Originally published on 5/3/2011. Stats updated 5/17/2012
The game winning/game tying shot is arguably the most clutch shot in basketball. While any other shot attempt during a game offers a player an opportunity for redemption in the case of failure, the game winning/game tying is the most unforgiving, since unless a player’s team is tied, there are no second chances. Either the player makes the shot and succeeds, or he misses and fails. Its one shot for all the marbles, and the outcome can mean the difference between a win or a loss. And in the playoffs, it becomes even more consequential.
Earlier in the season, I wrote an article challenging the popular assumption around the NBA that Kobe Bryant should be the unanimous choice to take the final shot in a playoff game. In my article, I cited the NBA’s standard Game Winning/Game Tying Shot Metric used by coaches and GMs throughout the league when scouting opposing teams – shot attempts made with the intent to either win or tie the game within the final 24 seconds, during which a player’s team is either tied or trails by three or fewer points – or in other words, a one-possession game (the concession 2-point basket in which a player’s team is down by 3 points is excluded from this metric). In my analysis, we provided a detailed list of each and every game winning and game tying shot attempt during Kobe Bryant’s playoff career, as validated by game film, play-by-play logs, box scores and recaps. The end result? During his 15 year career, Kobe Bryant is 7/27 or 25.9%:
|1996||Utah Jazz||Game 5||Miss||Bryant misses a game tying shot with 4 seconds left.|
|1999||San Antonio Spurs||Game 2||Miss||Bryant misses a game tying shot at the end of regulation|
|2000||Phoenix Suns||Game 2||Make||Bryant makes a game winning shot with 2 seconds left|
|2001||Philidephia 76ers||Game 1||Miss||Bryant misses a game winning shot with 20 seconds left.|
|2002||San Antonio Spurs||Game 4||Make||Bryant makes a game winning shot with 5.1 seconds left|
|2002||Sacramento Kings||Game 4||Miss||Bryant misses a game winning shot with 3.3 seconds left|
|2002||Sacramento Kings||Game 5||Miss||Bryant misses a game winning shot with 0.4 seconds left|
|2002||Sacramento Kings||Game 7||Miss||Bryant misses a game winning tip shot with 2.7 seconds left|
|2003||Minnesota Timberwolves||Game 3||Miss||Bryant misses a game winning shot in OT with 2.6 seconds left.|
|2003||Minnesota Timberwolves||Game 3||Miss||Bryant misses a game tying shot in OT with 13.4 seconds left|
|2003||San Antonio Spurs||Game 1||Miss||Bryant misses a game winning shot with 11.8 seconds left.|
|2004||Houston Rockets||Game 1||Miss||Bryant misses a game winning shot with 17.9 seconds left.|
|2004||Houston Rockets||Game 4||Miss||Bryant misses a game winning shot at the buzzer.|
|2004||San Antonio Spurs||Game 5||Make||Bryant makes a game winning shot attempt with 11.9 seconds left.|
|2004||Detroit Pistons||Game 2||Make||Bryant makes a game tying shot with 2.1 seconds left.|
|2006||Phoenix Suns||Game 4||Make||Bryant makes a game tying shot with 0.2 second left.|
|2006||Phoenix Suns||Game 4||Make||Bryant makes a game winning shot at the buzzer in OT.|
|2006||Phoenix Suns||Game 6||Miss||Bryant misses a game winning shot at the buzzer.|
|2008||Utah Jazz||Game 4||Miss||Bryant misses a game tying shot with 5.6 seconds left.|
|2008||San Antonio Spurs||Game 1||Make||Bryant makes the game winning shot with 23.9 seconds left.|
|2009||Utah Jazz||Game 3||Miss||Bryant misses a game winning shot with 1.2 seconds left.|
|2009||Orlando Magic||Game 2||Miss||Bryant has his game winning shot blocked with 1.8 sec left.|
|2010||Oklahoma City Thunder||Game 6||Miss||Bryant misses game winning shot with 1.8 seconds left.|
|2010||Phoenix Suns||Game 5||Miss||Bryant misses a game winning shot with 2.5 seconds left.|
|2011||Dallas Mavericks||Game 1||Miss||Bryant misses a game winning shot at the end of regulation|
|2012||Denver Nuggets||Game 5||Miss||Bryant misses a game tying shot with 21 seconds left|
|2012||Denver Nuggets||Game 5||Miss||Bryant misses a game tying shot with 5 seconds left|
As you can imagine our reader response to this data varied; The Kobe Haters were ecstatic, the objective readers were enlightened, and Kobe Nation was infuriated. Emotions ran the gamut as there was something for everybody. However, aside from the differing reactions, one question that I was repeatedly asked was “Who would I rather have taking the last shot in a playoff game instead of Kobe Bryant”?
