With the formation of these “Big Threes,” no longer is it commonplace for a team to only have one player who can dominate the game’s final seconds. However, it’s still a luxury to have. Players like this are usually defined as go-to guys. A go-to guy, in my opinion, is someone who can get you that basket your team needs in the game’s closing seconds when every eye in the arena is focused on them. A go-to guy, in my opinion, isn’t someone who shies away from big moments, but walks into them head first. The best way to find a go-to guy is to watch who gets the ball for the final shot in the closing seconds of a tight game.
Go-to guys aren’t perfect and definitely don’t make every shot in these situations. But teams never think twice about who they would give the ball to if the situation presented itself again.
Here’s my list of the 15 best go-to guys in the NBA.
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15. PAUL GEORGE
Paul George doesn’t have some of the numbers that many of the others on this list have to cement his place on this list. During the regular season, there were 29 instances in which George found his club within or ahead five points in the final five minutes and the Indiana Pacers only won nine of those contests. PG only chipped in 0.2 points per game in those situations.
But, George didn’t truly become the Pacers go-to guy until the 2013 Playoffs, specifically against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. When you look at those same instances in the playoffs George and the Pacers won three of the five games and George saw his point average during those moments jump to 2.6.
With such a small sample size it’s hard to argue that George deserves a place higher on this list. The Pacers are going to be one of the best teams in the East this year and George is their star player. If he continues to develop like he has the past three seasons, he will steadily move up this list and find himself in discussion with some of the bigger stars in the league.
14. STEPHEN CURRY
Stephen Curry has been clutch since birth it seems. He made a name for himself by leading the Davidson Wildcats to late game victory after late game victory in their almost historic 2008 NCAA Tournament Cinderella run (three of their four games were decided by six points or less).
In the NBA, it took him a bit longer to become the player we saw in college, but now in his fifth season he and the Golden State Warriors are firing on all cylinders. Last season, the Warriors and Curry played in 38 close games. With Curry in the lineup, they won 23 of those games. In his 3.9 minute clutch average, Curry was able to score 2.7 points.
Curry is now one of the most lethal scorers in the NBA. He has range that extends to the exit doors and has tightened his ballhandling to the point where he can get into the lane consistently and has a bevy of floaters and other shots that allow him to finish over taller opponents in the paint. With the addition of Andre Iguodala, the return of a healthy David Lee and the continued development of Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes, Curry can become even more of a weapon in late game situations.
13. DWYANE WADE
Wade made news recently when he tweeted out a “note to himself” about showing Kevin Durant that he is still a top 10 player in the league (hint: it’s not a note to yourself when over four million people can see it). However, I don’t see it anymore. Can Wade still have an effect? Yes. Can Wade takeover a game occasionally? Yes. But gone is the 2006 D-Wade that looked utterly impossible to guard.
Nowadays, LeBron James leads South Beach and Wade doesn’t have to be the every night superstar he once was. However, Wade still put up a respectable 19.6 points per 36 minutes in clutch situations last season.
Wade is far from “over the hill” and if there’s anyone who loves to prove his critics wrong it is Wade — remember bald D-Wade led the 2008 Olympic team in scoring and torched Spain for 27 points in 27 minutes in the championship game. This back and forth with Durant may be the fuel he needs to jump higher on this list next year but for now he’s looking in on the top 10.
12. DERRICK ROSE
Derrick Rose is only this low on the list because he missed the whole 2012-13 season. Rose chose to take as much time as necessary to recover and rehab and enters this year as an intriguing question mark.
For the sake of this article, let’s look at Rose’s 2011-12 clutch stats. Per 48 minutes, Rose’s clutch numbers looked like this: 33.3 points, 7.6 rebounds and 7.6 assists. While those are gaudy numbers at first look, broken down they aren’t as impressive. He ranked 17th in points, 16th amongst guards in rebounds and 19th in assists.
However, he does crack the top 10 in the percentage of assisted baskets. Only 13 percent of his clutch-time scores came off of an assist… meaning that if you put the ball in his hands he can create and make his own shot.
If Rose can be the same player he was then, and with the additional 10 pounds of strength and a better jump shot, he will easily be one of the deadliest scorers in the NBA and could even find himself atop a list like this by year’s end.
11. DIRK NOWITZKI
Dirk Nowitzki’s best days are probably behind him, but his offensive talents are far from diminished. Nowitzki has one of the best shots in NBA history; in today’s NBA, only Curry and Ray Allen are on par with Dirk’s deadeye shooting ability.
Throughout his career in Dallas there have been many players who played sidekick to Dirk (Steve Nash, Jason Terry, Michael Finley, O.J. Mayo) and this year it’s Monta Ellis‘ turn. Ellis is a better offensive version of the JET and his ability to make shots for himself and play off the ball should make it harder for teams to double-team Dirk in the post. And Dirk in the post, especially against single-coverage, is about as guaranteed a basket as there is in the NBA.
