On Tuesday, the NBA introduced a new award. The Jerry West trophy will be given to the league's Clutch Player of the Year, a fun if slightly ridiculous concept. Russell Westbrook led the NBA in clutch minutes last season, but those minutes represented less than seven percent of his total for the year. No player made more than 47 clutch field goals for the season, and nobody attempted more than 100. The season as a whole produced a meager 14 game-winning buzzer-beaters out of 1,230 games. That's a shade above one percent.
We're dealing with preposterously small samples here, but that's what makes things interesting. In theory, small samples offer plenty of opportunities for chaos. Does a superstar have to win this award? Only one player has hit multiple game-winning buzzer-beaters this season... and it's Atlanta Hawks rookie AJ Griffin. Could a player with a notoriously non-clutch reputation buck his own trends for a year and steal this award? It's possible. James Harden has led the NBA in clutch scoring, after all.
So let's look back at the last 10 years of clutch basketball and try to pick winners for an award that didn't yet exist to see what we can expect from it moving forward.
2021-22: DeMar DeRozan
If this were the Kia Clutch Team of the Year award, it would undoubtedly go to the Phoenix Suns. The NBA defines the last five minutes of any game in which either team leads by five or less as "clutch" for statistical purposes, and the Suns went a preposterous 33-9 in those games while outscoring their opponents by 33.4 points per 100 possessions in those situations. This isn't, however, a team award. We'll get to Phoenix's maestro shortly, but no individual player produced more clutch fireworks last season than Chicago's mid-range marksman.
DeRozan scored one fewer point in the clutch than league leader Joel Embiid last season but did so more efficiently and with a better clutch record (23-15). He was the only player in the league to make multiple game-winning buzzer-beaters... and he became the first player in NBA history . For the season, the Bulls were outscored by 101 combined points in the first three quarters... and outscored their opponents by 71 in the fourth. That was DeRozan. He dragged an otherwise pedestrian team into the playoffs by sinking clutch jumper after clutch jumper, and he was the easy choice for the non-existent 2022 Jerry West trophy.
2020-21: Damian Lillard
This is another relatively easy pick. Lillard led the NBA in clutch scoring and came just a hair shy of 50-40-90 shooting splits in those minutes. The Blazers went 22-12 in clutch games while going a more pedestrian 20-18 in all others. His lone game-winning buzzer-beater of the season came on this absolutely absurd step-back jumper over Lauri Markkanen that came off of a jump ball and turned a two-point loss into a one-point win.
Lillard contends for this hypothetical award almost every year, but 2022 was his masterclass. His limited rosters have prevented him from winning a championship, but his regular-season clutch credentials are unquestioned. Hey, speaking of which.
2019-20: Chris Paul
I'm about to write something controversial. Are you ready? Good. Chris Paul might be the greatest regular-season clutch player in NBA history. In the last five years alone, his team has had the best clutch rating in the NBA three times. Here's the kicker: he did it with three different teams. The 2018 Rockets led the NBA at plus-27.1. The 2022 Suns led the NBA at plus-33.4. And, as you likely guessed, the 2020 Thunder led the NBA at plus-24.4.
Despite having the lowest net rating of the three, 2020 was Paul's opus. He had an established star with him in Phoenix (Devin Booker) and the literal MVP in Houston (James Harden), but in Oklahoma City? It was a ragtag group of castoffs following their offseason rebuild. Oklahoma City's three-guard lineups with Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder lit the NBA on fire. Paul scored a league-best 150 clutch points. A Thunder team we all expected to land in the lottery went 30-15 in clutch games to earn a surprising playoff berth. We're going to cover some of the most clutch players in NBA history in this story. I'm pretty confident in saying that Paul would be the only winner in this award's history to do so on a team that just traded away two All-Stars.
2018-19: Nikola Jokic
There isn't a clear winner from this season. Harden was our clutch scoring leader at 192 points, but 41-29-83 shooting splits and a 22-17 record leave plenty to be desired. Kemba Walker falls off for the same reasons. Kyrie Irving didn't win enough. Kawhi Leonard didn't play enough. So instead, this race comes down to the season's two most prolific clutch winners.
And in the other, we have Nikola Jokic, who scored 13 fewer points in the clutch, but won six more games and racked up 11 more assists. This race is so tight that Jokic's lone buzzer-beater actually came three days before the one Williams made against the Nets.
There isn't a wrong answer here, but by the slimmest of margins, I'd take Jokic. He was slightly more efficient, won more games and added 33 more rebounds than Williams. Plus, Williams already got a trophy this year. Let's share the love.
2017-18: LeBron James
This one wasn't remotely close. James scored 197 points in the clutch this season, which is more than any player has done since, but he also ranked third in clutch assists, fourth in clutch rebounds, 14th in clutch steals and 22nd in clutch blocks. The Cavs went 30-15 in the clutch and 20-23 in all other games. You don't remember any of that though. You remember this insane sequence against Minnesota in which James blocked Jimmy Butler's possible game-winner, made a buzzer-beater of his own, and then snubbed Isaiah Thomas to chest bump Cedi Osman in Cleveland's last game before its infamous 2018 trade deadline reshuffling.
