity. Then we merely divide out points per opportunity to obtain the ordering of players. When doing this, we find that Justin Holiday (NYK) is the top clutch player as he averages 1.5652 points per opportunity. Let’s look at his stat line quick: 12-21 (.5714) FG, 8-12 (.7500) 3FG, 4-4 (1.0000) FT, 36 points. That’s a solid stat line.

Right behind Holiday? Patty Mills (SAS). His stat line reads 14-26 (.5385) FG, 11-18 (.6111) 3FG, 2-4 (.500) FT, 41 points.

We find that DeAndre Jordan’s and Andre Drummond’s free-throw liabilities drop them out of the top ten. Jordan falls from 1st to 19th on the list while Drummond falls from 4th to 22nd. We also see that the three point shooters rise up the list as all but three of the top 17 players have stellar three point FG percentages. Those three players are Marcin Gortat (0-0), Marvin Williams (7-18), and Jordan Clarkson (4-13).

clutchPPO

Distribution of clutch points per opportunity (PPO) players for the 2016/17 NBA season. Minimum 20 opportunities.

We see that Isaiah Thomas moves back up to 34th from 58th (eFGP) on the list with 1.2112 points per opportunity. DeMarcus Cousins drops from 63rd (eFGP) to 67th with 1.1194 points per opportunity. Russell Westbrook bumps from 89th (eFGP) to 84th. Damian Lillard sky-rockets from 123rd (eFGP) to 98th.

What this breakdown effectively tells us is that the high volume players are stable scorers. They average more than a point per opportunity; which is what a team needs in order to win games. However, they require skilled shooters such as three-point specialists like Patty Mills or Tim Hardaway Jr. to help get large chunks of points at a time. Furthermore, having dominant big men who score almost every time they shoot the ball (Jordan, Drummond) are key in clutch perfromances, but their free throw shooting liability are detrimental in these late game situations. So who’s the most clutch? Well, by the numbers, it’s the three point shooters. They score the most points in the least amount of attempts and are not free throw liabilities. However, these guys are open because of their superstar players finding them while warding off double-teams and concerted efforts to stop them in crunch time. For example, Russell Westbrook is FOURTH in assists in these situations with 25. Only John Wall (33), Ricky Rubio (28), and Dennis Schroeder (26) are ahead of him. Damian Lillard is not far behind with 17 assists.

So let’s beef this up…

Less than a minute, one possession.

In the NBA playoffs, Paul George lamented that he should have had the last shot attempt in their Pacers’ close 108-109 defeat to the Cavaliers in Game 1. So let’s look at all players who have had such similar attempts in the final minute, within one possession. Here, we will define a possession by modulo three. In this case, we still had 269 players log a scoring attempt during the final minute of a one possession game!

Top possession players:

  1. Russell Westbrook (OKC) – 50 opportunities
  2. DeMarcus Cousins (SAC) – 34 opportunities
  3. Jimmy Butler (CHI) – 30 opportunities
  4. Isaiah Thomas (BOS) – 25 opportunities
  5. Carmelo Anthony (NYK) – 24 opportunities
  6. Damian Lillard (POR) – 23 opportunities
  7. Andrew Wiggins (MIN) – 22 opportunities
  8. C.J. McCollum (POR) – 21 opportunities
  9. Kawhi Leonard (SAS) – 20 opportunities
  10. James Harden (HOU) – 20 opportunities

The top ten scorers are then:

  1. Russell Westbrook (OKC) – 50
  2. Jimmy Butler (CHI) – 43
  3. DeMarcus Cousins (SAC) – 40
  4. C.J. McCollum (POR) – 34
  5. Isaiah Thomas (BOS) – 30
  6. Eric Bledsoe (PHX) – 25
  7. Carmelo Anthony (NYK) – 24
  8. Damian Lillard (POR) – 24
  9. Kemba Walker (CHA) – 23
  10. Devin Booker (PHX) – 23

Here we find that Russell Westbrook is averaging exactly a point per opportunity. While one point per opportunity is the minimum goal for an NBA player (think of this as a team averaging between 95 and 105 points a game); Westbrook is far from efficient.

Effective Field Goal Percentage

The leader for eFGP should be no surprise here: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. His stat-line over the final minute of a one-possession game should read as a GM’s dream player: 8-11 (.7273) FG, 4-6 (.6667) 3PFG, 1-2 (.5000) FT, 21 points over 12 opportunities to score. The only knock against Caldwell-Pope in these situation is the goose-egg of assists during this time: 0.

  1. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (DET) – 0.9091
  2. C.J. McCollum (POR) – 0.7813
  3. Eric Bledsoe (PHX) – 0.7308
  4. Jimmy Butler (CHI) – 0.6786
  5. Devin Booker (PHX) – 0.6667
  6. Marc Gasol (MEM) – 0.6500
  7. Kemba Walker (CHA) – 0.5938
  8. DeMarcus Cousins (SAC) – 0.5893
  9. Kyrie Irving (CLE) – 0.5500
  10. Isaiah Thomas (BOS) – 0.5000
  11. Paul Millsap (ATL) – 0.5000
  12. Dennis Schroder (ATL) – 0.5000
  13. Bradley Beal (WAS) – 0.5000
  14. Kyle Lowry (TOR) – 0.5000

We see a few familiar faces in this crowd with Cousins, McCollum, Thomas, Booker and Walker. However, we find Marc Gasol and Kyrie Irving creeping into this list. Irving has not had the luxury of getting opportunities: 11 total. Gasol, on the other hand has been a steady fifty percent shooter over 14 opportunities with 5-10 FG and 3-7 3FG.

