American sports are dominated by their heroes. We love the idea of one man, with everything on the line, outshining every single opponent and leading his team to victory. In the words of demetryjames86, we wanna watch people "put da team on dey back doe."
Basketball is probably the epitome of this sentiment, as we often get to marvel at the heroics of the games greatest players in its most important moments. And in this post-decision NBA era, just about everyone seems obsessed with the question "who's gonna take the shots down the stretch?" So here's a list of the top ten guys I'd want on my team in crunch time.
(Note - For statistical references, I used the website 82games.com, which is the most common tracker of "clutch" statistics. "Clutch" describes situations in the 4th quarter or overtime with less than five minutes remaining and neither team ahead by more than five points.)
10. Paul Pierce - "The Truth" may be getting older, but he can still close games with the best of them. His clutch statistics from last year aren't overly impressive, but he did shoot 43% in such situations, and he has countless buzzer beaters and a Finals MVP under his belt. Also, I'd say that Pierce has gotten better in the clutch as he's gotten older, because whatever he's lost in burst he's made up for with his incredible body control and savvy moves around the rim.
9. Russell Westbrook - Westbrook burst onto the scene last year as he finally started tapping into his incredible potential. Some people might question this ranking considering the apparent disconnect between Westbrook and fellow superstar Kevin Durant in the playoffs last year, which gave Westbrook the image of a ball-hog, but I think that had to do with match ups more than anything. In the Memphis series, Durant had elite perimeter defenders like Tony Allen and Shane Battier exhausting themselves all game long just trying to stop him, while Westbrook was staring down a one on one match up with Mike Conley. I don't blame Westbrook for trying to take advantage of his team's best option to score. Westbrook shot 46.8% from the field in the clutch last year, which is an improvement on his season field-goal percentage. He also grabbed an incredible 10.2 rebounds per 48 minutes of crunch time, quite an impressive number for a point guard.
8. LeBron James - I know you don't want to see LeBron on this list. I didn't want to put him on this list. But the fact is his stats in the clutch are very impressive. Per 48 minutes of clutch time last season, LeBron averaged 45.1 points (4th in the NBA), 11.2 rebounds, and 4.9 assists while shooting 44% from the field. I get it, no one wants to hear about stats anymore with James. We want to see him in the Finals, with the game on the line, making big time shot after big time shot before we finally admit that he's the best player in the world. His Finals performance was horrendous almost to the point that it was difficult to watch, but LeBron was one of the best crunch time players in the league last year right up until he met the Big German, so to leave him off this list entirely would just be irresponsible.
7. Carmelo Anthony - If you told me that I had to pick one player to shoot for me with the game on the line, Melo would get serious consideration. But a clutch player has to be clutch on both ends of the floor, and until Carmelo improves his defense I can't rank him much higher than this. We all know what he can do for you offensively in big time situations, and I actually just recently witnessed another Melo moment as he handed the Washington Wizards perhaps their most heart-breaking loss of their pitiful season.
6. Kevin Durant - Durant surpassed Kobe Bryant in many people's eyes last season as the most prolific scorer in the NBA. He's 6'10" and can comfortably pull up from 30 feet beyond the basket. That's just terrifying, especially for those who have to guard the Durantula in crunch time. Per 48 minutes of crunch time last year, Durant averaged 44.2 points and 11.6 rebounds while shooting 40.6% from the field. He's also provided perhaps the best highlight so far from the 2011-2012 season.
5. Dwayne Wade - One of the biggest problems I have with the Big 3 in Miami is that we'll perhaps never again get to see Dwayne Wade carry a team, because he was as fearless and dominant down the stretch as you can possibly be as the leading man for the Heat. Unlike Carmelo, he dominated not only on the offensive end but on the defensive end as well, and he was and still is one of the most hard working and team oriented guys in the league. Maybe he figured that with one of the most impressive Finals performances of all time already on his resume, he could just focus on adding more rings with this super team, but regardless his game winners from here on out won't be quite as sweet knowing that LeBron James and Chris Bosh are also demanding coverage.
4. Derrick Rose - Given their bodies of work, it's hard to justify putting Rose over Wade here, but based on what Rose did last season (in both the regular season and the playoffs) and what he's been doing this season, I have confidence that Rose will be the better clutch performer from this point forward. Per 48 minutes of crunch time last year, Rose averaged 47.8 points (2nd in the NBA), 10.4 rebounds and 9.8 assists. I'm usually not the biggest fan of offenses that stall and just depend on one player down the stretch, but Rose has a burst to the rim that I've never seen before, and there's a good chance that he's gonna get fouled, make an unbelievable layup, or find a wide open teammate when he gets the ball in crunch time.
3. Dirk Nowitzki - Considering that last year's finals drew the highest ratings for an NBA series since 2000, chances are I don't need to explain to you the clutch abilities of the Big German. Dirk had always been an unstoppable offensive force, but he really improved on his defense and rebounding last season and coupled with his beautiful, unblockable stroke it made him the most dominant player in the league. It doesn't get more clutch than his game winner in Game 2 last year.
2. Kobe Bryant - The Black Mamba is famous for his clutch shot making. Ask just about any coach, player, or fan who they'd want taking the final shot of a game, and they'll answer Kobe Bryant. He has five rings and hundreds of clutch shots on his resume, including my personal favorite the big time three pointer he made to seal the game against Spain in the Olympic Final. So considering all of this, how could I possibly have him ranked second? Like I said earlier, I'm not the biggest fan of offenses that stall down the stretch and depend on just one player. Kobe takes almost every shot in the last five minutes of Laker games, and he usually has one or two people in his face while he does. It's pretty easy to play defense against a player like that. He's the best in the world at making those shots, which is why it's never a bad shot when he shoots a twenty-foot fadeaway, but there could be a better shot out there, considering he usually has Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum with one on one match ups in these situations. If this were a list of clutch shooters, I'd have Kobe first, but considering the team aspect of the game, I think there's one player who gives his team a better chance to score down the stretch.
1. Chris Paul - With five minutes left in a close game, there's no one I'd rather have on my team than Chris Paul. He's dominant defensively, and offensively he's one of the last of a dying breed of true point guards. I love watching Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook, but there's no one else in the league who controls a game the way that Paul does. He can score thirty, but can also dish out twenty assists in any given game. That puts an incredible amount of pressure on a defense when things get tight, because unlike other superstars he's not always looking to shoot. For anyone who's forgotten exactly how good CP3 is, I suggest you watch the highlights of Game 1 against the Lakers last year, which was one of the best games I've ever seen by a point guard. The fact that this completely revamped Clippers team has started out 7-4, unlike the Miami Heat who started 9-8 last year, points out how easy Paul is to play with. He's not only dominant by himself, but he puts his teammates in the best position possible. I'll take Paul in the clutch on my team.