Dirk’s one-legged fadeaway is unstoppable; the defender’s only hope is to foul him and send him to the line where he’s a 87.7 percent career free throw shooter and shot 80 percent in the clutch last year. Dirk knows where he is at his best and Rick Carlisle draws up the plays where he can be most effective.
10. PAUL PIERCE
Paul Pierce has been one of the most clutch players of the past decade. There are countless YouTube videos of Pierce hitting the big shot to clinch victory for the Boston Celtics. However, after the blockbuster trade that saw Pierce and Kevin Garnett shipped to Brooklyn, “The Truth” might be even more lethal.
With a supporting cast of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, KG and Brook Lopez most likely on the court in the game’s closing moments, defenses will not be able to solely focus on Pierce. This is similar to when KG and Ray Allen joined Pierce in Boston. How many times did it seem like Pierce was shooting open left elbow jumpers as the clock expired?
Pierce has the type of slow, old-man game that will keep him in the league for a few years past his prime and with the All-Star talent around him, he won’t have to worry about being the team’s only offensive option. Last season Pierce was 10th overall in points per game in clutch situations.
9. JAMES HARDEN
James Harden set the basketball world on fire last season. After showing that he was the best bench player in the league, he went to Houston and proved that he was also a star player. Harden led the Houston Rockets to the playoffs on the strength of his 25.9 PPG, 4.9 RPG and 5.8 APG.
Over half of the Rockets’ regular season games found the team ending the game in clutch situations. Harden was great in these moments as well, scoring 3.1 PPG in these instances in just 3.4 minutes (almost a point per minute). Harden’s style of play is very efficient and even built for these moments. The Beard knows how to weave his way into the lane and draw contact, enabling him to get to the free throw line.
Don’t forget that during his last hurrah with the Oklahoma City Thunder during the 2012 Playoffs, it was Harden who was the man in the sweep-clinching Game 4 against Dallas. Harden put in 29 points, 15 of which came in the fourth quarter when the Thunder were trailing by 13 to begin the quarter.
8. RUSSELL WESTBROOK
Russell Westbrook will also be coming back this year after a knee injury, like Derrick Rose. However, where Rose’s was a more severe injury that caused him to sit for nearly a year and a half, Westbrook should be back sometime in early December. Though his time off had an adverse impact on OKC, Westbrook should be back to his usual self shortly.
Much like Wade, Westbrook plays second fiddle to a bigger name teammate. Yet, he still was one of the 15 best scorers in clutch situations last season. Westbrook chipped in 2.8 points in 3.9 minutes in clutch moments. In the 37 instances Westbrook was a part of, the Thunder won 21 of those games.
With KD as his running mate, Westbrook benefits from defenses not being able to load up against what he does best: drives and pull-up jump shots. Westbrook’s athleticism is second to none and once he is able to regain that he will be a matchup nightmare for every point guard he faces this season.
7. CHRIS PAUL
Chris Paul is the definition of a pass-first point guard. No matter who the opponent, no matter the matchup, CP3 always begins each game he plays trying to get everyone else on his team involved before thinking about getting his own shot.
But when it’s crunch time and the team needs points, the ball always finds itself in Paul’s hands (as shown in the Clippers opening playoff game victory against the Memphis Grizzlies last season).
It showed during the regular season as well. Paul was tied for first in most points scored in “clutch situations” (when a team is ahead or behind by at least five points in the last two minutes of a game) with 79 total points.
Paul is the best all-around point guard in the game today and though his ability to set up others and run a team often garner the most praise, he can still be a deadly assassin when called upon.
6. TONY PARKER
Tony Parker almost stole the MVP award from LeBron James last season. His numbers (20.3 PPG, 7.6 APG and 3.0 RPG) don’t necessarily pop off the screen, but from January 21 through February 21, nobody was playing better than Parker. He had five games were he scored 30-plus and another five games where he dished out 10-plus assists. During that stretch, the San Antonio Spurs went 11-1.
The Spurs were once Tim Duncan‘s team, but as time passed Gregg Popovich has slowly handed the reigns over to TP. Last year, only Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant were better scorers in late game situations. The main reasons for Parker’s ability to close out games is that he shot 47.1 percent from the field and an absurd 50 percent from three in the clutch.
Parker’s play last year led many, including Pop, to deem him the best point guard in the NBA. While that is a debate for another time, you can’t deny that Parker is one of the league’s best players in the game’s final moments.
