The NBA season is upon us. As we sit, wait and prepare to watch a season unfold from an autumnal rebirth – into what will inevitably be a “last man standing” in summer – there are certainly more questions than answers right now. But as the off-season often proves, when there is little to talk about in the way of actual game time scenarios and early season triumphs and failures, more esoteric topics often dominate our athletic vocabulary. We as a culture may not all be diehard sports fans, but the idea of being “clutch” is something that everyone can understand. Some work well under pressure, others don’t. Some want the pressure, while others want to facilitate success without dropping the proverbial ball. With LeBron James at the height of his career, Kobe Bryant still very much a superstar – albeit aging like a fine wine that might have a slightly bitter taste when you finally pop it – and of course His Airness himself, Michael Jordan, these three men are all undoubtedly top 10 NBA talents of all-time. James, Bryant, and Jordan have the “it” factor when it comes to closing out a game or series – swooping in and saving the day from destruction when all hope should be dashed. These are the men you want with time ticking down: but which one?
Let’s analyze the meaning of clutch, shall we? While nailing a 16-footer against the Raptors the second week of the season will make for some lively banter between Stuart Scott and John Buccigross and will inevitably make it onto a YouTube mixtape with graphics that look like they were pulled off the back pockets of jeans from Hot Topic, those shots inevitably fade away. Clutch is the playoffs. Clutch is tying the game or going ahead with the flick of a wrist. Clutch is final stages of the game. I’d be a sucker not to acknowledge certain attributes about the younger guys we’re evaluating. Since LeBron came into the league in 2003-04, nobody in the NBA has made more game-tying and go-ahead shots in the final 24 seconds of playoff games than LeBron, who is 7-of-16 on those shots. Throughout his career, Kobe has taken more shots in crunch time than anyone else. He wants the ball. Defenders know he’s going to get it. He’s lost all elements of surprise like he were dribbling a basketball inflated with Botox. Yet, I couldn’t imagine drawing up a play and not giving it to MJ.
Growing up in Chicago during all three, three-peats by the Bulls isn’t the only memory I have as a kid, but they are certainly the inciting incident for the start of summer that always felt a little nicer and open to possibilities given the Bulls’ inevitable romp through Grant Park. All you need to know about Jordan’s “clutch” genes are the ones that are already tattooed inside your brain. You don’t have to Google them. You don’t have to unearth advanced numerical data. You simply have to close your eyes and imagine it.
“Seventeen seconds from Game 7, or championship number six. Jordan. Open. Chicago with the lead!”
But if you are one of those people who needs rock solid numbers to prove a point, Jordan hit 50 percent of his “clutch” shots.
I started following hoops in the 95-96 season, before then it was strictly football and baseball. I didn’t have a team per se, but Jordan was at the peak of his prime and that’s all I ever heard about. As great as he was and as amazing as he was to watch, for some reason I always rooted for those poor Utah Jazz. They ran the pick-and-roll to perfection and had Hornacek’s outside shot to perfectly balance the inside game, not to mention Malone’s almost instant jumper from the top of the key.
Once the 96-97 season came around, I, like others, were drawn like magnets to the talent of one Kobe Bean Bryant. The Lakers fielded a historic squad of all-stars that next year and since then I’ve been a purple and gold fan, which growing up in the Bay Area was kind of a no-no. I’ve watched Kobe kill the opposition time and time again over the years, but have also seen his stubbornness get in the way. More often than not he’s been clutch and I don’t think I’d trust anyone else with the game on the line, other than MJ of course. I think the advantage we have with Jordan is that his legacy is cemented and the only memories we have are the great ones. Game 6. Two three-peats. Six rings. I even forgot about his stint with Washington. Basing everything I have to go by, unfortunately I’d take MJ too.
All things considered, I have to go with Kevin Durant. At age 24, Durant became the youngest player in NBA history to join the 50-40-90 club. Durant shares this exclusivity with only five other players: Steve Nash, Larry Bird, Mark Price, Reggie Miller and Dirk Nowitzki. Neither Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant nor Carmelo Anthony have ever been able to become members of the ultra-premium shooters club. In order to become a member of aforementioned club, a player must have a shooting percentage at or above 50% for field goals, 40% for three-point field goals, and 90% for free throws during an entire NBA season while also achieving the NBA league minimum number of makes in each category.
When deciding on which player should take “the last shot,” you always want the player with the highest percentage of making the shot to take it. Whether the game depends on a field goal, three-point field goal or free throw, you know you can count on Durant — at least 50-40- and 90% of the time. Considering my opinion is based primarily on Durant’s membership to the club, it may seem odd that I didn’t choose Steve Nash who has four seasons that qualify for the acclaimed recognition, more than anyone else in history. Although impressive, I believe that among the group of elite shooters Kevin Durant is easily the most capable.
This is where my Los Angeles bias plays in. I bleed purple and gold. Since the time I took my first breathe, I already knew who’s colors I would be donning when it came to basketball. The Lakers have been LA’s team for quite some time considering how insanely consistent they’ve been throughout every decade. And when it comes to the dependability of winning and heroics, you only go with him, the Black Mamba: Kobe Bryant.
Yes, LeBron, CP3 and Melo display better numbers in crunch time as of late, but with Kobe’s resume and 28 game-winning daggers he can never be counted out.
In the playoffs (when it really matters) Kobe has shot 5-17 in the last 24 seconds in the 4th quarter/OT (second to only LeBron who is 7-17). The Bean wants the ball when it matters, and he’s produced–albeit not at the highest conversion like the previous players picked. But when you’re a Laker fan, it’s something you have to live with considering what he’s given the city. Why shy away from a guy who just doesn’t give a damn during the last three seconds? Don’t forget that he tore his Achilles and shot two free throws right after (and made them). That’s clutch.