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Who’s Better in the Clutch? CJ McCollum or Damian Lillard?

Game on the line — who gets the ball? Lillard or McCollum? Is there a wrong choice?

Three seconds to go, Blazers are down by two, and have the ball. Who should take the shot? Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum?

For Portland Trail Blazers fans, the clutch time debate between the McLillards was recently ignited when McCollum missed a game winner against the Grizzlies only days after Lillard hit daggers against the Lakers and Thunder.

Thus, for many fans, the answer is obvious: “Lillard Time” is a thing for a reason. Give Dame the damn ball. unwittingly backed the argument for Lillard last week by compiling all of his game winning shots:

But there’s a small caveat to the implicit argument in this video — it’s taking advantage of the human tendency toward confirmation bias. We see Dame hit more than a handful of game winners and, in our minds, that means he’s automatically the player we want holding the ball when the game hangs in the balance.

The truism that Lillard is the obvious choice to take the last choice, however, ignores all the times he has failed to win a game down the stretch. A classic Michael Jordan commercial reminds us that even the greatest players fail more often than they succeed:

Two years ago Evans Clinchy reminded us that Lillard is not perfect in the clutch by breaking down some of the errors he made in close games.

On the other hand, McCollum may not have a 0.9 moment on his resume, but he does have enough clutch baskets to his credit to make his own highlight reel, despite the recent miscue against the Grizzlies. Two examples:

What about the stats?

Assuming that we want to avoid any confirmation bias implicit in cherrypicking highlights when we chose who we want to have the ball at the end of game, it’s useful to look at clutch stats from Here is a comparison between Lillard and McCollum last season:

Lillard may have the reputation as an elite clutch performer, but McCollum’s is nearly 20 percent more accurate from the field — including 3-pointers! Of players who attempted at least 40 shots, McCollum was the third most accurate clutch shooter in the entire league last season while Dame was No. 49 (still one spot ahead of James Harden!).

The heat charts comparing the two players drives home the point that McCollum was far more efficient down the stretch:

Interestingly, Lillard’s propensity for long triples, which occasionally draws Twitter-scorn from analysts, had little to do with the discrepancy between the two. Fourteen of Lillard’s 49 3-point attempts in the clutch, of which he only made four, came from 27 feet or deeper, but his 28.5 percent accuracy was nearly identical to his percentage on shots in the 24-26 foot range.

Lillard and McCollum also differed dramatically in their playmaking ability. Despite playing a nearly identical number of minutes (210 vs. 212) Lillard had 19 assists and 24 turnovers, to only 9 and 8 for McCollum. Translating that to advanced stats, Lillard had an assist percentage of double McCollum’s (17.8 percent vs. 9 percent), but also averaged nearly twice as many turnovers per 100 possessions (11.5 vs. 5.9).

The stats paint the picture of Lillard as a playmaker who is simultaneously getting other players involved, but also turning the ball over. This matches with the eye test which shows that Lillard is the more dynamic true point guard of the two and is more capable of getting his teammates involved in the game.

What About the LAST shot?

So far we’ve talked mostly about “clutch” situations, which the NBA defines as a game with a five point or less score differential with less than five minutes to go. When we limit the search to true game winning situations (I’m defining that as shots to go-ahead or tie in the final minute of regulation or overtime), then McCollum blows Lillard away. CJ shot 7-for-11 in these scenarios last season while Lillard was 3-for-13 (including 0-for-8 from three!).

Taking all of this information into account, I’d argue that Lillard is the guy who should have the ball down the stretch. He’s more capable of getting his teammates involved when the defenses collapse onto the ballhandler. Over time, that should pay dividends by allowing for a more dynamic offense, even if he’s not as efficient as McCollum. It’s also possible that some of his ineffiency is a result of regularly being the true point guard and drawing the bulk of the defensive pressure.

But if there’s only one shot left? Give the ball to CJ. The Blazers tend to go ISO, or high pick-and-roll, in that situation which minimizes the importance of Lillard’s passing ability. The stats from last season show that McCollum can hit last second shots while Lillard’s long term accuracy, despite some very notable successes, is questionable.

CAVEAT: Lillard has been admittedly dispelling a lot of these trends this season. If he continues to shoot well at the end of games then it may negate some of this analysis.


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