NBA Teams Do Not Need Crunch Time "Closers" to Win Games

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ne of the worst terms that has seeped into the basketball vernacular is “closer.” A “closer” is, in theory, a scorer to shoulder the offensive burden down the stretch of close games. It’s constantly talked about among analysts as a necessary ingredient for a championship team. Heck, people claim it’s important for simply winning close games. But is an individual big-time offensive clutch star really required to win in the NBA?

George Karl turned some heads recently when he declared the Nuggets didn’t need a closer to win. It turns out, Karl is right. A team does not need a good volume clutch scorer to win a championship, let alone win close games.

As we examined in our recent look at NBA champions, good offenses help win games. Only good offenses aren’t necessarily predicated on individual volume scoring, and many of the greatest offenses ever were orchestrated by lower scoring point guards that quarterbacked balanced attacks. Furthermore, the notion of changing the way a team plays and clearing it out for a single player at the end of games is the anthesis of all things successful in team basketball. Why wouldn’t teams implement that strategy all the time if it worked so well?

According to syngery tracking data from this ESPN TrueHoop article, we know the following about offensive strategies:

Plays involving off-the-ball cuts (1.18 points per possession) and transition plays (1.12 ppp) are by far the most efficient, followed by putbacks (1.04 ppp) and pick-and-rolls in which the ball reaches the hands of the rolling man (0.97 ppp). And the least efficient? Isolation plays, good for only 0.78 points per possession.

It’s logical to conclude that if clearing out for a single one-on-one scorer isn’t great offense in the first 43 minutes, it won’t be great offense at the end of a game. In other words, it makes sense that offenses can be successful without an individual using most of the possessions.

Thanks to Basketball-Reference’s new play-by-play database, we now have access to 11 years of “clutch” shooting data to query (using the traditional definition of clutch as defined by five points games inside the final five minutes). First, know that shooting gets worse the later we go in games. For our traditional clutch definition, effective field goal% (eFG%) — a measurement of field goal percentage that incorporates the extra value of the 3-point shot — has dropped about 4% this decade on average. Here is a year-by-year breakdown of clutch shooting compared to non-clutch shooting...

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