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LeBron, Butler among most clutch players in NBA

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The game is on the line and you need a bucket. Who gets the ball?

It’s a tough question made more difficult by the incredible display of clutch shotmaking in the bubble. We’ve already seen four game-winners in these playoffs, tying the most for any postseason -- and we’re not even in the Finals yet. In time, these may go down as the clutchest playoffs ever.

But which player is the most bankable with the most on the line?

Last week, after Jimmy Butler made a ridiculous crunchtime drive, including an and-one finish, against Jayson Tatum at the end of Game 2, I was convinced Butler held the title. That declaration had some historic backing, but, mainly, Butler has been incredible in the bubble. 

Here are his numbers this postseason in clutch situations, which is designated as the last five minutes game within five points on NBA.com stats pages: 34 points on 9-for-16 shooting from the floor (56.3 percent), 2-for-5 from downtown (40 percent) and 14-for-15 at the free throw line (93.3 percent). Pair that with seven assists and a league-high four steals in those circumstances and you have one of the nastiest game-on-the-line players in the league.

But is he the most clutch of them all? 

It’s a loaded question and the best (only?) way to really tell is by using analytics. At inpredictable.com, run by statistician Michael Beuoy, there’s a fascinating metric called Cutch Win Probability Added (CWPA), which is defined as the amount of win probability a player adds above or below a “normal” play. Basically, it seeks to answer the question of who raises or lowers their team’s odds in the game’s most critical moments.

 

Take Anthony Davis’ game-winning 3-pointer at the end of Game 2. Before that play, down one point with two seconds left, the Lakershad just an 18.2-percent chance of winning the game based on the clock and score. Sure enough, Davis hit the game-winner at the buzzer, making the Lakers’ odds 100.0 percent. The difference between those numbers -- 81.8 percent -- is credited to Davis’ Clutch WPA. If he missed the shot, he’d lose 18.2 percent because his shot lowered the Lakers’ chance of winning from 18.2 percent to zero. 

What I love about this metric is it takes into account the instances when a player screws up. We only remember the makes, but if we’re being fair, we should incorporate the misses, too. A player might have 200 clutch buckets, but if he missed another 2,000 and threw the ball away another 100 times, we should account for those miscues. Otherwise, the most clutch player is the one who simply fired up the most shots.

Beuoy’s Clutch WPA looks at field goal attempts, free throw attempts and turnovers in crunchtime, which doesn’t cast the widest net for end-of-game scenarios. The metric doesn’t account for assists, rebounds or steals, which, ideally, would be included. However, the more variables you add to the equation, the harder it is to parse out the credit on a particular play. For example, should Rajon Rondo get credit for the pass? If so, how much? What about LeBron’s “screen” on Mason Plumlee? Good luck doling out credit for every shot.

For this exercise, we’ll keep it simple and look at which players have raised or lowered their team’s odds of winning by possession-ending plays -- shooting or turning the ball over.

I downloaded the data for each active player and crunched the numbers to see which player, with a minimum of 250 games played, on average most raised his team’s odds of winning down the stretch. Instead of looking at cumulative Clutch WPA, which would essentially favor those who have played the longest, I’m looking at clutch WPA prorated to 82 games. 

Of the 268 players who qualify, who comes out on top? Let’s take a look. 

10. Stephen Curry

Clutch WPA: 1.54

Remember this guy? It’s been a while since we’ve seen Curry in a big moment, but he’s had his fair share of them. The Oklahoma City buzzerbeater from just inside halfcourt. The overtime-forcing corner 3-pointer in the playoffs against the New Orleans Pelicans while being pancaked by Anthony Davis. The “I’m Back” Game when he scored an NBA-record 17 points in overtime against the Blazers.

 

Looking at inpredictable’s shot logs, Curry has missed his last eight “double clutch” shots in the playoffs, most recently the potential go-ahead 3-pointer with six seconds left in Game 6, a miss that sealed the championship for Toronto (Double clutch, a term that Beuoy also called “clutch squared”, is the top one percent of the highest-leveraged shots -- the shots that really swing games.). Crunchtime miscues are also keeping Curry from being higher on this list, the most infamous one being the 2016 Game 7 flimsy behind-the-back pass to Klay Thompson. Bottom line, for someone with superhuman shooting abilities, he should be higher on the list. 

