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Is Damian Lillard the Most Clutch Player in the NBA?

No stone should be left unturned in the pursuit of the clutchiest of the clutch.

"Oh, I didn't even notice that you're nearly a foot taller than me."
"Oh, I didn't even notice that you're nearly a foot taller than me."
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Hey Rip City, I'm back!  Actually, I never really went anywhere, so don't call it a comeback.  I'll settle for new and improved: I will be throwing out a discussion topic to you in the middle of each week, along with some bones to chew on. It being the holiday season and all, let's talk gifts.

When they were handing out the gifts, Damian Lillard was given the gift of controlling his optional conscience – where he knows when to have a conscience and when not to. Off the court, he is recognized as a worthy role model. But by all clinical measures, the young man exhibits no signs of a conscience in the hair-raising moments of a basketball game.

Cases in point:

Last night.

#LillardTime.  I rest my case, your honor.  It was like he copy / pasted the Game 6 clincher into last night's game tie-r.  Caused me to be dancing in the streets after an 11 hour work shift.  For him though, it was simply one of six shots that he took from 26 feet or deeper on the night -- of which he sunk FIVE.

I have to keep going?

Well, ok.  Let's rewind (do we do that anymore?  Do I need to update my vocabulary for this gig?) all the way back to San Antonio on Friday.

*rewinding sound* (youngsters -- look it up on wikipedia).

After missing a breathtaking dunk attempt near the end of regulation which seemed like it might cost his team the game,we all know he calmly delivered two pressure-packed game-extending shots. Still, most humans might have a pang of guilt, opting for something a little more conservative in the future if given another chance, or perhaps show some glimmer of recognition of the frailty of the human condition.

But no, with his team down six and time dissolving again in the second OT, Dame put the same jam on replay, a remix that came twice as hard. The party had started for real, with the speakers turned up to 11.  Hubie Brown was officially HYPE.

He went on to exhibit the versatility of his consciencelessness when he went out behind the shed with a shovel and the Spurs’ mascot Coyote in tow, head hung low -- Robin Lopez had already sadistically blinded Coyote as foreplay. Dame’s weapon of choice? A sidewinder 3-ball on a coffin corner hop stepback, fading ever so gently to the baseline.

That is remorseless. And beautiful. But mostly just sick. And America thought the Sopranos was watchable.

So. Do the cold, hard objective stats back up his popular reputation as ‘Big Game Dame’?

Well, in 15 career regular season overtime games (including last night) he has straight up video game numbers:

30-44 FG, 68.1%......11-19 3PT, 57.9%......19-20 FT, 95.0%.......

(Letter) O my.

graphic courtesy

So that would be a pretty strong start for a candidacy. How about his overall ‘clutch’ numbers? Here are this year’s leaders, minimum of 25 attempts in the last five minutes of a game with the score within five points either way (through Sunday's games):

rank name FGM FGA FG% 3PM 3PA 3P% FTM FTA FT%
1 Monta Ellis 25 42 59.5 3 8 37.5 17 20 85
2 Eric Bledsoe 14 25 56 1 5 20 16 20 80
3 LaMarcus Aldridge 14 26 53.8 0 2 0 9 9 100
4 Dirk Nowitski 14 26 53.8 2 8 25 9 10 90
5 Zach Randolph 17 32 53.1 0 0 0 6 8 75
6 John Wall 18 34 52.9 0 4 0 13 21 61.9
7 James Harden 16 32 50 8 14 57.1 24 27 88.9
8 Mike Conley 22 44 50 7 13 53.8 12 15 80
9 LeBron James 14 29 48.3 4 9 44.4 22 27 81.5
13 Damian Lillard 11 26 42.3 2 8 25 4 6 66.7

You may note that the dunk and three from Friday's game detailed above didn’t qualify for this, as Portland was either up or down more than five points.

It’s also worth noting that Anthony Davis is not on this list because he has only 15 such FGA. He has hit 13 of them, for an 88.7% clip. Just another reason to shake your head in wonder and fear at the coming of the new overlord.

In case the eye test didn't do it for you, the numbers prove LaMarcus Aldridge has been leaned on heavily in crunch time and has gotten it done. The above numbers favor the veteran this year, but things change with under one minute to go in a one-possession game (includes last night):

Lillard '14 4 8 50
Aldridge '14 1 3 33
Lillard '14 Playoffs 3 7 42.9 1st in NBA
Aldridge '14 Playoffs 1 3 33
Lillard '13-'14 9 21 42.9 2nd in NBA behind LeBron
Aldridge '13-14 4 17 23.5

Obviously these are small sample sizes, but if you've watched the games, you've seen the pattern emerge: feed LaMarcus down the stretch, then get the ball to Dame in the closing seconds. It's nice to have two stars to lean on; is one kind of clutchness more valuable than another?

