Who NBA players don't want in the clutch

April, 20, 2011
4/20/11
8:14
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
Sports Illustrated frequently polls NBA players about their likes and dislikes. Recently, SI got responses from 168 NBA players on the following question:

Who do you want shooting with the game on the line?

The results:
Kobe Bryant, Lakers G, 74%

Kevin Durant, Thunder F, 8%

Dwyane Wade, Heat G, 3%

Ray Allen, Celtics G, 2%

Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks F, 2%

LeBron James received 0 percent of the vote.

Point of note: SI conducted the poll in the first half of the season. We can surmise that Derrick Rose, who didn't receive a vote then, likely would earn a handful if the question were posed again today.

Critiquing a player poll can be a little tricky because respondents weren't being quizzed. They were asked to disclose their feelings, and about three-fourths of the league viscerally feels that it would want the ball in Bryant's hands.

These are professional basketball players, so who are we to tell them their business?

Perceptions are largely based on reputation and memory. Big shots are emblazoned in our memories, while contested misses tend to be forgotten or forgiven.

Know what would be interesting? If players were asked, "Who leads the league in field goal percentage in crunch time?" Would the poll produce the same findings?

In January, Henry Abbott performed an exhaustive study of crunch-time performances -- focused primarily on Bryant.

Abbott examined the data (provided by ESPN Stats & Information's Alok Pattani). With the Lakers trailing by one or two points, or tied, in the final 24 seconds of regular-season and playoff games since 1996-97, Bryant was shooting (as of Jan. 27, 2011) 36-for-115, or 31.3 percent. Since January, Bryant has nudged that number upward 0.3 percent to 31.6 percent by going 1-for-2 in that situation.

As a frame of reference, Carmelo Anthony leads the field by an enormous margin among those with at least 30 attempts. He's 24-for-49 over his career (49.0 percent), followed by Dirk Nowitzki (39.4 percent) and Rashard Lewis (39.1 percent).

How's Derrick Rose faring? He hasn't reached the 30-attempt threshold in his young career, but he is 5-for-28 (17.9 percent). Put another way, of the 95 guys with at least 20 attempts, Rose ranks 92nd.

But back to LeBron, whom not a single one of his colleagues would want to have the ball with the game on the line. If we examine the numbers, James resides in the middle of the pack among crunch-time shooters. At 34.8 percent over his career, he's a hair more accurate than Bryant in final-possession situations.

But given Bryant's prolific showing in the poll, we know these players' perceptions aren't based on any familiarity with the empirical data. As unexceptional as Bryant's percentages are, Kevin Durant's are far worse. He's 7-for-33 (21.2 percent) when the Thunder trail by one or two points, or are tied, in the final 24 seconds of a game. Wade, who has been anointed the Heat's closer -- if not by Erik Spoelstra, then in the eyes of Doug Collins -- clocks in at 26.3 percent (15-for-57).

Players are basing their answers on reputation and gut. Whether it's because of Game 5 of the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals, some early-season failures in Miami or general unpopularity, James clearly has an extremely poor standing in the minds of his colleagues when it comes to clutch performance.

It's difficult to fully understand what has happened to James' reputation. This was a poll of his peers, not 1,100 likely Cuyahoga County voters. Yet, their collective sentiment is in lockstep with popular opinion: LeBron can't close.

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