Who is the NBA’s most clutch player of the season?

Who is the NBA’s most clutch player of the season?

Whittling down the top contenders for the Jerry West Clutch Player of the Year

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The first-ever Jerry West Clutch Player of the Year will be awarded this season. Arguing over clutch players has become a staple of sports shout-talk TV, so it was probably only a matter of time until the NBA introduced an official award hoop heads could scream about. This wasn’t a thing we wanted, but it’s here and the NBA demands a winner be named.

Critics of the clutch narrative have argued that “every shot matters,” but there’s a reason baseball clubs deploy steely closers and that NFL coaches ice kickers in the waning seconds of close contests. Clutch time is its own time zone. It’s akin to balancing on a knife’s edge and becoming comfortable with hardwood combat from that precipice. The clock ticks slower the closer you get to clocking out and NBA players feel that too, but for a different reason. Hoopers who can’t mentally box out the dwindling seconds feel their muscles tighten up, their hearts beat faster and their hands start getting clammier.

Clutch playmaking has an imprecise definition, but it’s similar to an erstwhile colloquial phrase used by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart —you know it when you see it. However, we can do better than just using the eye test to determine which stars perform best under mounting pressure. Utilizing mounds of data from NBA.com and Mike Beuoy’s clutch shooting report over at Inpredictable, it’s a good time to determine which stars are currently leading candidates to be the NBA’s most clutch player of the season.

Through the first trimester of the NBA season*, here are the stars who are making the strongest case for Clutch Player of the Year. There are a few surprising frontrunners in the early going and the usual suspects putting up impressive numbers.

*Stats through Dec. 20, 2022.

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Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — 79 points,44.1 EFG%, 58.7 TS% in 86 minutes

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — 79 points,44.1 EFG%, 58.7 TS% in 86 minutes

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He’s drained a buzzer-beater against Washington, Then drained another buzzer-beater over the Portland Trailblazers on Monday night, and has been a bigger breakthrough than fusion energy in the first half of the season. In clutch time, SGA’s clutch time totals aren’t overly exciting. He’s shooting 41 percent from the field, 34-of-37 from the line, and has tallied the most clutch time points in the league. During the last two minutes of one-possession games (3 points or fewer), SGA is second in scoring to DeMar DeRozan.

He’s become just as prolific as the god-tier clutch playmakers in the league and while he’s not wily efficient in those moments, the magnitude of SGA’s moments has put him in the running. He may be too good at keeping Oklahoma City viable in close contests. Remember when Oklahoma City was tanking?

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3 / 8

Kevin Durant — 41 points, 55.0 EFG%, 62.0 TS% in 38.3 minutes

Kevin Durant — 41 points, 55.0 EFG%, 62.0 TS% in 38.3 minutes

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Brooklyn went 19-12 through 31 games, and 15-3 in tight contests during that span. Durant is why. The steadiest superstar in the NBA has been more reliable than a metronome. Durant doesn’t experience a dropoff if he’s up by 10 or trailing by 3. He gets to his spots, drills his shots, and defends. Durant is a straightforward ice-in-his-veins scorer in terms of volume and execution. Nothing has changed.

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4 / 8

De’Aaron Fox — 55 points, 66.7 EFG%, 69.6 TS% in 46.9 minutes

De’Aaron Fox — 55 points, 66.7 EFG%, 69.6 TS% in 46.9 minutes

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There’s a very real possibility De’Aaron Fox may be the most clutch player of the first third of this 2022-23 campaign. Fox has the league’s highest field goal percentage among players who’ve attempted more than 20 shots and he’s attempted the 11th-most clutch-time shots in the entire league.

While he doesn’t deposit a high volume of threes, he’s making a respectable percentage of his attempts and led a furious comeback in an overtime win over the Orlando Magic. The heartbeat of the Kings keeps pumping when the margin is three points or fewer in the final two minutes. In those minutes, Fox has been outstanding, shooting 70 percent from the field. Fox has even improved his shooting behind the arc this season and showcased that improved range with a game-winning logo shot against the Magic.

