NBA Analysis: The Tendency to Overrate "Closers" and Clutchness

Of all the teams in the last 11 years, none shot better in the clutch than the 2009 Cleveland Cavaliers, who were a whopping 15.1% better than the league average in effective field goal percentage (eFG%), at 62.4%. Cleveland boasted the largest relative change from non-clutch to clutch shooting numbers, with an increase of 13.5%.

It’s impossible to discuss Cleveland and ignore that they were led by the King of late-game performanceLeBron James. James turned into a video game during clutch moments in Cleveland, averaging 44 points, 10 rebound and 7 assists per 36 minutes while shooting 63% on True Shooting. Cleveland had the best SRS of any team this century (8.77) in 2009. Despite all of that, they were unceremoniously upset in the postseason.

Perhaps they lost in the playoffs because their offensive clutchness failed them? Quite the opposite. The Cavs were even better in the playoffs, shooting 21-39 in the clutch at a staggering 66.7% eFG%. Having the best “closer” in the game and the best clutch offense in the game couldn’t save them from losing to the Magic.

From 2006-2010, the Cavs were the only team in the league to improve their eFG% in the clutch, and they did so by an impressive 2.6%. The Cavs were so much better than everyone in this regard that the distance between them and second-best Utah — a 2.9% gap — was the distance between Utah and the 10th-best shooting team. (For the numerically inclined, that was good for a z-score of 3.1, with the other 29 teams all between -1.6 and 1.7 standard deviations of the mean.). They shot 50.0% eFG% in the clutch in the 2010 postseason. None of it was enough to prevent two disappointing playoff upsets in LeBron’s final two seasons.

Another notable upset victim was the 2007 Dallas Mavericks. As we saw in the last post, the Mavericks, like the Cavs, boasted a certifiable closer in superstar Dirk Nowitzki. It still didn’t matter. The team shot 46.9% eFG% in the clutch and declined by 0.6% relative to league average from non-clutch to clutch situations. They faced Golden State, a team who declined even more in crunch time shooting, 2.3%. Dallas had two of the better clutch players of the decadeJason Terry and Dirk, and still lost.

All told, good clutch shooting teams haven’t exactly dominated the league. Of the top-30 clutch shooting teams since 2001, only last year’s Mavericks won an NBA championship. At 7.5% better than league average, Dallas ranks 15th on the list, worse than their 2002 counterparts (11.5% better) or the 2001 Utah Jazz (11.4% better), who lost to Dallas in an upset.

The following teams had the best relative clutch shooting numbers in the NBA over the last 11 seasons. All percentages are clutch figures, inside five minutes when the game is five points or closer. Note their final season result (Six missed the playoffs and another five lost as the higher seed):

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