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Thursday, February 23, 2012
Who gets the last shot? Who cares?

By Eamonn Brennan

Today, Beyond the Arc's Troy Machir took a survey of some of the nation's best teams, and some of the nation's most "clutch" players, and asked the above headline's first question. Final possession. Game on the line. Who gets the final shot?

It's a great post and a fun read, and the whole time I was sitting there enjoying it -- oh, yeah, Doug McDermott, you bet -- I couldn't help but think: Who cares?

Why would I say that? I'm not being callous. (Promise!) It's not an inane question. In fact, it's an entirely valid one. The problem, I think, is that college hoops fans and basketball fans in general are maybe just a touch too consumed with the idea that teams need to have a go-to crunch time player, someone they can lean on to take and make the final, all-important shot. This is part of basketball lore. It's practically accepted as gospel. Basketball is a game that rewards, or at least seems to reward, heroism. But why is this the best way to score in crunch time?

Obviously, it doesn't hurt to have a star player on your team, one you can count on when you need buckets most. When the game is on the line, you want the ball in this player's hands. Of course you do. He can score, he can draw a double-team, and so on and so forth. But when players or teams become too consumed by this idea -- when they become predictable -- the hero thing can be as much a liability as an asset.

Last year, TrueHoop's Henry Abbott wrote about this idea as it relates to Kobe Bryant. It's not easy to challenge the myth of Bryant, cold-blooded last-second killer -- there are these people called Lakers fans, and they are legion, and they don't much like it when you appear to even remotely criticize Kobe -- but Henry, per the usual, did his homework. In "The truth about Kobe Bryant in crunch time," he wrote:
No matter how you define crunch time -- from the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime to the last 24 seconds -- and no matter how you define production -- field goal percentage, offensive efficiency, David Berri's Wins Produced, the results tell the same story: Bryant is about as likely to hit the big shot as any player.

ESPN Stats & Information's Alok Pattani dug through 15 years of NBA data (see table below) -- Bryant's entire career, regular season and playoffs -- and found that Bryant has attempted 115 shots in the final 24 seconds of a game in which the Lakers were tied or trailed by two or fewer points. He connected on 36, and missed 79 times.

One shot for all the cookies. And the NBA is nearly unanimous that this is the guy to take it, even though he has more than twice as many misses as makes? [...] Bryant shoots more than most, passes less and racks up misses at an all-time rate. There is no measure, other than YouTube highlights and folklore, by which he's the best scorer in crunch time.

Now, what's true of Kobe Bryant isn't necessarily true of every star player in college basketball. And college basketball -- in particular the NCAA tournament -- is an entirely different animal from the NBA. Plus, this is just common sense: You want the ball in the hands of your best player as much as possible, but especially when the defense is juiced and the clock is winding down and the games and the seasons and the legacies are on the line. Duh.

But it's just as easy to go too far, to stick to this idea despite evidence to the contrary, and Bryant is a perfect example. Henry was spurred to write his post because he won a 79 percent landslide vote in a poll asking general manages which NBA player they'd want to take the final shot. That was Bryant's ninth-straight year atop that poll. But the numbers didn't, and don't, add up.

The same principle, writ large, applies to college hoops. Perhaps the most obvious example this year is Syracuse. Despite being 28-1 and dominating the Big East, the Orange don't have an obvious Big East Player of the Year candidate, or at least no player you'd take above any of the others on the team were you forced to choose. Instead, what Syracuse has at any given time in any given lineup is a group of five very good players. Each brings different attributes and scoring abilities on the offensive end. But a few months ago, at a taping of ESPNU Experts, I heard a few of my fellow panelists worry about who Syracuse's "man" was. In a crunch time situation, who would step up? Who takes the final shot?

That wasn't the last time I heard that sort of question asked about Syracuse. The better question to me is why would you want just one guy? If you're Syracuse, and you're lucky enough to have a balanced team capable of scoring from a variety of places on the floor, why wouldn't you treat your final possession the way you treated the 65 or 70 that preceded it? Why wouldn't you work for the best possible shot, no matter who takes it?

In some cases -- say, a mid-major team with one singular star, a la Damian Lillard at Weber State -- the best shot is the one your best player creates for himself. But if you're a team that can afford to be unpredictable, well, that's a huge advantage! Why negate it by advertising your intentions beforehand?

(It should be noted here, again, that this is not a criticism of Troy's post. He actually accounts for this by listing certain teams' "backup plans," which, as we saw in Antoine Young's game-winner for Creighton last Saturday, can be every bit as important. Troy gets it.)

It's just curious, is all. If you have a transcendant game-winning force like Michael Jordan on your team, then of course you're going to get him the ball. But in college hoops, the notion of needing that one guy -- the "man," so to speak -- seems almost counterproductive. Need to score in the final minute? Get the best shot.

It's easier said than done, of course. But in theory, shouldn't it always be just that simple?