A topic that has been gaining quite a but of press around the league in the last few seasons is clutch play. It’s a topic that blends the lines of stats and narrative to create constant debate among sports fans. Such a complex category can cause quite a bit of disagreement among basketball experts, and I’m far from such, so I offer my analysis while still trying to give you enough data so you can come to your own conclusions. We can debate what even constitutes clutch play, but for my purposes I will lean towards the last few minutes of a game rather than game winning/tying shots, as I feel clutch play is random enough on it’s own, let alone breaking it down even further to a play or two a game. Also note there is plenty of work out there that will analyze clutch play among the superstars of the league, by better writers with better resources than I, so you won’t find that here. We’ll be focusing strictly Raptors for this piece.
Before we dive too deep into the analysis of the Raptors’ clutch play this year, lets put some qualifiers out in the open. Clutch data from a single season, even over the course of 82 (or, in this case 66) games, is a very small sample size. Unfortunately, with the youth and fluidity of the Raptors’ roster, I didn’t find it worthwhile to do a 3 or 5 year overview. Some of Hollinger’s excellent work on the topic shows that there is relatively low correlation from one season to the next in terms of clutch offence. To illustrate this point, as well as give a baseline for clutch stats for each NBA team, here’s a table outlining the last few seasons, in terms of +/-, in clutch situations.
As you can see, instances of a team having consistent clutch play from one season to the next are very rare. This is especially true if you don’t have someone named Kobe, Dirk, Lebron or Chris Paul on your roster. Now I’m going to go out on a limb and say the odds of the Raptors acquiring one of those players in the off-season are fairly slim. As such, we’ll focus this piece by looking at the players that finished last season with the Raptors. For the following table (and unless otherwise noted) we’re considering clutch play to be the last 5 minutes of the 4th quarter or overtime, with neither team down more than 5 points. (Stats taken from NBA.com and 82games.com)
Again, this table reinforces just how small the sample sizes are. For someone like Bayless, he’s played slightly more than a half’s worth of clutch time basketball, so it’s difficult to draw any concrete conclusions. He’s included mainly due to the fact he’s somewhat of an enigma for this team and I thought many of you would be interested in how he compared to the starters. The other players are chosen because they are either our main offensive weapons, or get an unexpected amount of clutch time shots (Amir and James Johnson). All of the counting stats are presented in Per 48 minute form.
Anyone who watched the Raptors on a consistent basis this year probably expected the shots to be divided roughly as the stats show. Bargnani gets the majority of the attempts, with Kleiza, Derozan and Jose getting the majority of the scraps. I also don’t think it surprises anyone that the amount of 3 pointers attempted rise dramatically, as the Raptors aren’t exactly renowned for their late game execution to free up easy looks. Derozan shows an unusual spike in 3’s as well, but after setting aside my personal Derozan pessimism and digging a little deeper, the majority of those three pointers were desperation shots with little or no time remaining. It is encouraging to see Bargnani and Kleiza doing work to get to the line, but again keep in mind this also counts any intentional fouls committed by the other team.
The AST’d (percent of baskets that are assisted on by another player) category is enlightening in terms of who is creating in clutch situations. Calderon appears to be making many of his own chances as well as for others judging by his high rates of AST/48 and AST’D%. For those looking to get rid of Jose, you may want to ask yourself who would be creating those shots otherwise? (If you’re shouting THIS IS EXACTLY WHERE BAYLESS SHOULD BE COMING IN! First of all, calm down, no need to get unruly over my first article. Second, don’t worry, we’re getting to him) On the other side of that equation guys like Bargnani and Kleiza appear to be more recipients of others making things happen. Even if being assisted, Bargnani does at least seem to be putting himself in good position to score, as he converted 5 of 11 shots in the paint, and another 6 of 14 in midrange. He still put up twelve 3 pointers as well, consistent with his season numbers (33% of shots are threes in crunch time, 30% all season) and I consider that reasonable, when taking into account how compressed the paint becomes during crunch time. Remember, those Free Throw attempts he gets don’t count towards his shot attempts in close either.
Bayless managed to put up huge numbers of FG and FT attempts while forgetting the other guys on the floor. Again, small sample size, but one assist in 27 minutes? Someone’s seen too many Kobe hi-lights.? On the flip side, half of his clutch attempts come in the restricted area, so there’s some ammo for those who think he’s one of the select few Raptors players capable of successfully driving to the rim.
Derozan also managed to find his way to the rim at a decent clip and hit 9-12 in the restricted area, obviously converting at a great rate. The downside is he managed to shoot 2 for 20 on every other clutch shot that wasn’t within 2 feet. His Usage Rate (amount of possessions used per 100) drops noticeably from 25.3 to 17.6 when we hit clutch time. Compare this to Bayless, who’s usage rate jumps from 24 in normal circumstances to 39.9
It’s also hard to judge the effect of coaching in these situations. For example in the first table in this piece, Mike Brown’s Cavs teams were very successful while he was there. Now that he’s on the Lakers, they are again very successful. Is he a master of the X’s and O’s, or is he just good at choosing teams with transcendent players on them? (Side note: Sorry Lebron bashers, take a look at Cavs and Heat, pre and post Lebron, and get back to me on the not clutch thing). Finding a way to quantify the effect of the coach, independent of players, is beyond my abilities, so I’ll leave it to you to speculate.
Overall, the clutch numbers for our primary weapons aren’t terribly inspiring. One positive year in the last 5 shows what I think we all suspected: even in the games we manage to take down to the wire, this team doesn’t have the offensive weapons to consistently be effective in the crunch. Lacking the go-to offensive option who can generate points without having a play run for him and not having the quantity to make up for our lack of quality leaves us at a disadvantage against the top tier teams. Is there room for growth? Certainly. Derozan’s development is still a question mark, and (depending on who you ask) he still has the chance to develop into a good offensive option for us down the stretch. Bargnani’s growth at the start of this year gave us hope that he’s ready to take the mantle. Our off-season is full of questions, and the draft, trades and free agency can drastically alter the look of our team. Sadly, unless we see some changes, I don’t hold out a lot of hope for us to see dramatic advances in the crunch from what I’ve discovered here.?