The Phoenix Suns and the poor state of clutch shooting in the NBA

Throughout my five seasons running ValleyoftheSuns I have marveled at the fact that teams often take the worst shots with the game on the line in the final seconds of a one-possession game.

You could say it’s my biggest pet peeve about the Association as I don’t understand how a shot that would not be tolerated at any other point in the game is often drawn up in the most critical moments.

I’ve been writing about it since early in the 2008-09 season when the Suns beat the Orlando Magic at the buzzer on a play in which Steve Nash set a back screen for Grant Hill, who scored the winning layup on an assist from Amare Stoudemire. Yes, I swear I didn’t switch up those names, the play was an unconventional as it sounds, and I applauded the Suns for using creativity to get a wide open layup rather than settling for yet another isolation jumper.

During the 2010-11 season the Suns won consecutive games with the same crunch-time play, whereby a screen was set on Channing Frye’s man and the big man would pop back to drill a game-winning jumper. Mike Schmitz broke the play down in detail.

The reason these plays stick out is because NBA teams so seldom run actual offense in these crunch-time situations to my dismay, so I analyzed five years of data to determine how exactly teams shoot in the clutch for my SDSU sports MBA programs’s blog:

I broke up the data into three distinct groups: when the shooting team trails by three or less or is tied with 10 seconds or less remaining, when a team trails by three or less or is tied with 30 seconds or less remaining and non-clutch situations (determined by subtracting the 30 seconds data from total shooting percentage data). There are more clutch situations than just these two examples, but I figured these scenarios are the most critical for a team when it absolutely must score to win a close game. …

I discovered that teams shot 27.33 percent in the under 10 seconds scenario, 32.57 percent in the under 30 seconds scenario and 45.87 percent in the non-clutch situations. There were no major outlier years as each season played out pretty close to the averages. …

The difference between proportions between the non-clutch group and the under 10 seconds group was 18.54 percentage points with a confidence interval between 18.51 and 18.56. The difference between proportions between non-clutch and under 30 seconds was 13.30 percentage points with a confidence interval between 13.28 and 13.32. Finally, the difference between the 30- and 10-second groups was 5.24 percentage points with a confidence interval between 5.21 and 5.27. Because there are no zeroes in these intervals, these are significant findings at a 99 percent confidence interval.

Furthermore, this means teams shoot on average 40.4 percent worse in the final 10 seconds than they do in the previously defined non-clutch situations, and 29.0 percent worse in the final 30 seconds than non-clutch situations. They even shoot 16.1 percent worse in the final 30 seconds than they do in the final 10 seconds, which is particularly interesting because of the overlap between these two groups.

I sent these results to ESPN NBA analyst David Thorpe, the executive director of the IMG Academy Pro Training Center, and asked him what NBA coaches can do to be more creative with their crunch-time play calls.

“The key for coaches is this: create an action with your best player or scorer, then ask for the ball to find the most open guy,” Thorpe said. “That leads to another factor in poor field goal percentages — hero shots rather than moving the ball to the most open guy.”

For the sake of this site, I analyzed the Suns’ clutch shooting percentages and found that the the team shot 28.6 percent and declined by 39.7 percent from its regular shooting percentage in the under 10 seconds category from 2008-13, 15th overall in percentage decline. Phoenix shot 31.8 percent under 30 seconds in a tight game, which represented a 32.8 percent decline (20th overall).

I also looked season-by-season at 10 years of data (2003-13), as can be seen in the chart below. Keep in mind that the season shooting percentages have the clutch shooting percentages within 30 seconds subtracted to make this a non-clutch measure.

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The biggest stat that jumps out is that the Suns shot just 17.6 percent (3-for-17) under 10 seconds during the Amare-less 2005-06 season when they shot 47.9 percent in non-clutch situations, a whopping percentage decrease of 63.2 percent.

I did not tabulate year-by-year percentage change numbers in my original five-year dataset, but over the five years between 2008-13 the Sixers’ 58.1 percentage decrease was worst.

Next the mighty 2009-10 Suns decreased by 54.9 percent all the way down to 22.2 percent under 10 seconds, and the 2003-04 Suns decreased by the same amount in that time period.

The lowest decrease belonged to the 2011-12 Suns, but they only had five such opportunities and drained two of them.

The best clutch Phoenix team in terms of overall shooting percentage was the 2004-05 squad that shot 40.9 percent (9-for-22) under 30 seconds.

In all, the Suns shot 26.5 percent (36-for-136) under 10 seconds and 34.4 percent under 30 (72-for-209) in the 10 years between 2003-13. That means they were slightly better than the 2008-13 average under 30 and slightly worse than the under 10 average.

Of course, there are many reasons why teams shoot poorly in the clutch, and even in Game 1 of the East Finals in which clutch shooting ruled the day we saw an example of why this is the case when Ray Allen’s desperation heave clanked off the side of the backboard with less than a second on the clock when the possession began.

LeBron’s layups in that game notwithstanding, last-second shots are still the domain of a star player rising up over his defender and shooting a contested jumper at the buzzer, which as Henry Abbott recently wrote is rarely as good an attempt as an open shot from a less-heralded player.

Although running an actual play presents risks such as not taking that final attempt with zeroes on the game clock, teams have shot poorly enough for a long enough period of time to make coaches seriously consider increasing their creativity with the game on the line.

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Tags: Clutch Shooting

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