Tuesday, May 03, 2005

NBA's Most Clutch Players

Tracy McGrady was magnificent in Games 1 and 2 for the Rockets., but another loss could raise some concern on just how clutch T-Mac is.

I was inspired to write this piece after watching Tracy McGrady come up with huge peformances in Houston's two wins against Dallas last week. Since then, we have witnessed a number of players lift their teams to victory with some inspiring clutch play: Damon Jones coming out of nowhere to drop 32 on the Nets in Game 1 of Miami's 1st Round sweep; Reggie Miller once again baffling everyone with 61 points in Games 2 and 3 vs Boston; Ray Allen's fallaway 3-pointer as the shot clock expired to give the Sonics a 9 point lead with just 1:02 to go in Seattle's comeback victory over Sacramento. It seems that in nearly every playoff game, someone is called upon to be the hero, to lift their team to victory when it matters the most. So I got to thinking-- Who IS currently the NBA's Most Clutch Player? It's not an easy argument to say the least, so allow me to break down the questions I asked myself when making this list:
  • Which current players have the richest history of clutch feats?
  • Which current players can be counted on for making clutch plays as of today?
  • Who can turn it on for crucial stretches at a time, mainly the playoffs?
  • Who is the best at hitting the big shots?
  • Who can be relied upon the most for the last shot?
  • Who thrives when the pressure is mounted the highest?

The NBA's 10 Most Clutch Players

Honorable Mention: Baron Davis, Kevin Garnett, Manu Ginobili, Ben Gordon, Richard Hamilton, Paul Pierce, Tayshaun Prince, Dwyane Wade, Rasheed Wallace

10. Robert Horry
Horry seems like an ideal choice at number ten. Though he's never been more than a role player for any team he's been on, he has made countless clutch contributions on his way to winning five championship rings with the Rockets and Lakers. Most Knick fans will remember the moment Horry earned his reputation as a clutch performer, back in Game 1 of the 1994 NBA Finals when "Big Shot Rob's" 3-Pointer with seconds left sealed up a Houston victory over the Knickerbockers. Most of us younger guys think of the key plays Horry always came up with for the Lakers during their run of 3 straight titles including the game-winning three-pointer he hit with 0.6 seconds left in Game 4 against the Kings in 2002 that would save the series for LA. And of course it was Big Shot Rob nailing two huge 3-pointers and making a momentum-shifting steal in San Antonio's enormous win over Denver on Saturday night, a win that likely will be the difference in the series. Horry may not have ever been the guy relied upon to get you 30 points in an eliminaion game, but he has unquestionably created a legacy for himself based on his consistently brilliant clutch play.

...the Horry-fying end to Sacramento's title hopes in 2002.

9. Mike Bibby
Bibby's reputation as a cool pressure player started his first year at Arizona when he defied odds in leading the Wildcats to a surprising title run despite being just a freshman point guard. He renewed that status in 2002 as he spurred the Kings' playoff run all the way to Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals. With Peja Stojakovic hurting and Chris Webber only able to get it done for 3 quarters at a time, Bibby stepped up and played extraordinary basketball (22.7 PPG in the series up from 13.7 in the regular season), hitting big shot after big shot for the Kings during their unforgettable clash with the Lakers. Bibby was equally impressive a year ago in the playoffs (20 PPG, 7 APG, 2 SPG) as Sacramento pushed top-seeded Minnesota to a Game 7 before falling short yet again. It's been this high level of play in crucial stretches that have enabled the Maloof Brothers to entrust Bibby as the top dog on this Kings franchise. And despite an underwhelming performance in this year's playoffs (down 3-1 to Seattle), you can be rest-assured that the Kings will regroup soon and Mike Bibby will put his stamp on another Sacramento playoff push.

8. Chauncey Billups
Chauncey has had a knack for hitting the key shot throughout his career, including numerous buzzer-beaters since landing on the Pistons. In the 2002-03 season, Billups hit 6 game-winning or game-tying shots for the Pistons and actually led the entire league with 11 game-tying or lead-changing field goals with under 2 minutes left in the 4th Quarter. His clutch play hit top ten status a year ago, when he engineered the Pistons' title run, earning NBA Finals MVP honors on the way. And Chauncey has done nothing to relinquish such acclaim this season as his under-pressure performances have become somewhat of a regularity at this point. On Sunday, he bailed out the Pistons with their backs against the wall by scoring 10 straight points in the last 3 minutes of regulation thus sending the game into overtime where the Pistons held off the 76ers and took a commanding 3-1 series lead. I think it's fair to say that Chauncey has an excellent chance of marching up this ladder before the 2005 Playoffs are over.

2004 NBA Finals MVP Chauncey Billups cemented his place as one of the NBA's Most Clutch Players by helping lead the Pistons to the title last June.