Another interesting note is that Kevin Durant has a stat-line of 1-5 FG, 0-3 3FG, 4-4 FT in these situations. Similarly, Stephen Curry has a stat-line of 2-10 FG, 0-4 3FG, 0-1 FT. Ouch. Fortunately the Warriors are rarely in these types of situations logging a mere 23 opportunities of one possession games within the final minute of regulation or OT.

Points Per Opportunity

Looking at PPO, we find Caldwell-Pope still heading the top of the list, but we also find some solid three point shooting cover the list:

  1. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (DET) – 1.7500
  2. C.J. McCollum (POR) – 1.6190
  3. Eric Bledsoe (PHX) – 1.5625
  4. Jimmy Butler (CHI) – 1.4333
  5. Marc Gasol (MEM) – 1.4286
  6. Devin Booker (PHX) – 1.3529
  7. Kemba Walker (CHA) – 1.2778
  8. Isaiah Thomas (BOS) – 1.2000
  9. Kyrie Irving (CLE) – 1.1818
  10. DeMarcus Cousins (SAC) – 1.1765

We see a slight shuffle among the players, with free throws accounting for the shuffle, effectively.

Last Second Attempts

Finally, we look at last second attempts. These are attempts that occur with ten or less seconds in the game. Here we still have 177 players with an opportunity. These also include not only shot attempts, but put-back attempts and heaves that are recorded as attempts. In this case, here are the leaders in opportunities:

  1. Russell Westbrook (OKC) – 18
  2. Carmelo Anthony (NYK) – 12
  3. Damian Lillard (POR) – 11
  4. Devin Booker (PHX) – 9
  5. Jimmy Butler (CHI) – 8
  6. Andrew Wiggins (MIN) – 8
  7. DeMarcus Cousins (SAC) – 8
  8. James Harden (HOU) – 7
  9. John Wall (WAS) – 7
  10. Paul Millsap (ATL) – 7

The last-second scoring leaders (points) are:

  1. Russell Westbrook (OKC) – 21
  2. Jimmy Butler (CHI) – 17
  3. Devin Booker (PHX) – 15
  4. Damian Lillard (POR) – 14
  5. Carmelo Anthony (NYK) – 10
  6. Paul Millsap (ATL) – 10
  7. Isaiah Thomas (BOS) – 8
  8. Kyle Lowry (TOR) – 8
  9. Robert Covington (PHI) – 8
  10. Dirk Nowitzki (DAL) -8

Note that DeMarcus Cousins falls off this list of scorers despite being a top ten opportunity player. We make note of this because Darren Collison scores more points in the final ten seconds of a one possession game than Cousins. (7 points over 6 points).

Effective Field Goal Percentage and Points Per Opportunity

While points are required to win, we still would prefer to look at eFGP and PPO to identify clutch players. Here we look at players who have at least three scoring opportunities within the final ten seconds of a one possession game. For eFGP we get:

  1. Dirk Nowitzki (DAL) – 1.3333
  2. Robert Covington (PHI) – 1.1667
  3. Jimmy Butler (CHI) – 1.0833
  4. Serge Ibaka (ORL) – 1.0000
  5. Kyrie Irving (CLE) – 0.8750
  6. Devin Booker (PHX) – 0.8571
  7. Kyle Lowry (TOR) – 0.8000
  8. Eric Bledsoe (PHX) – 0.7500
  9. Ersan Illyasova (PHI) – 0.7500
  10. Courtney Lee (NYK) – 0.7500

Here we find a wildly different list, thanks to small numbers. Almost every player on this list, that are not on previous lists, have exactly three attempts (Nowitzki, Covington, Ibaka, Lee). If we change this to four or more opportunities, we get slightly different results, highlighted by PPO:

  1. Jimmy Butler (CHI) – 2.1250
  2. Kyrie Irving (CLE) – 1.7500
  3. Devin Booker (PHX) – 1.6667
  4. Kyle Lowry (TOR) – 1.6000
  5. Eric Bledsoe (PHX) – 1.5000
  6. Ersan Illyasova (PHI) – 1.5000
  7. Paul Millsap (ATL) – 1.4286
  8. C.J. McCollum (POR) – 1.4000
  9. Darren Collison (SAC) – 1.4000
  10. Isaiah Thomas (BOS) – 1.3333

So who has not been on the list? Paul George. While his complaint came up, there have been several articles detailing his history and go-ahead shot attempts. It’s not good. In fact, in single-possession situations, Paul George is 1-4 FG, 0-2 3FG, 3-4 FT. These are single possession games. If they are down, George’s numbers are 0-2 FG, 0-1 3FG, 0-0 FT. Small numbers, indeed, but there are several players with better small number evidence of out-performing George.

As an interesting note, in the same ten second situation, here are the numbers for the current NBA champion Warriors:

Screen Shot 2017-06-25 at 3.21.59 PM

That’s right… Curry, Durant, and Thompson have combined for a stat line of 0-8 FG, 0-4 3FG, 0-1 FT across 8 opportunities with a single possession and ten seconds remaining.

So who is the most clutch?

If we look across the 5-and-5, 1-and-3, and ten second scenarios, the answer is clear: not Paul George. However, across every list, this player is always on the board; in every situation.

This player is Jimmy Butler.

After that, the next three clutch players are Isaiah Thomas, C.J. McCollum, and Devin Booker. Refusing to separate these three players, we are making note that defenses react differently to each of these players. While McCollum’s and Booker’s eFGP and PPO are higher than Thomas’, it’s Thomas’ ability to score as the primary scoring option on the team, while posting a top-10/15 eFGP and PPO in every situation that keeps him in the top four.

So who do you think is most clutch?

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