5. CARMELO ANTHONY
Carmelo Anthony can do it all on the basketball court, at least on the offensive end. He can dribble, shoot, post up, shoot, pass, shoot, cut, shoot, rebound and uh… shoot. If you haven’t caught on, ‘Melo tends to shoot a lot. But at the end of games he’s often at his best.
Though his percentages of 37.7 from the field and 29.4 from deep leave the casual observer wanting more out of him, his 2.9 PPG in the clutch put him at 13th overall. In the 29 tight games ‘Melo and the Knicks found themselves in, Anthony was able to lead them to victory 17 times.
Anthony’s versatile array of offensive skills is what makes him so dangerous late in the game. Once he gets the ball he is capable of doing anything imaginable with it, and has treated fans at Madison Square Garden to a few game-winners during his tenure with the Knicks.
4. KEVIN DURANT
Last year, Kevin Durant said he was tired of being second. Well that’s not something he’ll have to worry about on this list. While KD may possess the talent of the game’s second-best player, he is not the second-most clutch player in the NBA.
Durant’s height (6-9 if we’re going by the NBA, but probably closer to 6-11) and shooting ability (youngest ever 50-40-90 player) make him an offensive weapon that the league has rarely seen before. His clutch statistics represent this as he averages more than a point per minute in the clutch (4.1 PPG in just 3.9 MPG).
However, it is his shooting percentages that keep him from being placed higher on this list. During the regular season, his percentages were 39.4 from the field and 35.7 from beyond the arc. This was most prevalent during the Thunder’s playoff series with the Memphis Grizzlies. In the final minutes of the last four games, Durant scored just three points total, was 1-for-17 from the field, 0-for-7 from three and even more shockingly, 1-for-4 from the free throw line. If Durant can bring those numbers up across the board this year he could easily challenge for the top spot.
3. KYRIE IRVING
Another player hoping to enter the best point guard debate is Kyrie Irving. He will need to take the Cleveland Cavaliers to the playoffs before he can seriously enter that discussion, but the talent is undeniable.
Irving has only been in the NBA for two years and has already made five game-winning shots. Uncle Drew has an effortless handle and always seems to have the ball on a string. His ability to finish at the rim and knock down jumpers make him basically impossible to guard.
Last year, Irving was tops in the league in per-36 minute clutch scoring with an otherworldly 41.3 PPG. His usage rate in the clutch is on par with Bryant and Durant, but Irving shot at a 47.8 percent clip compared to Bryant’s 41.6 and Durant’s 39.4. With more and more talent finding its way to Cleveland, Irving might see a drop in his usage rate, but he should still be one of the best with the ball in his hands as the clock winds down.
2. KOBE BRYANT
Not since Michael Jordan has there been a more feared one-on-one player in crunch time. (And even MJ admits Bryant would beat him.) Kobe Bryant is now that man. Even at 35 years old, the Black Mamba can get his shot off over any defender and Bryant has made his career off being able to knock down even the toughest shots.
Kobe was part of a Los Angeles Lakers team that horribly underachieved last year. Part of that has to do with the number of close games they were part of. Forty-two of their 82 games came down to clutch moments and the Lakers were able to win 22 of them.
Bryant played 3.3 MPG and scored 3.7 PPG in the clutch last year. His knowledge, experience, dedication and footwork are what separate him from the rest of his counterparts on this list. Though the numbers don’t back it up, if a game is close and Bryant has the ball, everyone watching expects that Kobe will find a way to help his team prevail — just ask the Phoenix Suns (Game 2, 2000 Playoffs; Game 4, 2006 Playoffs; Game 6, 2010 Playoffs).
1. LeBRON JAMES
For many years, the jury on LeBron James has been that he is not clutch. I don’t believe there is any truth to this. He was clutch in 2006 to beat the Washington Wizards; he was clutch in 2007 against the Detroit Pistons; he was clutch in 2009 against the Orlando Magic; he was clutch in 2011 against the Chicago Bulls; he was clutch in 2012 against the Celtics, and he was clutch last year against the Spurs. (All of these performances also came in the playoffs.)
With a roster full of former first-round picks and All-Stars, it is King James who spearheads the Heat’s late game production. Last season, James had per 36-minute numbers of 29.1 points, 11.4 rebounds and 11.2 assists in crunch time. The fact that James leads in both clutch assists and rebounds shows just how dominant of a player he is.
Most of the other names on this list find themselves on it because they are able to single-handedly take over the end of games, oftentimes being the only offensive force on the floor. While LeBron had his moments where he did the same, he is the only player (by a wide margin) to affect the game in every way — scoring, passing and rebounding. It is because of James that his teammates can shoot 50 percent (Wade), 48.9 percent (Ray Allen) and 77.1 percent (Bosh) in the clutch.
All stats via NBA.com
When the game is on the line, who do you want to have to ball?
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