9. Kyrie Irving

Clutch WPA: 1.55

Irving boasts one of the most clutch shots in NBA history and it was delivered against the guy at No. 10. With less than a minute left in Game 7 in 2016 at the Oracle, Irving pulled up from the right wing and, bang, put the Cavs up 3. How could anyone forget? In case you did, this season Kyrie produced almost a carbon copy of the shot to beat the New York Knicks in Brooklyn.

With a mind-numbing handle and deep range, Irving can get his shot off against just about anyone. He also takes care of the ball. On a per-minute basis, Irving’s playoff turnover rate in clutch situations (1.3) is half that of Curry (2.8). We’ll see if Irving can keep it going with Curry’s former teammate, Kevin Durant.

8. Jayson Tatum

Clutch WPA: 1.58

The 22-year-old ranks this high despite a brutal Game 1 against the Miami Heat, Bam Adebayo block included. That’s how good the Celtics wing has been early in his career. Tatum was simply incredible in the regular season for Boston, posting an NBA-best 62.5 percent effective shooting percentage on “double clutch” shots (more than 10 shots taken minimum). 

We knew this kid was special in the 2018 playoffs when he threw down a hammer dunk on LeBron James in the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. That postseason, Tatum made five of his six “double clutch” shots and displayed poise well beyond his years. If he keeps this up, the former No. 3 overall pick will be at the top of the list in no time.

7. Chris Paul

Clutch WPA: 1.75

The Oklahoma City Thunder were the most clutch team in the regular season for a reason: The Point God was running their team instead of Russell Westbrook, who ranks as one of the worst clutch players of this generation. Of course, it wasn’t enough to top Houston in a crazy Game 7 this year, but Paul can only do so much. 

 

One of the craziest nuggets I’ve come across is that Paul took only one of Houston’s 48 double clutch shots last season (playoffs included). Gerald Green and Austin Rivers took more! This season, Paul took 27 such shots -- tied for the highest in the league and made a bunch of them. It’s good to see Paul show he can still bring it at the end of games. 

Over his career, Paul has scored 27.8 points per 36 minutes in clutch situations, which is higher than Durant, Damian Lillard and Dwyane Wade. And that’s not even his biggest strength. Milwaukee, are you listening?

6. James Harden

Clutch WPA: 1.98

Huh? Yeah, I was surprised to see Harden this high on the list, too. He was awful in crunchtime this season but ranked No. 1 overall in clutch WPA last season (playoffs included) and Harden had the most clutch WPA in the four seasons from 2013-14 to 2016-17. Harden also nailed two game-winning buzzer-beaters in his career, both against Phoenix earlier in his Houston tenure. 

Don’t forget, Harden’s free throws also count in this analysis, so he has a leg up on just about everybody in that category. Still, I’m having a tough time giving Harden the ball in crunchtime over some of the names earlier on this list. 

5. Damian Lillard

Clutch WPA: 2.08

Yes, it’s Dame Time. As if his “bad shot” buzzer-beater against Paul George last postseason wasn’t enough, Lillard is the 2019-20 season leader in clutch WPA (playoffs included). Lillard has sent home two playoff teams with buzzer-beaters, which has only been done by one other man (Michael Jeffrey Jordan). 

Though folks remember his deep 3s, Lillard has a knack for getting to the rack for clutch buckets, thanks to his strength and hops. Four of Lillard’s seven “double clutch” made baskets this season came within five feet of the hoop. He also boasts one of the lowest turnover rates in crunchtime, which can’t be overstated. Either way you cut it, Dame D.O.L.L.A is money when you need it.