Amazingly, that wasn't even his best buzzer-beater of the season, but this is sadly a regular-season award, so the one he made in Toronto in the playoffs is off-limits. Still, he is the only player in the period we're covering (and the first since Kobe Bryant in 2010) to make three game-winning buzzer-beaters in a season. That makes him the automatic choice here.
2016-17: Russell Westbrook
Poor Isaiah Thomas. The King in the Fourth would have won this award in basically any other season with 225 clutch points and a 30-14 clutch record for Boston. So why doesn't he win? Because of this:
Russell Westbrook scored 247 clutch points in 2017. That's more than the Warriors scored that season as a team. He also finished in the top five in both clutch assists and clutch rebounds as a 6-3 guard. He ranked third in clutch steals compared to Thomas, who was such a defensive liability that Boston ranked 20th in the NBA in clutch defensive rating that season despite being stout everywhere else. Again, Thomas wins in any other season. He even managed to mount a pretty compelling case in this one. But in a season in which he won MVP based on his triple-double average, Westbrook again steals the show with his remarkable counting stats on a roster that desperately needed every one of them.
2015-16: Stephen Curry
Stephen Curry won the MVP award unanimously in 2016. He came very, very close to losing this one to an extremely surprising candidate. I know what you're thinking. Sam, Steph went 27-4 in clutch games! Have you seen this shot?
These are valid points. Curry's team had the greatest clutch record in recorded history (which, for our purposes, dates back to 1997). He hit one of the most iconic regular-season clutch shots in NBA history. He did it while chasing one of the NBA's most storied records, which the Warriors ultimately owned by going 73-9. But he played for a team that went 43-5 in non-clutch games. One might argue that the Warriors were so good that the stakes of any individual game, at least before the wins record was in sight, were relatively meager because, in the grand scheme of things, Golden State could have afforded to drop any of them.
You can absolutely disagree with that argument... but you can't disagree that the opposite was true for the Detroit Pistons, who needed every single victory just to sneak into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed. They edged out the Bulls for that last slot by two games, but here's the kicker: they beat the Bulls in all three of their clutch matchups. Detroit needed every victory, every last ounce of clutch greatness, to sneak into the postseason. They got it from Reggie Jackson.
Statistically speaking, he holds an undeniable edge over Curry. Some of that is due to volume. Jackson led the NBA in clutch scoring with 178 points, but he did so in six more clutch games. Trim that down to a per-game basis and Jackson still has the lead, but it's pretty slim. Jackson dished out more assists. He got to the line more often, which is critical in late-game situations as it removes the element of tougher late-game defense from the equation. Depending on your definition of clutch, Jackson has a totally valid case for this award.
But Curry was significantly more efficient. His true shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage were each about six points higher. Jackson also lacks a singular moment like Curry's even if Curry's shot in Oklahoma City wasn't technically a buzzer-beater. Ultimately the MVP cannot be denied, though this race was significantly closer.
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2014-15: Marc Gasol
This was probably the weakest overall clutch season of the bunch. Only four players managed to reach even half of Russell Westbrook's 247 clutch points in 2017, and Harden led the league with a relatively unimpressive 138. There were only two game-winning buzzer-beaters in the entire season: one by LeBron James, and another by Paul Pierce.
The three primary scorers here are all uninspiring for different reasons. Harden is probably the best candidate of the bunch, but he actually managed a negative clutch point differential despite a healthy 25-16 clutch record. LaMarcus Aldridge came two wins shy of Harden's record, but was more efficient and shared a roster with the defending winner (who we'll get to in a moment). Monta Ellis loses out in every category but record, and he also shares a roster with Dirk Nowitzki, another candidate for regular-season clutch GOAT. Nowitzki was so obscenely clutch that in the three seasons directly following Steve Nash's departure, his Mavericks won 75 percent of their clutch games (94-31).
So let's go in another direction here. Marc Gasol ranked just 10th in clutch points at 105, but he made up for it by ranking fourth in clutch assists (25) and leading the NBA in clutch wins (30). Ironically, his brother Pau Gasol finished second with 28 and scored only seven fewer points in the clutch. Neither Gasol represents what we typically consider a late-game ball-handler, but both of their teams relied on them to win in the clutch. The younger Gasol clinches the win with his excellent defense, as he is just two years removed at this point from his Defensive Player of the Year award.
2013-14: Damian Lillard
We finally come to our lone two-time winner. Kevin Durant leads all clutch scorers with 167 points but wasn't especially efficient even in his MVP season. Lillard gives up 19 points but shoots over seven percentage points higher from the field while winning four more clutch games. Throw in a few extra clutch assists and a plus-91 point differential in the clutch (second only to Zach Randolph) and we've got ourselves a pretty comfortable winner here.
2012-13: Kobe Bryant
I don't live by many rules when it comes to awards voting, but if anyone else ever makes two game-tying free throws on one leg after tearing their Achilles in a game his team absolutely needs to win in order to reach the playoffs, that guy is going to win the clutch award.
True, Kobe's 22-20 clutch record was pretty pedestrian, but if you needed any further convincing, Bryant also led the NBA with 156 clutch points. The Lakers made the playoffs largely thanks to Bryant's heroics, and while it was hardly the greatest clutch achievement of his illustrious career, it certainly doesn't hurt his already stacked resume.