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So You Think That You Are Clutch?

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Who are the most and least clutch NBA players?

It’s Jan. 6, and the Boston Celtics are trailing the Brooklyn Nets 83-82, with 90 seconds to go. All eyes are on Celtics’ superstar Kyrie Irving to take control and close out the game for Boston. However, it is rookie Jayson Tatum who ultimately serves as the Celtics’ unlikely hero. Or maybe, it isn’t so unlikely… 

When an NBA game comes down to the wire, a players’ “clutch” gene takes over. But what exactly does it mean for a player to be “clutch?” This entails a player elevating their game in the most important moments. 

With that definition in mind, I decided to investigate which players were the most clutch this past season. I first compiled the effective field goal percentage (eFG%) in clutch time, defined as five minutes or less remaining in the fourth quarter or overtime with the score within five points, of every player who took at least 50 such shots. Then, I compared these values to the players’ overall eFG%.

Top 5 Biggest Decliners in eFG%Drop-off in eFG%
Marc Gasol20.4
Bradley Beal18.8
Tyreke Evans18.4
Carmelo Anthony14.0
Nikola Jokic11.4


The first thing I noticed is that an overwhelming majority of players shot less efficiently in the clutch. This makes sense as players tend to be forced into tougher shots in clutch moments. Of the 45 players who took 50 shots in clutch time, only eight actually shot better in those instances. 

Marc Gasol and Tyreke Evans of the Memphis Grizzlies both ranked in the bottom three in clutch eFG% drop off, contributing to Memphis ranking dead last in clutch eFG% as a team. The Washington Wizards two stars, Bradley Beal and John Wall (9.8% drop-off in eFG%), also seemed to struggle mightily in the clutch. 

This highlights one of Washington’s biggest problems last year: an inability to close out games. The Wizards had enough talent to be one of the top seeds in the Eastern Conference, but their significant performance decline at the end of close games hampered them. The Wizards had the 11th best eFG% in the league overall, but their ranking plummeted to just 27th in clutch time. 

Beal and Wall are obviously extremely talented players, both making the All-Star team last year, but until the Wizards can get more out of their closers when the games matter most, they are going to continue to find themselves stuck behind the East’s elite teams. 

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While many players did falter in the big moments, there were certainly those who stepped up their games when the lights shined brightest. 

Top 5 Risers in eFG%Increase in eFG%
Jayson Tatum10.9
Giannis Antentokounmpo4.8
Kris Dunn4.7
LeBron James2.2
Kristaps Porzingis
0.4

There is a reputation around Kyrie Irving being one of the most clutch players in the league, but with all the time he missed last year, the Celtics couldn’t always rely on him in clutch moments. Jayson Tatum, in his first NBA season, stepped up to the challenge. Tatum lifted his game more than any other player in clutch situations, boosting his eFG% by a whopping 10.9%, significantly higher than second-place Giannis Antetokounmpo’s increase of 4.8%. 

Another surprising name to see in the top five was Kris Dunn of the Chicago Bulls. Chicago is a young, rebuilding team, lacking many guys who can be expected to take over a game, but Bulls fans should be excited to see that their young point guard has the confidence to elevate his game when it comes down to the wire. 

LeBron James also made the top five, further validating that he lives for the big moments, a fact most fans were already aware of. 

Kyrie Irving passes the ball to Jayson Tatum on the wing. Tatum takes a quick first step to blow by Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and slams the ball into the hoop with his right hand to give the Celtics a one-point lead with 1:16 left on the clock. On the subsequent Celtics possession, Irving fails to finish a layup, but gets his own rebound and dishes it out to Tatum, who is standing behind the three-point line in the corner. Tatum shoots over a leaping Joe Harris and drains the three with 45.7 seconds remaining to put Boston up four. The Celtics ultimately win 87-85 thanks in large part to Tatum’s late game heroics, and it seems the NBA may have found its next great closer.



*All stats courtesy of NBA.com and basketball-reference

Edited by Kat Johansen, Peyten Maki.

SQuiz
Which of the following all-stars did not hit a buzzer beating game-winner in the 2017-2018 season?
Created 8/27/18
  1. James Harden
  2. LeBron James
  3. Giannis Antentokounmpo
  4. Damian Lillard

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