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5 / 8

DeMar DeRozan — 71 points, 43.8 EFG%, 57.6 TS% in 68.4 minutes

DeMar DeRozan — 71 points, 43.8 EFG%, 57.6 TS% in 68.4 minutes

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Ignore his lagging effective field goal percentage due to his reluctance to attempt, much less make, 3-pointers. Effective field goal percentage gives more weight to 3-pointers and that’s never been DeRozan’s strength. DeRozan has sneakily been one of the NBA’s deadliest clutch regular season scorers for years now. Last season, DeRozan led the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring, and was the NBA’s most valuable clutch time player based on his renowned ability to draw fouls according to Inpredicable. The players who drew fouls with the game on the line at the frequency DeRozan did were bigs like Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Karl Anthony-Towns, followed by Steph Curry and Kevin Durant.

This year, DeRozan possesses a 40 percent usage rate in clutch time, which outpaces Luka by five percent and demonstrates how much the Bulls rely on him with Lonzo Ball on the mend. He leads the league in clutch time points and is 29-of-31 from the line at a time when the rim constricts on many solid free-throw shooters. Against Atlanta on Dec. 11, DeRozan made three clutch free throws to tie the game before AJ Griffin’s game-winning buzzer-beater canceled out his heroics.

When you narrow “clutch time” down to the final two minutes of games where the margin is three points or fewer, DeRozan still leads the NBA in scoring in those situations and his field goal percentage increases four percentage points from 43 percent to 47 percent.

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6 / 8

Steph Curry — 49 points, 50 EFG%, 57.5 TS% in 49.6 minutes

Steph Curry — 49 points, 50 EFG%, 57.5 TS% in 49.6 minutes

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Curry was firing on all cylinders before his shoulder injury, but, in tight contests, the Warriors were 5-10 and Curry has shot 41.7 percent from the field and 30 percent from 3-point range in the final five minutes of close matchups. He’s also only 24th in shots taken that have an elevated impact on win probability per Inpredictable, which makes his unsavory shooting numbers even more eye-popping.

It’s not as drastic as Luka Doncic going skunk mode and spraying 3-pointers off the rim 85 percent of his attempts, but he’s been surprisingly streaky for a player who had one of the most dominant clutch seasons of all time in 2016. So why is he on this list? A deeper dive into the numbers shows that Curry just needs to live closer to the edge to spring to life. In the final two minutes of games, when the score differential is three points or less, Curry is shooting 71.4 percent from the field, 57.1 percent from 3-point range, and scored 31 points in those 13.5 minutes. The only player who’s scored more is DeMar DeRozan, who has three more than Curry in 10 more minutes of clutch action.

If you want an example of how “clutch ‘’ Steph has been, turn back to his final five minutes against the Cavaliers last month. Curry went into Sandman mode, single-handedly expressing his high court IQ, conditioning, and a unique array of moves to put an elite defensive team to sleep.

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7 / 8

Jimmy Butler — 55 points, 56.8 EFG%, 61.8 TS% in 55.9 minutes

Jimmy Butler — 55 points, 56.8 EFG%, 61.8 TS% in 55.9 minutes

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Playoff Jimmy Butler is a tireless Hall of Fame-caliber talent, but regular season Jimmy is proving to be a cold-blooded S.O.B.in the regular season too. Peep how he smacked the Warriors up three last month in the final 10 seconds of regulation. With the shot clock winding down, Butler beat Klay Thompson to the elbow, pulling up for a jumper at his sweet spot, pumping Thompson into the air, and draining the leaner.

He hit a long-2 with a much higher degree of difficulty in overtime against the Boston Celtics on Dec. 2 to push Miami’s lead to four. His high-degree-of-difficulty dagger shot against the defending Eastern Conference champions is one of the most memorable shots of the season thus far.

NBA.com’s clutch time stats track Butler as a 58 percent shooter in clutch time, second only to Fox among all players who’ve taken more than 20 attempts. According to Inpredictable, on clutch attempts, Butler is 60 percent on double clutch shots, which they define as the type of shot that swings games in the final minute. Those Warriors and Celtics shots aren’t buzzer-beaters, but they’re what Inpredictable would rate as “double clutch” shots. Sleep on him if you dare, but don’t be surprised if he runs away with this award down the stretch in the clutch portion of the NBA schedule. That’s when the primetime clutch performers put on their best shows anyways.

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