My answer is simple – I want a guy who has a strong ability to create their own shot, and most importantly, has demonstrated prior success in making the playoff game winning/game tying shot when called upon.
My choice is Lebron James.
Similar to our analysis with Kobe Bryant, our team reviewed the game tape on each and every Game Winning/Game Tying shot that Lebron James has attempted throughout his playoff career since entering the league in 2003. We further validated by cross-referencing our analysis against box scores, game recaps, and play-by-plays. The results show that Lebron James is 5/12 or 41.7% while Kobe Bryant is 7/25 or 25.9%.
|2006||Washington Wizards||Game 3||Make||James makes a game winning shot with 5 seconds left|
|2006||Washington Wizards||Game 5||Miss||James misses a game winning shot at the end of regulation|
|2006||Washington Wizards||Game 5||Make||James makes a game winning shot with 3 seconds left in OT|
|2007||Detroit Pistons||Game 2||Miss||James misses a game winning shot with 7 seconds left|
|2007||Detroit Pistons||Game 5||Make||James makes a game tying shot with 9 seconds left|
|2007||Detroit Pistons||Game 5||Make||James makes a game winning shot with 2 seconds left|
|2007||San Antonion Spurs||Game 3||Miss||James misses a game tying 3-point shot with 1 second left|
|2008||Washington Wizards||Game 5||Miss||James misses a game winning shot at the end of regulation|
|2008||Boston Celtics||Game 1||Miss||James misses a game tying shot with 9 seconds left|
|2009||Orlando Magic||Game 2||Make||James makes a game winning shot at the end of regulation|
|2009||Orlando Magic||Game 4||Miss||James misses a game winning shot at the end of regulation|
|2011||Philadelphia 76ers||Game 4||Miss||James misses a game tying shot with 3 seconds left on the clock|
Side note: We also conducted a similar analysis on Michael Jordan for those interested.
More interestingly however, is that Lebron has made only two fewer game winning/game tying shot despite taking 15 fewer shot attempts, and playing in 116 fewer playoff games.
I have long held the position that Kobe Bryant is vastly overrated when it comes to the game winning/game tying shot and has been the biggest beneficiary of false perception in the post-Jordan era. So why then do most NBA fans still insist that Bryant, despite having only a 25.9% success rate, should be the overwhelming choice to take the last shot?
Is it because they believe that Kobe Bryant is the most “fearless” and most willing to take the game winning/game tying shot while other players shy away from the big moment?I have long held the position that Kobe Bryant is vastly overrated when it comes to the game winning/game tying shot and has been the biggest beneficiary of false perception in the post-Jordan era. So why then do most NBA fans still insist that Bryant, despite having only a 25.9% success rate, should be the overwhelming choice to take the last shot?
This has been one of the longer running myths in the NBA, so let’s take the opportunity to dispel this immediately.
In only 99 career playoff games Lebron James has attempted 12 game winning/game tying shots. By comparison, in 217 career playoff games, Kobe Bryant has attempted 25 game winning/game tying shots. Now, I understand that there are a variety of factors that come into play as to why one player has had more shot opportunities over the other, but the notion that Lebron is unwilling, or afraid is false considering that after 8 playoff seasons, he is on a faster pace to take more game winning/game tying playoff shots in his career than Kobe Bryant.