4. Kevin Durant

Clutch WPA: 2.10

Arguably the best scorer of all-time, Durant is a nightmare to guard down the stretch. His signature moment came in Game 3 of the 2017 Finals when he pulled up for a transition 3-pointer over James to give the Warriors the lead with 45.3 seconds left. He delivered an encore in Game 3 of the 2018 Finals when he stepped into a 3-pointer to put the Warriors up six with 49.9 seconds left.

Durant’s 2012 playoffs was the stuff of legend. He opened that postseason with a game-winner over the Mavs in Game 1 and then hit a game-sealing 3-pointer with 13 seconds left in Game 4 to beat the Lakers en route to the Finals. Durant was already one of the most clutch players in the NBA before he joined the Warriors, but his two championship runs confirm his standing in the game.

 

3. Jimmy Butler

Clutch WPA: 2.17

All hail, Jimmy Buckets. (Well, all except for the top two names on this list.) Turns out Butler isn’t the top player by clutch WPA, but he has terrorized opponents for years with the game on the line. The Miami Heat wing has never shied away from the big stage and this postseason has been no exception. His performance in Game 1 against the Boston Celtics was a masterpiece. 

Lost in Kawhi Leonard’s bouncing, series-winning shot against the Philadelphia 76ers last postseason was Butler’s unflinching fastbreak layup to tie it up with 4.2 seconds left. In his postseason career, Butler is 5-of-10 on “double clutch” shots in his playoff career, which is baffling. Heading into this season, he was the only player to rank in the top 10 in clutch WPA in each of the previous five seasons. After an uncharacteristically off regular season, Butler is showing once again why he’s a killer in big moments.

2. LeBron James

Clutch WPA: 2.35

And this doesn’t include assists. James owns three of the top four most-clutch seasons in the inpredictable.com database since 2003 only Isaiah Thomas’ insane 2016-17 season bests James’ seasonal best). As if that isn’t enough evidence, according to Michael Lynch’s mind-boggling research for The Ringer, James is the all-time leader in postseason buzzer-beaters, with five: 2018 Game 3 against the Raptors; 2018 Game 5 against the Pacers; 2015 Game 4 against the Bulls; 2013 Game 1 against the Pacers; 2009 Game 2 against the Magic.

James hasn’t taken a “double clutch” shot this postseason yet, but that’s mostly due to the Lakers having a mostly drama-free postseason slate. James has made eight of his last 15 such shots in the postseason dating back to the 2016 playoffs. 

1. Anthony Davis

Clutch WPA: 3.03

Yes, Anthony Davis -- the guy who, according to Charles Barkley, apparently lacked killer instinct. Later that night, Davis promptly won Game 2 at the buzzer with a go-ahead 3-pointer. Anyone surprised by Davis’ shotmaking ability in crunchtime simply hasn’t been paying attention.

Davis’ track record in crunchtime is absurd. Per Stathead.com tracking, Davis is now 14 of 29 on shots to tie or take the lead in the final 24 seconds of a game, which is the best field goal percentage among all players since 1997 with more than 25 field goal attempts. Expanding further, he has shot 58 of 101 on “double clutch” shots in the regular season in his career, for a conversion percentage of 57.4 percent. As a comparison, the league average in those situations is 37.5 percent. 

At 27 years old and in his first deep playoff run, Davis is just starting to show what he can do on the biggest of stages. Though 11 of those makes are dunks, he has nearly twice as many, 21, that are jumpers outside of 10 feet. He has the full bag -- 30-foot double-pump 3-pointers, alley-oop dunks, putbacks -- you name it. It’s just not fair that the top two names on this list play for the same team. Let’s see if it leads to a championship.

 

Other notables:

16. Kawhi Leonard (1.44)

18. Giannis Antetokounmpo (1.30)

46. Paul George (0.93)

50. Nikola Jokic (0.91)

95. Carmelo Anthony (0.63)

100. Jamal Murray (0.62)

120. Kemba Walker (0.50)

243. Derrick Rose (-0.13)

249. Russell Westbrook (-0.22)

266. John Wall (-0.71)

268 (last). Rajon Rondo (-1.05)

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for the latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.