Super Secret Stats: Andrew Bynum and the Los Angeles Lakers in the Clutch

Saving the Skyhook was recently granted access to the NBA’s super-secret advanced statistics page, a web source of endless information that will become available to the general public once the league figures out  a way to make it more user-friendly.  But until then you can get some of what it offers right here, as we’ll be exploring and playing with this supposedly and expectedly awesome application each day from here on out until the 2012-2013 season begins (and likely after that too, of course) on October 30th.

Without further ado, to the stats!

May 12, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Denver Nuggets center Timofey Mozgov (25) defends Los Angeles Lakers center Andrew Bynum (17) in the first half of game seven of the Western Conference quarterfinals of the 2012 NBA Playoffs at the Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

Super-Secret Stat: With his team ahead or behind by three points in the last three minutes of games last season, Andrew Bynum shot a staggering 82.6% from the field, connecting on 19 of his 23 attempts.  He led the league (among those with at least 10 FGAs) in this regard by a healthy margin, outpacing second-ranked Chris Bosh by 10.4 percent.

Analysis: This is a tough thing to break down and sink your teeth into, as there are an almost endless amount of variables that come into play here and almost as many potential questions.  But two stand out – is Bynum actually the best clutch player in the league? and how much of his success should be owed to playing with Kobe Bryant and, to a lesser extent, Pau Gasol?

Tackling that first query is tough for any player as it is, let alone a plodding big man like Bynum who wouldn’t necessarily create many of his own opportunities in these situations.  But the clear thing here is that nobody in the league was more efficient than Bynum in the game’s final minutes in 2012, and that extrapolates to almost any time and point-differential combination you can come up with.  He shot 76.1% within five minutes of clock hitting zero and the score within five points, 77.4% under four minutes remaining and the score within four, and 57.1% (on an extremely limited sample size, mind you) with under one minute left and the score within three. The only instance in which he isn’t near the top of the leaderboard in shooting accuracy was in the last 30 seconds, an observation that means little given his lack of opportunities in those circumstances; he took just four shots with under 30 seconds remaining in games that were within a single possession.  So whether Bynum was or wasn’t the game’s “best” clutch player is obviously debatable, but what isn’t is that he was its most effective.  Nobody was as efficient a scorer as Bynum last year in the game’s waning and critical moments, and that’s a fact.

But what to make of Bynum playing alongside guys like Bryant – generally considered, rightly or wrongly, basketball’s best closer – and Gasol, a fantastic offensive player in his own right and gifted post-to-post passer? There’s no way to truly discern how much the presence of Bryant and Gasol influenced Bynum’s performance in the clutch without going back and looking at tape (something we don’t have access to), but it’s very reasonable to think his opportunities were easier because he was on the floor with them.  Defenses must pay even more attention than normal to Bryant in clutch situations and Gasol is a huge threat as an overall playmaker when defenses tend to scramble and get out of position.

Without tape the next best thing, of course, is to look at Bryant and Gasol’s individual clutch stats and the Lakers’ as a whole last season.  Bryant scored the second most points (143) in the league (Kevin Durant was first with 145) in 2012 with under five minutes left on the clock and the game within five points (now referred to as 5:5), but did so on just 36.1% from the field.  His usage rate of 41.5% ranked third in the league and obviously suggests Bynum deserved a bigger piece of the pie last year,but most important is that his assist rate was a surprisingly high 14.5.  That’s hardly near the top of the rankings but very respectable, and indicative that Kobe isn’t quite the me-first chucker some like to believe he is when it’s hero-ball time (for comparison – Chris Paul: 23.0, LeBron James: 20.0, Kyrie Irving: 7.7, Kevin Durant: 1.4).  Obviously some of those assists went to Bynum, and his extreme proficiency in the clutch starts to become more clear.  And Gasol? He shot a solid 49% from the field in 5:5 situations, and his assist rate was an awesome 36.5.

So last year, Bynum, essentially, was playing with the game’s most feared closer that passed more frequently and effectively in 5:5 than most stat-heads thought, and basketball’s most versatile offensive big man who morphed into a pass-first point guard in those same circumstances.  Bynum’s extreme clutch efficiency shouldn’t shock much then, and it’s even less surprising LAL led the league in 5:5 plus/minus last year with a +91, outdistancing second place Philadelphia by 15.

Teams were already scared of the Lakers in crunch time and rightfully so.  But what will they do this coming season, replacing Bynum with Dwight Howard and Steve Blake/Ramon Sessions with Steve Nash? That depends a lot on the style of offense they’ll employ down the stretch and how willing Bryant is to yield much of the ballhandling to Nash in these same situations.  Howard doesn’t quite have the touch of Bynum from outside five feet, but given his predecessor’s overwhelming success and the new presence of Nash in the Lakers’ crunchtime lineup, it’s very easy to imagine him leading the league in clutch shooting in 2013.

As for Bynum? It’s notoriously difficult for big men to be a team’s offensive focal point when the clock is winding down and the game is close, but Philly will undoubtedly try to make him so anyway.  But he’ll find it much, much harder to navigate crunchtime waters playing without Bryant and Gasol, and should come to back down to earth when it comes to clutch scoring.