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The NBA's best clutch scorers
2002-03 Regular Season

There's a theory that the first three quarters of an NBA game bear little resemblance to the action of a close game down the stretch in the fourth quarter. Defenses get tighter and more physical, the fastbreak baskets of the early going become a distant memory as grinding halfcourt sets take over, and under pressure some players fold while others come to life.

Any basketball fan worth his hops loves watching a close game in the waning minutes. A task for us number crunchers to investigate, is which players excel when games are on the line?

First up we'll look at the scorers, in various categories. Please note that in all cases we define clutch moments in a game as those in the fourth quarter or overtime when neither team has a lead of more than five points.

1) Field Goals Attempted
"Hold on," you're saying, "I don't rank great clutch shooters by who takes the most shots!" Well, actually the number of attempted shots in crunch time is an important indicator of a player's pressure ability. The great ones (and some of the not so great ones) want the ball in the endgame, but we can also find a fair number of guys who jack it up without a thought in the early stages of a game but suddenly are passing the rock when it matters the most.
Field Goals Attempts per 48 Minutes
Player
Team
Clutch
All
 Bryant
LAL
33.3
27.4
 Rose
CHI
29.8
23.0
 McGrady
ORL
29.0
29.8
 Pierce
BOS
28.1
24.9
 Iverson
PHI
26.9
27.0
 Allen
MIL
26.7
23.1
 Houston
NY
26.7
22.8
 Webber
SAC
26.6
26.5
 Mashburn
NO
26.5
23.1
 Billups
DET
25.4
18.1
Kobe's numbers are a little inflated since Shaq was missing early on. Still, the top ten here are all ready to step up and take the make or break shot. Most prominent in the "ready for prime time" brigade is Chauncy Billups, whose field goal attempts per 48 minutes increased the most of any player in the league when the game was on the line (Rose was #2, Bryant #3, and 4th quarter wonder Earl Boykins was #4).

Players who took far fewer shots include Nesterovic, Cliff Robinson, Ilgauskas, Hamilton, Wesley and Brad Miller.

2) Points Scored
All right, we've had the appetizer, let's turn to the main dish: points scored per 48 minutes of clutch floor time. Some guys do it from outside, some drive the lane, other take a pass and dunk it. The best also get to the line for some charity stripe points. It all counts!
Points Scored per 48 Minutes
Player
Team
Clutch
All
 McGrady
ORL
37.7
39.4
 Bryant
LAL
37.3
35.0
 O'Neal
LAL
36.3
35.1
 Billups
DET
35.6
24.8
 Allen
SEA
34.9
28.7
 Rose
CHI
34.6
26.4
 Marbury
PHO
34.2
27.0
 Pierce
BOS
33.8
32.0
 Nowitzki
DAL
33.6
31.2
 Duncan
SA
33.1
28.8
 Iverson
PHI
32.8
31.5
 Francis
HOU
31.2
24.9
 Arenas
GS
31.2
25.3
 Houston
NY
30.6
28.7
 Webber
SAC
30.5
28.5
 Garnett
MIN
30.4
27.5
 Jordan
WAS
30.3
26.3
 Allen
MIL
30.3
28.8
 Malone
UTA
30.1
27.6
 Mashburn
NO
30.0
25.7
 Boykins
GS
30.0
22.2

We've listed the top 20 scorers (okay, top 21, we wanted to give Boykins his due) and the names that make the grade read like the proverbial who's who of the NBA.

Two of the top three guys being Lakers makes you realize why Los Angeles has held the championship trophy aloft in three of the past four years -- crunch time scorers are a necessity in the playoffs, and not many teams have the luxury of having two such complementary inside-outside giants.

Of course, the Lakers have now added the #19 clutch scorer of last season, Karl Malone, to the mix. It will definitely be something to figure out for Phil Jackson/Gary Payton -- who gets the ball in the late stages.

