The idea of clutchness in the NBA is a difficult argument to have because we can never quite agree on what exactly clutchness is. Who is the most clutch player in the NBA?
For years, Carmelo Anthony and Dirk Nowitzki consistently put up some of the best clutch shooting percentages, except before 2011 both players were ringless and therefore considered to be not that clutch. We've seen arguments for and against the clutchness of superstars like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. We've seen arguments involving certain moments of a game, and whether or not making a pass in those situations is actually having a mythical and completely made-up "clutch gene," but that is nothing but a loud talking point for those who don't want to properly delve into end-of-game NBA circumstances.
There's also the question of when clutchness comes about. Some people think it can only be in the last minute of a close game. The online basketball community has come to a compromise of the clutch being the last five minutes of the fourth quarter -- or overtime with a margin of five points or fewer. It isn't a perfect measurement of clutch situations, by any means. There are plenty of situations in which a clutch shot can happen with a team down eight, 10, or 12 points with six minutes left. But overall, this definition of clutch is the most widely accepted phrasing as of right now.
When it comes to a clutch situation, the Los Angeles Lakers have long been the linchpin of such arguments. Running a play to get the best shot possible is something most coaches would love to do at the end of tight games. We see Doc Rivers and Gregg Popovich utilize this practice all the time at the end of games. However, it also leaves a lot of room for error to occur. By moving the ball from one player to another, you're often raising the chances of a turnover and never getting a shot off. Too many things can go wrong, which often leads to a more conservative and possibly lower percentage play: the clear-out.
Kobe Bryant has no fear of big moments. He's proven that over and over, ever since he (as a rookie) airballed key shots against the Utah Jazz in Game 5 of the 1997 opening round of the playoffs. Because of his lack of fear, his incredible skill, and unbelievable physical gifts, Bryant is one of the more likely options at the end of a game when you're trying to create a shot from an isolation play.
He's been very successful at it at times and frustratingly stubborn at times, but he's always willing to put the wins and losses on his shoulders.
Darius Soriano of Forum Blue & Gold is fine with this. He knows it's not always the best option at the end of games, but it's a good enough option with a good enough track record to live with as a Lakers fan.
Most close Lakers' games are decided with the ball in Kobe's hands. Whether you agree with this style of play or not isn't as important as the fact that in a results based league the Lakers seem to win a fair amount of these games historically (even if their overall offensive efficiency dips in the process). The ones they don't win are the price of doing business with Kobe Bryant on your roster. While it's frustrating, I think this is a fact that most Lakers fans accept — even if it's begrudgingly — though that doesn't stop the complaints from popping up now and again. It's all great when Kobe goes nova down the stretch of the Hornets and Raptors games and produces exciting wins. It's another thing altogether to watch him miss shots down the stretch of the Wizards game and play a major role in a disappointing loss.
And he's right. Kobe Bryant at the end of games is not really a bad option. It's just become more of a question of should he be the only option?
Soriano notes that there is an incredible imbalance at the end of games with regard to how three players are used. Those three players are Bryant, Steve Nash, and Dwight Howard. While Howard's free throw shooting is always a concern (especially at the end of games), to completely ignore him within the flow of the offense (on say a pick-and-roll) doesn't sound wise. Nash is arguably the best pick-and-roll guard in the NBA and definitely the best of the past decade. Bryant's abilities are well documented.
Finding a balance between those three has proven to be tricky:
- This season Kobe's usage (a percentage of plays that end with a shot, free throws, or a turnover) in crunch time is 50.7. That's an astronomical number. In comparison, last season, Kobe's usage in these situations was 40.1. That's still high, but obviously much lower than this season.
- This season Steve Nash's usage in crunch time is 13.3. Last season for the Suns it was 18.8. Not a huge difference there but Nash has typically been a player who doesn't dominate how possessions end, but rather how they start. In other words, Nash is used to initiating the P&R and then having that play develop organically. This season he's mostly spotting up off the ball. The end result is usually the same (Nash not ending a possession with a shot, turnover, or at the FT line), but the difference in approach is noticeable.
- This season Dwight Howard's usage crunch time is 11.5. Last season with the Magic it was 18.7. That's a fairly big difference and reflective of the fact that Dwight rarely gets a touch down the stretch of a close game. With creators like Kobe and Nash (who both are much better shooters, especially from the foul line than Dwight) it's not a huge surprise his usage is lower than theirs, but how little he sees the ball is still surprising.
A usage rate of around 50 percent for Bryant is astronomically high, and possibly detrimental. Yes, he can score at the end of games quite well, even when the most difficult of shots present themselves. As Soriano notes, nobody doubts Kobe's clutchness when suggesting the Lakers go another route for their shots. In fact, I don't think anybody believes the Lakers shouldn't end up with Bryant taking a shot when they run a different play at the end of close games.
It's just you have one of the best shooters in the game, who also happens to be one of the best passers in the league, and you have a big man with good hands and incredible athleticism around the rim. Wouldn't it behoove the Lakers to find a better balance to make Kobe's job easier?
Let's take a look at the Lakers' clutch offensive and defensive ratings on a month-by-month basis (numbers pulled from NBA.com/stats):
There is a ton of feast or famine in the monthly breakdowns. The Lakers either seem to destroy other teams in clutch moments or be destroyed. There isn't any middle ground. Could that be due to relying on just one man to figure stuff out at the end of games?
Let's take a look at a month-by-month breakdown of the clutch percentages of Kobe Bryant at the end of close games:
Aside from the first month, in which the team did well with their ratings (+35.6 points per 100 possessions) but had a poor record, the feast or famine factor with Kobe's end of game performances seems to match up with whether or not the Lakers are able to put up good numbers in clutch moments.
It makes sense too. With as high as Kobe's usage rate is, the Lakers just simply can't be successful if he's not donning his superhero cape and bringing them to victory. Is there a way to bring balance to the table while still allowing Kobe to be the hero?
The idea of running a curl off a screen for Kobe seems like a great way to get everybody involved. Assuming Dwight can set the screen without committing the foul, he can definitely provide enough impediment to Kobe's trailing defender to give him space to catch the pass. And Bryant is a fantastic shooter off the catch. If the defender's cheat and try to take away the pass to Kobe, Dwight can slip the screen and dive toward the basket.
The defensive player on the ball also can't cheat off of the passer to try to knock away the pass because Steve Nash is too good of a shooter to give room. In a way, it's a variation of the play the Oklahoma City Thunder ran with James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant against the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals last year. Westbrook is played by Dwight, setting a screen to free up Durant/Kobe. And Nash is the Harden of the play, who is too good to give the shot but also too good of a passer to not recognize where the open player is.
The objective is to still get Kobe the ball so he can win you the game, but it's varying the ways in which you get him the ball. This way, there are more threats to balance out what the defense has to defend against and frees up Bryant more room to operate against a defense at a disadvantage.
It's easy to blame Kobe in these situations and say he's selfish, but really it's about Mike D'Antoni stepping up to get Nash and Howard to willingly take on more of the load at the end of games. If they take the initiative to help out, I doubt Bryant is stubborn enough to not recognize how it helps him. He's not dealing with Smush Parker and Chris Mihm anymore, and he knows that.
Would it solve the Lakers' inconsistency at the end of close games? There's no certainty that it will. But it seems like it keeps the core values of having Kobe win you games while making it easier on him to do so. It's not doubting Bryant at all; it's simply trying to give him an easier path to success.
And with a playoff spot in doubt for the Lakers right now, they could use a little more success in clutch moments -- whatever those are.