At the end of games this year, Monta Ellis has been similarly out of his mind (maybe not a bad place to be as it turns out). In case you missed it, he poured in 11 points from the field in the last 3 and a half minutes to close out the Spurs on Saturday. That coming on the heels of a similar spurt against the Bucks which culminated in his game-winning buzzer beater. And this is not a one-year phenomenon -- here are last year's leaders for under 5 minutes / within 5 points:

LeBron James MIA 41 176 48.4 31.0 84.8 0 0 28
Damian Lillard POR 46 189 47.3 44.2 86.0 0 0 91
Monta Ellis DAL 47 181 44.9 54.5 75.0 0 0 61
James Harden HOU 35 143 43.8 45.8 84.4

Dame shot basically the same in the playoffs (9/19, 47.4%, 3rd behind Durant and Ellis), while LeBro is shooting basically the same this year, although currently in 9th place in FG%....Perhaps this speaks to withholding judgement until later in the season.  Career-wise though, The King's numbers have been consistently pretty darn clutch -- contrary to popular legend.

Does anecdotal evidence count in this discussion? Does factoring ‘the stage’ into the formula – opponent, arena, stakes – trump other considerations, rendering stats meaningless, necessitating us to zoom in on certain moments which will become a fixture in lore, for better or for worse? Patrick Ewing and Karl Malone are remembered as chokers, even though they hit plenty of big shots – they’re remembered most for the shots they didn’t hit, or the balls they lost to other teams (ed. – yup, that checks out).

A lot of people would take Kobe over LeBron in the highest leverage situations, but why? The numbers clearly favor LeBron by just about every measure (at least, when he doesn’t pass the ball…*snark, snark*). Is it simply because we know Kobe never saw a shot he didn't like in these situations? Consider:


Really? I thought Jordan hit those shots EVERY TIME. How did we forget the misses?  Is the media that good at fomenting collective amnesia?

Perhaps there is an aesthetic factor that plays out in our preferences of who takes the big shots -- the range of a player's arsenal, as well as the subjective appeal of a player's artistry.  Or maybe it's lifetime jersey sales.

(Incidently -- Kobe this year with under a minute in a one possession game? 1 for 16, or 6.5%. Hey, 6.5% would be considered an incredible high yield savings account rate -- a decade ago.  For CDs too -- they used to be relevant.)

(Momma always said say something nice.)

Maybe people who have Damian’s makeup simply don’t factor in the idea of 'a stage'.  They just go and do what they're there to do.  Have you noticed a striking similarity in Dame's numbers developing?  Here's a couple more -

2013-14, Overtime, playoffs: 42.9%

2012-13, Under five minutes, within 5 points (rookie): 41.4%

Career FG%: 43.2%

Aside from last year's under 5 / within 5 stats, all Dame's 'clutch' numbers are within a breath of his career marks.  Does just playing as he normally does in the waning moments of a game oblige us to label him as 'clutch'? Maybe it’s worth considering the other folks who put up the most shots in the most pressure-packed moments of last year’s playoffs:

One Possession game, less than a minute left in 2013-14 Playoffs

Damian Lillard POR 5 8 42.9 66.7 100 0 0 8
Manu Ginobili SAS 5 6 42.9 100 66.7 0 0 -3
Russell Westbrook OKC 7 11 20.0 20.0 75.0 0 0 -4
Kevin Durant OKC 7 11 14.3 0.0 71.4 0 0 -4
Mike Conley MEM 4 8 14.3 0.0 60.0 0 0 2
James Harden HOU 5 8 9.1 0.0 83.3

Maybe stats just tell us which way the fickle wind is blowing today?  Or perhaps fail to do even that; take the case of Tim Duncan.  He is seemingly having a bad year in the clutch: 35% on 40 shots under 5 minutes / within 5 points. Tell that to the Blazers Friday night, though, or the Grizz when he tied their 3 OT game on a fadeaway reminiscent of his go-ahead shot in the Derrick Fisher 0.4 game.

Duncan shot 61.3% last year in these situations (only 31 attempts though – already has more this campaign!). LaMarcus’ numbers have likewise flipped from last season to this - he was merely a 32.3% shooter in under 5 / within 5 last year, and 25% in the playoffs in that situation.

Is anyone going to NOT pass Duncan or Aldridge the ball in these situations, no matter what their numbers of the moment are?

Perhaps hitting these shots is something that just comes and goes, like any other shots. Some seasons it may swing one way, others another. It’s important to remember all are relatively small sample sizes overall, and subject to a range of conditions.  Or is consistency, no matter what the conditions, the benchmark we should be looking for?

Basically, bringing this question up is to open a pandora’s box of existentialism. Is there even such a thing as clutchiness?  If not, who is Robert Horry, really?  Did I just make up that word, 'clutchiness'?

I think Damian Lillard may have made that word up this week.

(Oh. A quick Google search showed that neither of the last two sentences are true. I apologize to the Blazersedge community for my lapse in journalistic standards. Now, let the healing begin with conversation.)