Billups shows up big here too, foreshadowing some of his playoff feats, particularly against the Sixers. And Michael Jordan still had a little of the magic left for Washington.

Who's missing? No Nets (Kidd was #34), Pacers (O'Neal was #32), or Blazers (Anderson best at #35 with Wallace #42). Of course, it's another study in itself to determine whether teams are better off having one clear cut go-to-guy or sharing the ball among several capable scorers.

Which players raised their scoring averages the most? Billups, Rose, Terry, Boykins, Alvin Williams, Marbury, Gill, Francis, Snow, Allen.

3) Effective Field Goal Percentage
The casual NBA fan would probably stop the analysis with points, but we are NBA stat junkies. That and we don't think pure points per minute gets at who is ultimately the best crunchtime scorer. A selfish player who elects to take all the shots (even ill-advised ones) might put up some numbers without actually helping his team.
Best Effective Field Goal %
Player
Team
Clutch
All
 O'Neal
LAL
56.9%
57.4%
 Nowitzki
DAL
56.1%
51.4%
 Terry
ATL
54.8%
49.5%
 Marion
PHO
53.9%
50.0%
 Nash
DAL
53.5%
51.4%
 Garnett
MIN
53.4%
50.8%
 Redd
MIL
52.6%
55.9%
 Snow
PHI
51.5%
45.6%
 Robinson
ATL
50.6%
46.8%
 Marbury
PHO
50.6%
46.7%
Shaq remains the best in the league at putting the ball in the basket at a high rate. The competition's catching up with him and Nowitzki posted some nice crunch time numbers. Terry's stats are boosted by some hot three point shooting, and some other notable shooters moved into the top ten.

On the other side were the players whose offensive touch seemed to fail them in the crucial moments. Oftentimes it's a case of simply trying to do too much -- feeling a need to take the game over yourself can lead to forcing bad shots.

4) Foul Drawing Ability
Field goal percentages are not the complete story either. The tough inside players earn a lot of their points the hard way: drawing a usually punishing foul and converting the free throws.
Foul Drawing on Shot Attempts
Player
Team
Clutch
All
 O'Neal
LAL
32.9%
21.9%
 Gasol
MEM
20.2%
17.2%
 Miller
LAC
19.5%
14.1%
 Duncan
SA
19.5%
16.2%
 Francis
HOU
19.3%
14.7%
 Artest
IND
18.5%
15.7%
 Wells
POR
18.2%
11.8%
 Snow
PHI
17.6%
14.2%
 O'Neal
IND
16.4%
15.3%
 Brand
LAC
16.3%
14.5%

Ah yes, hack-a-Shaq in action. It is all quite logical in light of O'Neal being the top effective Field Goal percentage player and at the same time a mediocre free throw shooter (58.5% in crunch time during the regular season).

Smaller players not afraid to go into traffic show up well in this category (e.g. Francis, Miller, Snow, Wells) and those types are usually very reliable at the line. The "unstoppable" post-up powerhouse types also get their share of calls.

5) Free Throw Shooting
You can't look at foul drawing without a similar review of which players could brush aside the noise, the pressure, the fans waving strange floppy souvenir things, and calmly sink clutch shots from the line.
Free Throw Shooting
Player
Team
Clutch
All
 MillerR
IND
100.0%
89.4%
 Marion
PHO
94.1%
85.1%
 Nash
DAL
93.5%
91.2%
 Terry
ATL
92.9%
88.7%
 Boykins
GS
91.7%
86.5%
 Brown
NO
91.2%
83.6%
 Allen
SEA
90.9%
92.0%
 Butler
MIA
90.2%
82.7%
 Miller
IND
90.0%
82.7%
 Piatkowski
LAC
90.0%
82.8%

We'll confess to rigging this a little -- we had set the minimum attempts to 20 free throws, but dropped it a notch when we saw Reggie Miller was a perfect 19 for 19 in the clutch. All of the leaders were solid free throw shooters to begin with.

