Kevin Durant is a clutch god.
LeBron James is a choke artist.
Or at least that’s what conventional wisdom says. Durant and James are set to clash in the NBA Finals, a duel between two superstars who couldn’t be further apart on the spectrum of perceived clutchness. The audience is itching to be treated with a crunch-time classic. And chances are, we’ll get one. We’ve been lucky enough to have a close game about every other game this postseason, so make sure you buckle in as the Thunder and Heat battle for the championship.
So, game on the line, who do you want with the ball? In one corner, we have the NBA’s leading scorer. In the other, the league’s Most Valuable Player. Who would you trust?
Well, we know who the players might choose. In 2011, a Sports Illustrated poll asked 168 players to pick who they’d want to shoot the ball with the game on the line. The results? 74 percent chose Kobe Bryant. No surprise there. But the runner-up in that poll? The players themselves chose Durant. James? Not one player picked the player who had entered last season winning back-to-back MVPs. Quite the paradox.
This postseason, we’re seeing why the players have shown so much confidence in Durant’s shot-making ability even though he’s just 23 years old. In game-tying or go-ahead situations with less than 24 seconds in the fourth quarter or overtime, Durant has shot 3-of-4 this postseason. The rest of the league in those mega-clutch situations? A pathetic 1-of-31.
Clutch god, indeed. Of course, fluky things can happen when we’re dealing with sample sizes of four shots. For example, that “one” in the 1-of-31 statistic? That would be Glen Davis, not exactly known for ice in his veins. Deriving any sort of conclusion about a player’s true ability to make big plays down the stretch is a dicey endeavor as it is, but zooming in on such a microscopic sample makes it virtually useless.
The truth is that when we look at their respective track records, Durant and James couldn’t be closer when it comes to clutch performance. Don’t believe it? Let’s look at the facts.
First, we must establish some sort of baseline. This is always the tricky part about assessing clutch performance. What is a clutch situation and what is not?
Thankfully, the smart folks at NBA.com have provided a handy standard. As defined by their numbers gurus, the league has defined a clutch situation as when the score is within five points in the final five minutes of regulation. We’ll call this standard clutch time.
How have James and Durant fared in standard clutch time this season? Believe it or not, they’re neck-and-neck.
Situation: final five minutes, game within five points. Statistics are per 48 minutes.
(Note: average field goal percentage -- 41.0 percent)
Surprised? Perception often doesn’t mirror reality. Though Durant had an epic Game 6 against the San Antonio Spurs, he hasn’t been electric all season long. In clutch situations, Durant beats James in shooting percentages by only a sliver (in fact, James was better from downtown). Overall, James has registered a higher player efficiency rating (PER), which bottles up all the box-score stats into one trusty figure. James bests Durant in the rebounding and assist categories while Durant takes the cake in the points and turnover department.
What separates James from Durant and the rest of the league is his uncanny ability to find the open man under pressure. And somehow, this team-first mentality has been twisted to become one of James’ greatest perceived flaws. Despite playing in 45 fewer minutes than Durant in clutch situations, James has 23 assists to Durant’s measly six. If you’re wondering why James has posted a far superior plus/minus than Durant this season in standard clutch time, look no further than the MVP’s ability to hit the open man.
So what happens if we zoom in closer? Let’s take a look at how the two players do when the stakes are higher. Final minute, one-possession game.
Situation: final minute, game within three points. Statistics are per 48 minutes.
(Note: average field goal percentage -- 36.1 percent)
Ah, the tables have turned. As the game creeps into the final minute, we see that James and Durant have undergone a bit of a role switch. This time, Durant has recorded the higher PER while James boasts the higher shooting percentage. That runs counter to what we saw in the previous analysis with looser constraints.
It should be noted, though, that as we slice the game down to smaller and smaller increments, we’re getting less and less meaningful. Fluky things start having a greater weight when we’re dealing with less than two full games worth of playing time, as is the case here.
But hey, it’s still ridiculously fun to look at. Yes, Durant has scored a mind-boggling 59 points per 48 minutes in super clutch time. And yes, James has posted a monster triple-double line of 41.9 points, 17.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists. (Quick timeout: This is where we take a moment to stop and thank the basketball gods for delivering us this terrific matchup.)
So why has Durant been more productive this time around? Because of his crazy-good shot-creating ability. While Durant carves up the defense for his own shot, James creates for others. In 83 minutes of play, Durant has recorded just one assist, but during that time he has made a ridiculous 59 shots. Though a 59-to-1 make-to-assist ratio might make some people queasy, that’s just a testament to Durant’s freakish talent at getting a shot off. Also, James has been sloppier with the ball in these moments, though it’s hard to take issue with the average of 17.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists.
Can we go deeper? Of course. Let’s take it one step further and look at do-or-die situations. Remember Durant’s 3-of-4 mark mentioned earlier? What would it look like if we looked at game-tying or go-ahead field goals in the final 24 seconds of the game for each player’s career? That’ll give us a much better sample size than four shots.
Game on the line, one shot to win it. Who has performed better, Durant or James? The answer might surprise you.
Situation: final 24 seconds, down three points or less or tied. Statistics are per 48 minutes.
(Note: average field goal percentage: 28.9 percent).
Yes, you read that correctly:
In do-or-die situations, James has performed better than Durant over their respective careers.
James has made 35-of-102 shots (34 percent, or 37 percent if you prefer effective field goal percentage, which lends extra weight to 3-pointers). Durant checks in at 18-for-67 (or 27 percent, which is effectively 34 percent). Durant has drained a higher percentage of his 3-point shots and free throws, but overall, James has the upper hand.
Two disclaimers here. One, Durant has about half as many opportunities as James in these situations, so that’s why the points column is so lopsided. Secondly, it feels unfair to judge Durant so early in his career; he’s almost a decade younger than Dwyane Wade, for crying out loud.
What these numbers tell us is that our eyes can deceive us. The mythology of clutch is oftentimes just that, a myth. We’ve seen Durant hit an incredible number of game-winning shots, but we forget the misses. And there have been many -- even though he’s been nearly flawless this postseason. When Durant fails in the closing moments, we tend to chalk it up to bad luck and inexperience. But when James fails, as he did in the Finals in 2011, it’s seen as damning evidence of his defective soul.
In the end, when we cut through all the rhetoric about James' and Durant’s clutch performances and look at the data, we find that they’re nearly indistinguishable. And the one thing that Durant seems to have over James -- the so-called clutch gene -- may be nothing more than a mirage.
Statistical support in this story from NBA.com stats.