Many NBA fans love to point to Game 1 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals as evidence of Lebron’s reluctance in last-shot situations. At the end of that game, Lebron drove the lane, encountered a double-team, and instead of shooting, passed off to Donyell Marshall for a wide-open three point shot attempt to win – a shot that Marshall had repeatedly hit during crucial moments throughout the 2007 season – except this time, he missed, and fingers were pointed back at The King.
For the record, Lebron James did not pass up that shot because he was afraid or unwilling. He obviously wasn’t afraid or unwilling during the prior year’s playoffs in 2006 when he attempted 3 game winning/game tying shots in only 2 playoff rounds. He obviously wasn’t afraid or unwilling when only two games later (Game 5) in 2007, he attempted and made both the game winning and game tying shot while scoring his team’s last 25 points in one of the most legendary individual performances in NBA history. Instead, Lebron simply made the correct basketball play; the same correct basketball play that Kobe Bryant made when double teamed during Game 4 of the 2009 NBA Finals in which he passed off to Derek Fisher for the game winning shot. The same correct basketball play that Isiah Thomas made when double teamed during Game 5 of the 1990 NBA Finals in which he passed off to Vinnie Johnson for the game winning shot. The same correct basketball play that Michael Jordan made when double teamed during Game 6 of the 1997 NBA Finals when he passed off to Steve Kerr for the game winning shot.
Instead of forcing low percentage shots that have little opportunity to go in, Lebron has historically done what every coach, GM, fan, and talking head has always preached to their superstars – take the highest percentage shot and trust your teammates. Derek Fisher, Vinnie Johnson, Steve Kerr all came to prominence because their star player gave them a chance, and Donyell Marshall was no different. The only distinction is that Donyell Marshall missed. However, this notion that Lebron James is afraid of the big shot is completely unfounded.
Moreover, on a side note, I never quite understood this attraction to “fearlessness”. Perhaps it’s just me, but I could care less whether a player is “fearless” or “fearful” as long as they make the shot. Am I missing something? Let me put this another way – I will take a fearful who makes his game winning/game tying shots at a higher success rate than a fearless player who misses them – the only thing that matters is the result, and regardless of how you perceive Lebron James, the fact remains that in playoff game winning/game tying shot attempts, he has demonstrated a higher level of success than Kobe Bryant.
Is it because it is usually impossible to get easy shots during game winning/game tying situations, and Kobe Bryant is the best “tough shot maker” in the NBA?
Here are some facts for you…. of the 12 game winning/game tying shots that Lebron James attempted in the playoffs, 9 were either layups or shots within 5-7 feet of the basket. Of the 5 game winning/game tying shots that Lebron James successfully made, 4 were layups.
So why then is there this impression that the last shot in a game needs to be a tough one?
Players are not limited to tough shots in game winning/game tying situations. They are limited by their own talent and/or skill set that enables them to get the best shot possible. And no wing player in the NBA can get themselves a higher percentage shot while driving to the basket than Lebron James can, as evidenced by his high FG%. Do you really think that Kobe Bryant would have passed up 9/12 layup attempts if he had the opportunity? No, Kobe simply lacked the quickness and athleticism to generate the easy basket. So why take a more difficult, lower percentage jumpshot, when you can use your physical skills and athleticism to get a layup, or a higher percentage shot as Lebron has repeatedly demonstrated?
Moreover, Lebron, while perhaps not as adept as Kobe, is still nonetheless entirely capable of creating and making difficult shots. Look no further than his game winning step back jumper against Orlando (Gm2) in 2009. But keep in mind that Lebron took that shot not because he was limited by the defense, but because he was limited by time on the clock – there was only 1 second remaining. Regardless, Lebron has shown that he is willing to take and make the tough shot if needed.