Perhaps more interesting is which players falter: Antoine Walker, Chris Webber, David Robinson, Gary Payton, Nick Van Exel, Ilgauskas, and Lamar Odom are some of the players whose charity stripe shooting was noticeably worse under pressure.

6) Points per 100 Possessions
Finally we come to the number that many NBA sabermetricians are fond of, namely a player's points per possession. An accepted formula for calculating possessions amounts to Field Goal Attempts minus Offensive Rebounds plus Turnovers plus Free Throw line trips earned. We believe there is some inherent unfairness in this scheme on many levels (i.e. a bad pass costs you, an assist gets you nothing...or giving free possessions to prodigious no-shoot offensive rebounders) that we will be correcting with our own algorithm. For now though, we'll stick with the convention.
Points per 100 Possessions
#
Player
Team
Clutch
All
1
 Nowitzki
DAL
129.3   114.0  
2
 Marion
PHO
126.2   111.2  
3
 O'Neal
LAL
123.7   122.3  
4
 Snow
PHI
119.4   96.6  
5
 Redd
MIL
116.2   120.2  
6
 Brand
LAC
115.9   118.7  
7
 Williamson
DET
113.9   104.8  
8
 Nash
DAL
113.1   106.1  
9
 Garnett
MIN
112.6   111.1  
10
 Billups
DET
112.1   105.9  
11
 O'Neal
IND
110.7   109.1  
12
 Lewis
SEA
110.2   108.2  
13
 Malone
UTA
109.7   100.5  
14
 Marbury
PHO
109.5   92.6  
15
 Stackhouse
WAS
109.4   96.9  
16
 Duncan
SA
107.6   110.1  
17
 Jamison
GS
107.5   107.7  
18
 Terry
ATL
107.4   94.0  
19
 Mobley
HOU
107.3   100.3  
20
 Cassell
MIL
106.9   103.4  
21
 Boykins
GS
105.5   102.6  
22
 Abdur-Rahim
ATL
104.4   108.2  
23
 Francis
HOU
103.2   98.6  
24
 Williams
TOR
102.7   94.3  
25
 Robinson
ATL
101.7   92.9  
26
 Van Horn
PHI
101.5   108.5  
27
 Gasol
MEM
100.8   111.0  
28
 Hudson
MIN
99.1   93.9  
29
 Wells
POR
97.5   90.6  
30
 Miller
LAC
96.9   89.0  
31
 McGrady
ORL
96.8   108.1  
32
 Jordan
WAS
96.4   92.6  
33
 Sprewell
NY
95.6   89.8  
34
 Wallace
POR
95.6   106.0  
35
 Webber
SAC
95.0   92.3  

While we are hampered by the limited amount of time players were in clutch situations by our definitions, consequently yielding small sample sizes in some areas, when all things are considered a strong case can be made for Dirk Nowitzki as being the best clutch scorer during the regular season last year.

Nowtizki doesn't take as many crunch time shots as some, because Dallas has so many other options, but his effective field goal percentage was #2 in the league, he hit 88% of his free throws, he could drill a three-pointer when needed, his points per possession was tops, and the Mavs certainly won a lot of games.

Yet for us ultimately the choice remains the same as it has been for some time: Shaquille O'Neal. Free throw shooting aside, no one comes close to scaring defenses like Shaq, and there are key areas where he rates head and shoulders above Nowitzki -- when the shot clock is running down, Nowitzki was only a 43.3% effective shooter compared to Shaq's 54.5%, more of Shaq's baskets are unassisted, meaning he creates his own points more often, and finally when you need the unstoppable shot, the power slam, there's no one even close (19% of O'Neal's clutch shots are dunks, half of them unassisted).

There are other fine players, and it will be interesting to do this same exercise looking at the playoff stats, but for now go with the player who is the class of the league.

But then, you didn't need all these stats to tell you that!


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