Karthik’s Take: The numbers don’t lie, Damian Lillard is the NBA’s ‘King of the Clutch’

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Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard drives to the basket next to Denver Nuggets guard Monte Morris, front right, and Trail Blazers center Enes Kanter during the second half of an NBA basketball game on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, in Denver. Photo by David Zalubowski/AP Photo.

Every sports fan has heard of the clutch gene. It has been the topic of barbershop debate for decades across all major sports, yet still an intangible shrouded in mystery, disagreement and bias. Oftentimes, people simply anoint their favorite players as the most clutch based on personal memories of them coming through in big moments. However, today, we are going to attempt to use numbers to objectively answer this age-old question. 

While many fans will have esoteric definitions of the word clutch, mentioning words like mystique and aura, the NBA defines clutch stats as those registered by a player in the last five minutes of a play when there is a point differential of five points or less. Before I start throwing out statistics left and right, I have to establish some parameters. For this analysis, we are going to filter players by observing the sample size of their clutch performances, efficiency in these moments and circumstantial factors. All of the aforementioned parameters involve strictly quantitative measurements except for circumstantial factors, which account for critical qualitative variables. The circumstantial factory category will involve making judgment calls on a player’s relative performance while taking into consideration factors such as available teammates, coaching and franchise stability.  

The only caveat of this analysis is that it will only consider star players and primarily measure clutch offensive production. This is because the shots that stars receive late in games are much higher in difficulty than of role players. Role players do not get these easier scoring opportunities if there aren’t stars on the team to bear the brunt of the opposing defense’s pressure. Additionally, the sample size of clutch defensive plays is extremely small in regards to measurable statistics. Most clutch defensive plays are solid jump shot contests that are not actively tracked and rare game-altering blocks like seen from LeBron James on Andre Iguodala in the 2016 NBA finals. Based on sample size alone, analyzing offensive statistics paints a clearer picture of who owns the title of being the NBA’s “King of the Clutch.”  

Observing these parameters, here are the facts: Damian Lillard is undoubtedly the most clutch player in the game today. Lillard’s Portland Trailblazers lead the NBA with a 12-4 record in games decided during clutch time. Lillard, who already has the fifth-highest usage rate this season,  has been single-handedly keeping the Trailblazers in the playoff mix. When stratifying the player groups to isolate the 61 players who have taken a minimum of 15 shots in clutch time, Lillard ranks first in both points, with 88, and first in efficiency, shooting a mind-boggling 63.2 percent from the field. This field goal percentage even includes Lillard connecting on 58.3 percent of shots from 3-point range. He is doing this while also shooting a perfect 24 of 24 from the free-throw line in his total of 57 clutch minutes thus far. Lillard has amped up his play to compensate for lacking the assistance of backcourt co-star CJ McCollum and starting center Jusuf Nurkić. While players such as guard Gary Trent Jr. have stepped up this season, Lillard has been the obvious focal point in the scoring department that defenses game plan to stop which makes his stellar play increasingly impressive. 

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard dunks the ball for a basket against the Denver Nuggets in the first half of an NBA basketball game on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, in Denver. Photo by David Zalubowski/AP Photo.

Out of players who have taken fifty or more clutch field goals in a season, Lillard, Hakeem Olajuwon and Kevin Garnett are the only three players in the last 25 seasons to have been number one in both clutch time points and field goal percentage in the same season. This is some incredibly elite company and it is even more astounding in Lillard’s case because he’s a 6-foot-2 guard that relies on shots from much greater distances with much higher degrees of difficulty. In contrast, Olajuwon and Garnett are 7 feet and 6-foot-11 respectively and were able to score many of their points on dunks, layups and range put-backs rather than heavily contested jumpers.     

Lillard has demonstrated that he is a threat to score as soon as he crosses half court, and the threat of his patented logo jumper becomes all the more petrifying for opposing defenders. While Stephen Curry may have revolutionized 3-point shooting as a whole, Lillard has built a strong case for being the best ultra long-range sniper with 30-plus feet out bombs being his signature and an offensive staple. Lillard shoots jumpers from this distance with more volume and accuracy than anybody in the league. Last year, he shot 42 percent from 30-39 feet. This is his career-best from that range thus far but could potentially break that record this year as his shot continues to evolve. For perspective, other deep threat shooters such as  Curry and Trae Young have never shot better than 38 percent and 36 percent from this mark respectively in their careers thus far. While Curry is still undoubtedly the greatest shooter, Lillard more than upholds his namesake as being the king of shots from the logo.  

Lillard’s incredible shooting range routinely puts defenders in a quandary because there is no set defensive scheme that can consistently shut down his vast offensive repertoire. This has led him to build a reputation as one of the premier closers in the game. Since entering the league in 2012-13, Lillard leads the NBA in game-tying or go-ahead field goals in the last twenty seconds of a game with 25 for his career. When solely considering the playoffs, there are two players in NBA history that have ended multiple series with game-winners – Damian Lillard and Michael Jordan. It is no wonder that when LeBron was asked if Lillard is underappreciated he said “Give me Damian Lillard. I’ll show you how appreciated he’ll be.” Game recognizes game and it’s about time that the mainstream NBA fans took notice. 

Contrary to what Paul George said after witnessing yet another game and series clinching dagger of a shot by Lillard, there is no such thing as a bad shot for Oakland’s finest, Dame Dolla. The fourth quarter is Dame Time, and that’s a fact the NBA just has to accept and respect. 

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