Welcome to The Clutch Cube: Part I – LeBron James

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Many NBA fans tend to have a very narrow definition of what constitutes clutch. That definition is usually limited to making game-tying or game-winning shots in the final seconds of the 4th quarter or overtime, and little else. For some reason, when the game gets close and late, more people tend to ignore every other aspect of the game and hone in on scoring. For some reason, they focus only on game-tying and game-winning shots, rather than considering the entirety of ‘clutch time’ situations.

Clock-beaters may be more flashy and dramatic than shots with more time left on the clock, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have more of an impact. If a player makes a go-ahead jumper with 35 seconds left and neither team scores for the rest of the game, it has the same effect as that player making the go-ahead jumper when the game clock expires. However, because of the way fans and media alike classify clutch plays, we all know only one of those plays would wind up on SportsCenter the next day. Similarly, a key rebound when your team is down by one possession won’t generate any headlines, but it can be vitally important to winning a game. A blocked shot with 1:30 left when your team is up by one point can often mean the difference between a win and a loss, but it won’t gain you any clutch recognition. The only thing that seems to really register with many people is the game-winning shot.

Discussions about the most clutch players in the game are always centered around shooting and scoring. Who has made the most game-winners? Who had made the most daggers? Who shoots too often and too low of a percentage? We need to broaden our view of how we evaluate clutch play. Defense, rebounding, and passing all matter just as much in crunch time as they do during the rest of the game, yet they go largely ignored when judging the performance of players in the clutch. If there are clutch shooters – or at least shooters who perform well in the clutch – then shouldn’t it also follow that there are also clutch rebounders, passers and defenders as well? Some players raise their game under pressure by scoring more points, others may raise their game by doing other things. It’s important to know who is contributing in those other areas that create wins. A high value is placed on things like rebounding to create extra possessions on offense and end them on defense, generating assists to create easy baskets for your teammates, and contributing to a stop on defense throughout the game, yet at the end of close games they go largely ignored.

If a player’s field goal percentage drops in the clutch, why is that? Does his rebounding rate go up? Do his steal rate go down? That’s what I’m going to be looking at in the new series here at HP, Clutch Cube. Using data from NBA.com’s StatsCube, I will be digging into the clutch time stats of a different player each week and highlighting what things other than making game-winning shots he is doing to help his team win games. Up first: who else but LeBron James?

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via NBA.com StatsCube

Weaknesses

The first thing that jumps out at you when looking at LeBron’s clutch time stats both from this year (pictured above) and last year is the drop in his field goal percentage. It’s important to note that league-wide field goal percentage drops in clutch time – defined by NBA.com as the last 5 minutes of the 4th quarter or overtime with a point differential of plus/minus 5 – but there looks to be another reason for LeBron’s poorer shooting performance in the clutch: he’s been taking and missing a lot more threes. In the 2010-11 season, LeBron averaged 3.3 3-point attempts per-36 minutes for the season, but that number jumped to 5.5 attempts per-36 in the clutch. He also made a lower percentage of those 3-point attempts, as his mark dropped from 33 percent during the season to 24 percent in the clutch. Both of those trends have continued this season. LeBron’s 3-point attempts per-36 minutes rise from 2.0 to 3.5 and his percentage drops from 40 percent to 20 percent in clutch time.

(As I’ll detail below, passing was a bit of a weakness last season as well, but there’s a reason behind it, and it’s been corrected this year.)

Strengths

The only reason that he has been able to keep his points per-36 steady in the clutch this season is because of his insane ability to get to the free throw line in clutch time. Already one of just three players taking more than 8.0 free throws per game, LeBron more than doubles the rate at which he gets to the line in clutch time, attempting 16.9 free throws per-36 minutes in the clutch. The fact that his free throw percentage drops slightly is mitigated by the sheer volume of them he attempts. It’s interesting to note that he also more than doubled his free throw rate in the clutch last year, raising it from 7.8 to 17.3 attempts per-36, and raising his free throw percentage from 76 percent to 85 percent. His ability to get to the line is a large part of what enabled him to post a points per-36 over 10% higher in the clutch than during the rest of the season last year.

Another constant for LeBron across each of the last two seasons in crunch time is an increase in his rebound rate. Since coming to Miami, LeBron is a clutch rebounder. Last year, he averaged 6.9 rebounds per-36 minutes and had a 11.4% rebound rate. Those numbers rose to 8.4 and 13.2%, respectively, in the clutch. This year, he has blown those numbers out of the water. Averaging 8.1 rebounds per-36 on the season, that number jumps to 14.1 per-36 and his rebound rate rises from 13.2% to 20.2% in the clutch.

While his assist rates and turnover rate all dropped last season, this year his assist rates have risen and his turnover rate has stayed static. The lack of assists and turnovers in the clutch last season is likely due to the fact that his usage rate rose 6.2% and he attempted 3.0 more field goals per-36 minutes in the clutch last season than throughout the rest of the year. He was passing less, so he had less chances to both assist baskets and turn the ball over. His assists per-36 dropped from 6.5 to 3.7 in the clutch last season, while his turnovers fell from 3.3 to 2.9. This all supports the theory that he was trying to go it alone entirely too much last year. He heard the chatter, the narrative and the criticism and he decided to take the game into his own hands even if the situation didn’t necessarily call for it.

This year, he’s letting the game come to him more and not always forcing shots in the clutch, as we all saw the other night when he passed up the opportunity for a game-winner to drop the ball off to a widen open Udonis Haslem. His usage rate has seen a smaller jump in the clutch this year, 4.1%. He’s taking the same amount of shots per-36 minutes in the clutch as during the rest of the game this season, but his assist rates have nearly doubled while his turnover rate has stayed just about the same. He’s raised his season average of 6.6 assists per-36 in the season to 9.9 per-36 in the clutch this year, while his turnovers per-36 have risen from 3.3 to 4.2 but his turnover rate has risen only slightly from 10.57 to 10.80.

Lastly, while LeBron both stole the ball less and blocked less shots in the clutch last season, this year he has started blocking shots at a higher rate in the clutch. His defensive rating in the clutch has since gone down from 109.0 last season to 104.9 this year.

So since coming to Miami, LeBron has scored at or above his usual level in the clutch over the last two seasons, has generally been a much better rebounder, been over twice as good at getting to the free throw line, has turned the ball over less often and been about as good as he normally is on defense. Defense, rebounding, getting to the free throw line and avoiding turnovers are the kind of things that can swing games. Creating extra possessions with offensive rebounds, ending possessions with defensive rebounds, getting the other team in foul trouble and into the bonus and not letting the other team get easy transition baskets with turnovers are all things that contribute to winning basketball, and LeBron has consistently excelled at them in clutch situations since he’s been in Miami. He’s a worse shooter down the stretch, but so is nearly everybody else in the league. It’s high time we widened our visual spectrum when determining whether or not LeBron James, like many others, are clutch.

Jared Dubin

Jared Dubin is a New York lawyer and writer. He is the co-editor in chief of Hardwood Paroxysm and the HPBasketball Network.