One Shot, with the Game on the Line

February, 6, 2009
2/06/09
4:26
PM ET

Who would you pick to take that shot?

In survey after survey, expert after expert has said: "Kobe Bryant."

Roland Beech of 82games.com just pored through five and a half years of game-winning shots however, and found that with the game on the line, Bryant has made 14 of his 56 shots.

That's 25%.

Which means that as the ball comes off Bryant's fingertips, your chances of getting two points roughly similar as to when Shaquille O'Neal heads to the free throw line to shoot two free throws.

But ... Bryant is still a league leader. LeBron James (34%), Vince Carter (31%), and Ray Allen (39%) have all hit more shots, with somewhat better percentages. Carmelo Anthony is next on the list with an impressive 13 makes out of 27 attempts. Anthony's 48% make rate is by far the best of all those with at least ten makes.

Tracy McGrady has that reputation, but is just nine of 32, which is 28%.

There are some notably effective crunch time scorers lower on the list, however.

Check out Antawn Jamison, who is nine of 16. And, could be important in the playoffs, Pau Gasol is nine of 18. And a shoutout to Travis Outlaw. He has taken seven game-winners, and hit six of them. Only four of four Flip Murray can beat Outlaw's 86% shooting percentage.

David Lee has made four of five.

Looking at this year alone, Danny Granger is five of seven, Brandon Roy is four of seven, and Roger Mason Jr. is three of three.

There are all tons more numbers worth looking at. Including the playoffs, where Bryant and James are deadlocked, both having made four of eight to lead the league. Caron Butler is two of three in the playoffs, which stands out.

Beech explains what he counted as a shot:

First off there's really one main issue -- what exactly do we want to define as a game winning shot? If we make it too restrictive, as in a real last second shot at the buzzer, then you are dealing with tiny, tiny sample sizes. So instead, we proposed the following filter:

Game Winning Shot Opportunity = 24 seconds or less left in the game, team with the ball is either tied or down by 1 to 2 points.

Why use this definition?

1. With 24 seconds or less, then it truly is a "last possession" situation potentially
2. With a margin from tied to down 2, the team can take the lead with a made basket (including 3's)
3. By excluding a down 3 situation, we don't have the "gimme two point buckets" that defenses will sometimes yield to the quick bucket/intentional foul strategy option you often see exercised.

Obviously though this definition means a shot may not actually be a game winner -- it may only tie a game (if down two points) or it may allow enough time for the opponents to get a game winning shot of their own. Still it seems a reasonable compromise.

Worth noting that this definition may slightly hurt good 3-point shooters like Allen and Bryant, compared to some others on the list, because when you factor in times when the team is down three, they're presumably more effective than most.

Beech also makes a great point: These percentages aren't very good. In the big picture, maybe teams should re-think how they handle key possessions, because what's happening now is less effective than how teams score at other times. A big part of that is that teams are very predictable. Almost every coach goes to their superstar in this situation, and knowing what's going to happen gives the defense an advantage they don't normally have.

One example: Last night, the Lakers were pretty certain Ray Allen would shoot the ball, so Pau Gasol didn't hesitate to leave his man to bother the shot.

UPDATE: The conversation continues with Kevin Pelton at Basketball Prospectus:

What does strike me as interesting is this. Both Beech and TrueHoop's Henry Abbott, in his own discussion of the last-second numbers, argue teams and coaches are too predictable in their tactics and would be better served with greater ball movement. I don't believe the numbers bear out this assessment. If you look at the group Beech has isolated (players who have made at least four game-winning/game-tying/go-ahead shots), the 76 players as a whole shot .353 in these situations. Using the league totals, we can deduce that players with fewer shot opportunities have shot just .232 from the field.

I can think of a couple reasons why this overstates the difference between the groups (desperation heaves are probably distributed more randomly than other late shots, and Beech's cutoff was by shots made instead of shots attempted, meaning there are players with more attempts and a lower percentage who show up as "role players"), but it seems to me that go-to guys have actually been more successful in these situations. As to why the league as a whole scores so poorly, I think it's a combination of heightened defensive intensity and the aforementioned prayers.

I am fascinated to know why defenses are so much more effective with the game on the line than at other times in the game. Half-court heaves are part of it, certainly. And rushed shots. And highly focused defense. And maybe referees tend to be cautious in those parts of the game, which could favor the defense.

But it also seems to me that with the game on the line the play-calling is extremely safe and formulaic. The normal notion of finding the open man is very constrained, and takes a back seat to the idea that stars are supposed to shoot at these times. (Remember the uproar a couple of years ago when LeBron James simply hit the open man?) Analysis would prove, I'm certain, that with the game on the line, teams use far less movement of players and the ball, and there is a lot more star vs. one or even two elite defenders (like Ray Allen last night). 

Surely that's part of it too, right? It's like there's some kind ethical code that under no circumstances can you dump it down to Kendrick Perkins with the game on the line. But if he's wide open, maybe you should.

UPDATE: Coach Anthony Macri e-mails:

I think the reason defense is so effective on last-second shots come down to one word: concentration. The level of focus when the game on the line is palpable, and because the defense knows that most teams have two or three go-to scorers, you can pretty much guess what they are going to run and how it needs to be defended. It helps that the offense in general is tight because the onus is on them to get the job done. 

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