7. Sam Cassell
Charles Barkley once said, "When Michael Jordan is on the floor with Sam Cassell, Sam Cassell still thinks he's the best player out there." It's been this kind of brash confidence that has enabled Sammy to step up time and again with the game on the line, a reputation he has sustained since winning two rings with the Rockets in 1994 and 1995. Though he's only been invited to one All-Star Weekend during his career (2004), he has been a key member of three different franchises that have reached the Conference Finals. As a rookie with Houston during their 1994 title run, Cassell was often left on the floor during crunch time in favor of Kenny Smith because Rudy T realized he had a knack for hitting lighting it up in vital situations. In the 1995 NBA Finals, Cassell was again instrumental for the Rockets, pouring in 14.3 PPG and shooting 47% from 3-Point range despite averaging just 9.5 PPG and shooting 33% on threes during the regular season. In 2001, it was Cassell's steady play at the point (17.4 PPG, 6.7 APG) that fueled the Bucks' run all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals. And last year, after playing his best basketball ever during the regular season for Minnesota, Cassell marched the 'Wolves all the way to the Western Conference Finals where they lost to the Lakers. A hamstring injury to Sammy is what ultimately did the 'Wolves in, and not only he will tell you that.

6. Tracy McGrady
T-Mac may not have the resume of some of the guys on this list. Hell, he's never even been beyond the first round of the Playoffs, but you can't tell me there's a player you would rather put the ball into the hands of (save #2 on this list) with your team down one and needing a basket to win, than Tracy McGrady. Most NBA players will tell you he's the most difficult player to guard one-on-one in the NBA because of the swift release of his smooth jump shot, his exceptional ball-handling skills for a player his size, and his outstanding athleticism. How many other players can score 13 points in 35 seconds to win their team a ball game? Who else has scored 89 points in back-to-back playoff games at the Palace? There's no question that McGrady is still developing into his own as a big-time superstar in this league. He vowed before this year's playoffs to do anything and everything that would ensure his Rockets succeed and that he would become the player they need him to be on the way. T-Mac's word lived true in Games 1 and 2, but the Mavericks have taken the series lead and now is the time that the Rockets really need McGrady to do EVERYTHING if they want to advance to the next round.

5. Allen Iverson
To sum up Allen Iverson's career as a clutch player by highlighting some of his greatest moments, that would not only take quite awhile, but it would also be superflous. AI's entire career has been one gigantic clutch moment in NBA history. This is a player who has defied all odds not only based on his physical limitations, but also considering that he's carried an entire successful franchise on his back for nine years by coming through time and time again when they rely on him the most, which is 48 minutes a game, 82+ games a year. Despite never having a distinguished supporting case, Iverson has single-handedly lifted the 76ers into the playoffs five times, once as far as the NBA Finals in 2001. And if you want to get into specifics, AI has hit numerous game-winning shots, he has gone off for 40 when his team needed him to, he has picked a player's pocket on a crucial possession, and he has certainly elevated his play for stretches at a time when you're not sure even he could top himself. Haven't you been watching this 76ers/Pistons series?

AI's entire career has been clutch.

4. Reggie Miller
Reggie Miller's legacy as one of the all-time greatest clutch players will live on forever because we will never, EVER stop seeing his golden moments from being played over and over and over again. Wherever there is a montage of classic playoff moments, Reggie's 8 point outburst in 16.4 seconds against the Knicks at MSG will be included. Or perhaps they'll show the game-winning 3-pointer he sunk with 2.7 seconds left to beat the Bulls in Game 4 of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals. Or maybe the 25 4th Quarter points he dropped on the Knicks during Game 5 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals all while jawing back and forth with Spike Lee. Or how about the 40-foot buzzer-beater against the Nets in 2002 to send the game into overtime, followed by the game-tying dunk with seconds left to send the game into double overtime? You get the point. Reggie Miller is a player that will forever be defined by his ability to reach from within and bring out the absolute best in himself when the moment counted the most. And what's perhaps most amazing about Reggie, is that at 39 years old and in his final season, he's still doing it (61 points in 2 Pacer wins so far in this year's playoffs). In what's been a storybook career for Reggie Miller, there still might be another chapter to his legacy...

Has there ever been an image that better defined a player's career? (Just look at the faces of Knick fans)

3. Shaquille O'Neal
Shaquille O'Neal has earned a warranted reputation for being the most dominant player of this era. There's a reason why-- Shaq turns it up when he wants, where he wants, and however much he wants it. And considering that there's no better time to put things in full throttle than the NBA Finals, well, let the numbers speak for themselves: 31.o PPG (3rd All-Time; up from 26.7 PPG in regular season), 62% FGs (1st All-Time; up from 57.9% in regular season), 3 NBA Finals MVPs, 3 Rings. If not for one detriment to his game, Shaq would unquestionably be #1 on this list: he is a terrible free throw shooter. While he may claim to hit them when his team needs him to the most, the numbers simply don't lie: 53.1% for his career during the regular season; 51.8% for his career in the playoffs. It is because of his poor free throw shooting that he's rarely been looked upon to have the ball with only seconds left on the clock and that has to take away from his status as one of the most clutch players in the NBA. But if you're looking for a player that can raise the level of his game to herculean levels for stretches at a time, there's only one and his name is Shaquille O'Neal.