The notion that the game winning/game tying shot needs to be an off-balance, closely defended, double teamed, 3-point prayer is misleading, and having the ability to create and make easy shots with limited time on the clock is far more advantageous than having the ability to create and take a tough one.
Is it because Kobe Bryant demonstrates the most outward level of confidence or “swagger” than anyone else?
Really? Do you think it is because he protrudes his jaw out the furthest every time he makes a shot, or nicknames himself after a snake that strikes with 99.9% accuracy even though he himself strikes with 45% (as evidenced by his FG%)?
Over the past 12 years, I have watched Tim Duncan win 4 NBA championships, 2 Regular Season MVPs, 3 NBA Finals MVPs, lead his team to an average of 57 wins per season and 10 consecutive 50-win seasons, and make multiple All-NBA and All-Defense teams…….. and I am still not convinced the guy has a pulse. Good luck trying to read HIS body language – Tim Duncan is simply emotionless. But that does not mean that he lacks confidence or that internal swagger that is the makeup of a champion. Tim Duncan is the greatest power forward of all time and has delivered key clutch performances and shots throughout his career.
Just because a player refrains from scowling or making faces, doesn’t mean that they do not care, lack that drive or passion, or lack that internal confidence or swagger. Trying to ascertain a player’s disposition through body language is erroneous at best, so let’s just judge them by their results on the court instead of emulating the ‘E’ Fashion Police.
Is it because 78% of the expert GMs have all declared Kobe Bryant the unanimous choice to take the game winning/game tying shot despite all of the data to contrary, and therefore it must be true no matter how emotional or illogical it may seem?
Hmmm, let me see if I have this right……
Are these the same experts who made horrendous draft-day decisions such as unanimously agreeing that Kwame Brown should be the #1 overall pick in 2001 draft, and selected Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan in 1984, Darko Milicic over Camelo Anthony in 2003, Russell Cross over Clyde Drexler in 1983, Nikoloz Tskitishvili over Amare Stoudemire in 2003, Uwe Blab (yes there was actually some who had both Uwe and Blab in his name) over Joe Dumars in 1985, Michael Olowokandi over Vince Carter, Paul Pierce, and Dirk Nowitzki in 1998, and Joe Smith over Kevin Garnett in 1995?
And just to clarify, are these the same experts that have made some of the most egregious trades in sports history such as trading away Dirk Nowitzki for Tractor Traylor in 1998, Olden Polynice for Scottie Pippen in 1987, Vlade Divac for Kobe Bryant in 1996, Joe Barry Carroll for Robert Parrish AND Kevin McHale in 1978, Dr. J for cash in 1973, Charles Barkley for Jeff Hornacek 1992, Wilt Chamberlain for Jerry Chambers (who?) in 1968, and Moses Malone twice during the late 70s and mid-80s for nothing short of a cardboard box?
And just to ensure that I am ABSOLUTELY understanding this correctly, are these are the same experts that have repeatedly made atrocious cap killing and franchise crippling personnel decisions such as the free agent signings of Eddy Curry for 10 million dollars per year, Jerome James for 6 million per year, Jarred Jeffries for 6 million per year, Larry Hughes for 14 million per year, Erick Dampier for 10 million per year, Rashard Lewis for 20 million per year, and Darko Milicic for 5 million per year?
And lastly, just to make sure that there is no confusion whatsoever, are these the same experts who can barely keep the same job for more than 3 years, subsist in an industry where their workforce volatility is defined as a “carousel” ride, are repeatedly booed and chastised by their own fans in every public forum, embark upon start-over “rebuilding” plans as frequently as my gay cousin changes his wardrobe, and have made decision after decision after decision that has grossly inflated player salaries, bankrupted small market teams, and forced multiple, image-tarnishing lockouts?
Well I do not know about you, but I’m 100% sold!
Look, I am not saying that every GM or Coach is an idiot. I am however saying that they have been egregiously wrong in the past and perhaps, just perhaps, they could be wrong again? Could it be that GMs, like fans, have failed to truly analyze the data, and as a result, exude a human element that can sometimes be governed by emotions instead of logic?
