On Friday night against the Utah Jazz, LeBron James put up one of those statlines where you would know it was him without even looking at the name attached to it: 35 points, 16-for-24 shooting, 10 rebounds, six assists, three blocks and no turnovers. Ridiculous, right? Too bad the Heat still lost the game by a point, and when LeBron passed out of a double team to a wide open Udonis Haslem for the potential game-winning shot — and Haslem missed the shot as the clock expired — the buzz on Twitter was mostly about how LeBron “wilted in the clutch” yet again.
The “LeBron isn’t clutch” narrative annoys me because too many people narrowly define clutch as “making the game-winning shot”. If you watched that final play and you’re completely objective about LeBron, you should agree with me that LeBron made the right play. LeBron was double-covered, Haslem is a decent mid-range shooter, and Haslem was open. Just because Kobe Bryant probably would have taken the shot in that situation, that doesn’t make it the right play.
Of course, what would be defined as “the right play” for most basketball players doesn’t apply to Kobe Bryant — according to some people, anyway. If you replace LeBron with Kobe and Haslem with Pau Gasol on that same play, I imagine most Lakers fans would want Kobe to take that shot. And the reason why they want Kobe to take that game-deciding shot is because of his reputation as the best clutch shooter in the NBA.
This reputation doesn’t just exist in the minds of fans. In a January survery of NBA General Managers by NBA.com, 48.1 percent of the respondents said they would want Kobe “taking a shot with the game on the line”. In last year’s survey, Kobe was named by 78.6 percent of the respondents. Most likely, the GMs feel this way about Kobe for the same reason his fans do — he’s made a lot of memorable buzzer-beaters in his career. He’s also missed a lot of those shots, and I’ve long believed that the quantity of his misses gets overlooked in this narrative.
Luckily for us, Basketball-Reference.com recently launched their “Shot Finder” which claims to track every shot from the 2000-01 season through to this season — up to the February 28 games, as of this writing. The table below shows the results of my Shot Finder query with the following criteria: regular season or playoffs, fourth quarter or overtime, 0:05 or less remaining, shot to tie or to take the lead. The Shot Finder doesn’t let you query across multiple seasons, so I did it for this season and the previous two seasons and added up the numbers for 35 of the most prominent players in terms of overall fame/ability or their tendency to take these shots. If you think I excluded a worthy player, feel free to look him up yourself.
As you can see, I sorted the results by field goals made. Part of me wants to dismiss the meaning behind these numbers because of the sample size — would you be comfortable making an absolute judgement on a player’s shooting skill based on 23 or fewer field goal attempts? But when it comes right down to it, these numbers do absolutely nothing to change Kobe’s and LeBron’s reputations.
As it turns out, Kevin Durant appears to have the most undeserved reputation as a clutch performer. He received 30.8 percent of the GM votes for “taking a shot with the game on the line” and while he’s taken more of those shots than anyone else, his results in those situations have been dismal. As Skeets and Tas have frequently pointed out, Thunder coach Scott Brooks’ playcalling probably deserves a lot of the blame for this.
For me, the most compelling number in this table is the combined field goal percentage for these players. We would all probably guess that the field goal percentage in these situations would be lower than in other situations because of the defensive intensity associated with game-deciding scenarios. But the shockingly poor field goal percentages of so many of the game’s elite players in these situations makes me wonder if coaches should start experimenting with using their stars as decoys in clutch moments. If the defense has a pretty good idea who is going to take that shot, the difficulty level for that player making the shot clearly goes way up.
Small sample sizes and all, it’s hard to make a good case that LeBron should have taken that final shot on Friday. Haslem was open, LeBron wasn’t, and LeBron doesn’t appear comfortable taking those shots, regardless. As for Kobe, it appears I owe him and his fans an apology for doubting his legend as much as I have. I still believe the concept of “clutch shooting” is overrated, but I certainly can’t continue implying that Kobe’s reputation is undeserved.