Nothing exemplifies "clutch" better than the Larry O'Brien trophy. Except maybe 3 of them.

2. Kobe Bryant
Up until this season, I'm not sure anyone would have argued that with the game on the line, there is another player you would rather have taking the last shot than Kobe Bryant. Aside from being arguably the toughest player to man up in the NBA, Kobe also has an ability to bust out the unthinkable play that nobody else has since Michael Jordan. How many times have we watched him seemingly hang in the air only to make the spectacular 'and one'? Or bang back-to-back desperation jumpers to suddenly shift the momentum of the game? What really separates Kobe Bryant from everyone else as a clutch player is his level of competitiveness and determination, one that we haven't seen since Mike. It's like this indescribable drive from within that almost makes it feel as though he's destined to win. Is there another player that makes your heart beat faster, for better or worse, than Kobe Bryant as he dribbles out the clock preparing to make his final move to win the game? Think about it-- there's nobody. And no matter how much you may want to attribute the success of the Lakers to the Big Fella, Kobe Bryant was the go-to guy down the stretch in the midst of a dynasty run. Nobody else in the league can make that claim.

1. Tim Duncan
Duncan takes the number one spot, barely. Though he usually isn't Greg Popovich's choice to take the final shot of a game, his ability to raise the level of his play on both ends of the floor when it matters most is enough for me to award him the title of NBA's Most Clutch Player. While the Big Fundamental shared most of the spotlight with David Robinson during the Spurs' 1999 title run, he essentially carried the team on his back throughout the entire 2003 championship season thus earning MVP honors in both the regular season and Finals thanks to a legendary 21 point, 20 rebound, 10 assist, and 8 block performance in the deciding 6th game. Though San Antonio has met its share of playoff disappointment, TD has never failed to do everything in his will to take them to the promised land (career in playoffs: 23.9 PPG, 13.1 RPG, 2.9 BPG compared to 22.5 PPG, 12.2 RPG, 2.5 BPG in regular season). He gets the top nod over Shaq and Kobe for two reasons: 1) He has been the lone star in San Antonio for the better part of his career; 2) His leadership and confidence in clutch situations have also brought out the best in the teammates surrounding him. While Shaq and Kobe are physically more gifted and talented, Duncan has always been the better leader and that's why we constantly see the Spurs exceeding expectations every season despite what appears to be a plain team on paper.

Cool, calm, and collected, nobody comes through better in the clutch than Tim Duncan.


At 9:41 AM, Blogger Anthony Peretore said...

YOOOOOOOOOOOOO PAUL!!!!!! Great article man, where'd you find the info on Billups being the top scorer with under 2 minutes left? Man what a DDDDDDork you are to find that. Great job though and yes it is pathetic that I'm the only one leaving a comment for you (since this took all of minute)but no one else takes the time to rant. Honestly, I'm sick to death of writing articles on this site and getting no feedback (excluding Nat). It clearly shows the laziness of society today. By the way, Paul and I are getting ROCKED this weekend at our high school reunion and he'll probably end up making out with Katie Hirschoff. GO CELTS!!!!

At 3:30 AM, Anonymous L_Euphoria said...

Damned good one... You've given me the inspiration to come out with a blog on the NBA's best clutch player...

At 6:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

who has hit the most game winning shots in the last 2 years? also, who has scored the most fgs in the last 2 years in the last 2 minutes of game. thanks

At 5:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dude... Duncan deserves no mention on this list... please, this is clutch shooter not consistant player... Duncan has never been known as clutch, & last I checked it was Horry, Ginoboli & Parker that saved his ass countless times in the playoffs... KB8 #1 hands down

At 5:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yo Duncan is the anti-clutch. Number one on your list is a joke. He practically handed three games of the 2005 NBA Finals away tot he Pistons by missing 26 freethrows in the fourth quarter, only to be bailed out in game by Horry and Ginnobli. Duncan iss oft and weak-minded. Kobe Bryant is the cltuchest player in the nba and the second clutchest player of all time.

At 4:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are you kidding??? Hahahahahaahahha. How can u have Reggie Miller on #4???????? He has hit clutch shots EVERY game in 20 years!!!! HE IS KING OF THE CLUTCH... EITHER PUT REGGIE MILLER AT #1 OR DONT PUT HIM THERE AT ALL!!!

At 4:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Totally agree with aboves post.

Reggie Miller
Michael Jordan
Larry Bird
Jerry West

Those are the guys that have the biggest "Clutch" Reputation and have made most Clutch shots in NBA history...

At 9:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i have to say this post is about retarded how can you put shaq above reggie miller and not even put jordan, bird or jerry west on your list.


At 11:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

wheres vince carter??????

At 5:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Honestly no offense but this list is terrible. How can you not have Michael Jordan , Larry Bird and others on the list. Also Reggie Miller how can you not put him higher up.

At 8:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

MJ? Larry Bird? And how about Bill Russell? He only won like 11 championships or something.


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