When I was growing up, a “closer” was a term reserved for baseball pitchers. Specialists with strange facial hair who were only used when their teams protected narrow leads and needed three outs to finish the game.* Then a closer became someone with enough machismo to finish real estate deals. Kyra Sedgwick turned out to be The Closer. And finally, it devolved into a basketball term.
*I never understood the decision not to use closers when teams were behind by a run. Why opt for a lesser pitcher simply because a save opportunity wasn’t available?
In the NBA, a “closer” refers to star players who play well down the stretch of close games. Give them the ball, and they will guide a team to victory. Simplify the game and ride the best player to victory.
In other words, the best closers are the best offensive anchors at the end of tight games. So naturally, unless there is a drastic difference between normal performance and late-game performance, the best closers will be the best overall offensive players in the game.
Some people believe that clutch performance varies wildly in professional sports. That pro athletes are wired differently, some live for big moments and others shrink in them. And there is quality reasoning behind that thinking. So, when something like this starts rolling, it’s hard to stop its momentum:
It didn’t stop there. Mark Jackson kept calling Kobe Bryant the best closer during game coverage. Skip Bayless has echoed it. This informal 2009 poll of players agreed that Kobe was the King of Clutch.
Kobe’s shortcomings in such situations have been extensively documented. The meme floating around that he’s the de facto best closer/clutch player in the league is actually less erroneous than its evil twin, the Un-Clutch meme. That has been slapped on undeserving players like Karl Malone and Kevin Garnett before, and now it follows LeBron James.
Only LeBron James is plenty clutch. Actually, he’s the best closer in basketball. And it’s not even really close.
In the first batch of clutch numbers I crunched from 82 games, looking at the final 5 minutes of 5-point games or closer, LeBron practically lapped the field. In 477 minutes of closer duty from 2008 to 2010, LeBron’s Cavs were +27.2 per 36 minutes. That is mind-boggling, given that the best NBA teams in history are about +9 per 36 minutes. It’s even more superhuman when one considers how they’ve completely crumbled as a team without James.
He managed to score, rebound and distribute down the stretch of close games while shooting 10% better than league average in eFG%. Holy Superman, Batman! Frankly, he looks like the best player in NBA history based on his closer line.
The next set of numbers looked at playoff performances in such situations. Again, James showed the same pattern: his scoring, shooting and assist numbers spiked. Of the players examined in that post, only one other (Carmelo Anthony) improved his playoff shooting in the clutch, and only Steve Nash averaged more assists. Of course, LeBron scored at nearly double Nash’s rate.
It’s almost as if most of LeBron’s value is disproportionately unleashed at the end of close games. He is, in many ways, the ultimate closer.
Yet the indestructible meme following LeBron is that he’s not a closer.
Some argue that he’s too unselfish at the end of games. But he actually shot the ball more frequently than anyone from 2008-2010, including Kobe Bryant. He has attempted 69 attempts in the final 24 seconds of close games according to this ESPN study, which is about 10 per year. Again, more than anyone on the list.
Even his free throw shooting is refined when he’s closing. 81% on 187 free throw attempts from 2008-2010, up 6.3% from all other situations. He made 20 consecutive late-game free throws this year before missing one two weeks ago. The last time 82games ran “super clutch” numbers (final 2 minutes of a 3-point game), LeBron was in video-game land.
Last week, Kevin McHale opined on NBATV that Miami should have LeBron be a distrbutor down the stretch and let Wade be the team’s closer. Skip Bayless loves to slam his ESPN desk and note how Wade is a great closer and LBJ isn’t.*
I don’t know what it will take to kill those ideas. I suspect the way to destroy the Un-Clutch meme is to win a championship. Hopefully, In the meantime, this is a start.
*If pressed, here are my late-game offensive player rankings since 2003. Note Wade’s absence:
- LeBron James
- Steve Nash
- Kobe Bryant
- Manu Ginobili
- Chris Paul