But hey, let’s not analyze the history or the data for ourselves or anything. Instead, lets just stick our heads in the sand like ostriches, ignore all of the facts, take the word of the so called experts at face value since they have never ever ever ever been wrong, and agree to pay an addition 10% ticket premium next year so that we can compensate for their unjustifiable financial, scouting and personnel choices that keep our teams in a perpetual state of mediocrity.
So then, why do all the experts believe that Kobe Bryant is the unanimous choice to take the Game Winning/ Game Tying shot. How can they ALL be wrong?
Answer this question honestly. Once you found out that Lebron James had made 5 game winning/game tying shots in his playoff career, how many of them did you actually remember?
I asked this question to several NBA fans and the answer was unanimous: only one – the game winning 3-point shot against Orlando, and that’s it. And do you know why? Because the other 4 were unspectacular, uneventful, and rudimentary layups, which brings me to my next point:
The reason that most experts and fans around the NBA consider Kobe Bryant the unanimous choice for the game winning/game tying shot is NOT because he gives his team the best chance for a make, nor because he has demonstrated the most success in the past. Instead, it is because:
a.) As fans, we are human, and geared to remember the makes far more often than we do the misses.
b.) When your game winning/game tying shots are far more spectacular and memorable than anyone else’s (especially Lebron James), they become more indelibly etched into people’s minds, and as a result, perception soon becomes false reality.
Think about it. We all remember Kobe’s game tying 3 point shot against Detroit in 2004 just as we do his game winning and game tying shots against Phoenix in 2006. Moreover, Kobe is not alone in this respect. Who can forget MJ’s game winning shot to win the 1998 Finals against Utah, or the “The Shot” against Cleveland in 1989?
And do you know why we remember those shots? Because they were all spectacular, artistic, finesse shots that required a high degree of difficulty and made us say “wow”! They were appealing to the viewer and soon repeatedly rebranded via numerous NBA marketing efforts and commercials. As a result, people remember the spectacular while disregarding the unspectacular and there soon becomes this perception that Kobe Bryant has been largely successful in game winning shots.
It is no coincidence that we fail to remember Lebron’s game winning/game tying shots. His shots do not offer that same level artistry or finesse, and lack that “wow” factor that comes natural to Kobe Bryant. In fact, 4 out 5 of Lebron’s game winning/game tying shots were unmemorable layups or relatively easy baskets within close range, and many of them exemplified Lebron as a bull in a china shop who relies upon brut force, power and physical strength to get easy baskets. Even though his playoff game winning/game tying shot attempts have been more successful than Kobe’s, Lebron gets penalized for his style. In fact, it can be argued that Kobe’s misses are far more enjoyable to watch than Lebron’s makes, and that is why Kobe Bryant is largely the beneficiary of perception versus reality.
This is why it is imperative to revisit the facts and examine the data. I have been watching the NBA for nearly 30 years and consider myself to have a memory like an elephant. However, I still tend to forget the rudimentary while gravitating toward the spectacular. Its easier to remember the spectacular since it is more fun, and offers more enjoyable eye candy. However, unspectacular does not = unsuccessful, and a made basket, whether spectacular or unspectacular, is still nonetheless a success. As such, the facts show that Lebron James has demonstrated a higher rate of success with 5/12 shooting than Kobe Bryant at 7/27.
So in parting, I ask members of Kobe Nation to take a pause before you start sending me angry message posts, emails, and accusations. We are all human and all guided by perceptions, and it is impossible to cast an accurate assessment without revisiting the facts. Kobe Bryant is a great player, one of the top 15 players to ever play the game, and one of the 10 most unique talents to enter the NBA. However, Kobe Bryant is overrated when it comes to game winning/game tying shots, and Lebron James has historically performed better. Plain and simple.
Ok now you can send me all of your angry emails, message posts and accusations.