You know the feeling. The post has been fronted, or the cutter bumped off course, or the screen jumped and the slip covered, or maybe whatever the hell happened here, unmercifully, is happening again. NBA offenses get clogged up for lots of reasons, and when the shot clock is winding down, someone's left holding the bag. Usually, that means putting up a bad shot. But not always. Here, we take a look at who's the best at making something out of nothing, and which teams are the best at forcing you into that nothing to begin with.
(All data via Synergy Sports; current as of Monday, April 14.)
Below is a chart of the top 100 players by plays per game when the shot clock is under four seconds:
We'll just note up top that these last-second possessions don't gauge "clutch" performance so much as a player's ability to be efficient within very narrow time constraints.
Now, this is an inherently noisy stat, for a few reasons. For one, better offenses will avoid these kinds of shots, so bad units will have more "opportunities" to hit them. That's why our chart of the top 100 players is loaded with Bulls and Bucks. It also doesn't quite capture everything bad about an offense that is inept at creating shots, because turnovers end a possession before it can get into a late-clock situation, and we decided to not factor in 24-second violation TOVs, because there's too much overlap with shots that go up, but don't hit iron.
Still, this is telling for a number of reasons. First, league-wide, average play in just halfcourt offense is 90.4 points per 100 possessions. In late-shot-clock situations, the average is 77.5 points per 100 possessions. Those 12.9 points represent a massive difference. It's roughly the difference between the best offense in the NBA (the Clippers, scoring 109.5 points per 100 possessions) and the worst (Philadelphia, at 96.7 points per 100).
The top and bottom of this list make perfect sense, as the Heat's (at times) swarming perimeter defense and the Blazers' fuck-all defense make them obvious outliers. Others along the top and bottom make sense as well, though these aren't score-adjusted for blowouts, where opposing teams could either be in a rush to catch up, or have scrubs in who are being stifled.
LeBron is absurd in a lot of ways, but this is ridiculous. The Heat have played at a slower pace each of the past three years, and this year they're taking late-clock shots on 13.7 percent of their possessions, the fourth-highest share in the league, behind Memphis, Chicago, and Utah. This is not good; late shots are inherently less efficient shots. So how is Miami still the second-most efficient offense in the league, overall? LeBron, basically.
Of the Heat's massive number of late-clock plays, LeBron is responsible for 31.2 percent of them. This is the highest percentage of any team's late-clock possessions for a single player. And not only that, at 0.93 points per possession, he's miles ahead of the league average of 0.78 points per possession. Among players with at least 100 of these possessions, he's 12th in efficiency, and he's taken 347. Put another way: LeBron is more efficient with less than four seconds on the clock than Paul George and Tim Duncan (both right around 0.92) are in the halfcourt.
With Dwyane Wade missing a big chunk of the season, LeBron has taken on a huge amount of offense, and he's kept the Heat attack rolling, the way he used to for Cleveland. It also helps that in his fourth year in Miami, Bosh has become a reliable outlet valve, ranking near the top of the league in efficiency for late shots (0.98 points per possession), and remaining a deadly spot-up shooter from midrange.
Kemba's presence on the high end of the list outwardly doesn't make a whole lot of sense. On one hand, sure, the Bobcats don't have a ton of players who can create their own shots, so they fall to Kemba. On the other, holy crap, all Kemba does is take long jumpers from the wing, after the Charlotte offense breaks down, or after he or Ramon Sessions has pounded the ball flat. But somehow he makes them, at a high enough clip to rate well (0.837 points per possession, well above league average).
This is some of the more compelling evidence of just how put-upon Melo has been in New York. He's taken the second-most attempts overall (321), and no player except LeBron has taken such a large share of team's attempts (30.5 percent). He's been so good at this, and so prolific, that the Knicks' offense in late-clock situations is only 9.1 points per 100 possession worse than its overall halfcourt offense. Their late-clock efficiency (84.1 points per possession) is the third-best mark in the league.
Courtney Lee is interesting, because he's such a high outlier for efficiency here. The Grizzlies overall are about average for these possessions, but Zach Randoph is way down at 0.61 points per possession, and takes up a good amount of the Grizzlies' plays. Once the ball finds its way out of the post on late shots, the Grizzlies aren't exactly well-oiled, but it's a controlled sort of chaos that can often get Lee an open shot along the perimeter. Or maybe Lee's just really good at this. He put up excellent marks in a limited number of these plays in Boston.
The Timberwolves lose more points per possession than any other team in these situations, dropping 20.5 points per 100 possessions when they're forced late into the clock. Kevin Love hasn't managed to make a big dent, settling in right behind Rudy Gay in attempts—and efficiency.
Some other things of note:
- Philadelphia has the second-fewest late-clock shots—a good sign!—at 7.2 percent of their overall possessions, but is still dead last, by a Pennsylvania mile, in overall offensive efficiency. This is funny. Philly is doing things right (Hi, Sam!), but they are still terrible at it.
- The team with the widest spread of late-clock shot takers is, no real surprise, the Bucks. Brandon Knight is the lowest percentage-based leader for any team, taking only 12.7 percent of Milwaukee's late-clock attempts.
- As a team, San Antonio fares the best, at 84.4 points per 100 possessions, just 7.9 points lower than its regular half-court average, and the second-smallest dropoff of any team (the Lakers have the smallest, at 7 points per 100).
- The reason you don't see Steph Curry, or any other Warrior, on this list is that Golden State has the fewest late-clock plays in the league. Curry himself has only 95 to his name (he's good for an above-league-average .81 points per possession), but the best way to be efficient in these plays is to simply avoid them altogether, and the Warriors have.
- The Heat defense is forcing a massive amount of these shots, which, if they really have been coasting this year, is a terrifying prospect if they really do have another gear.
Charts by Reuben-Fischer Baum