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.

Tags: Clutch Shooting

  • Scott

    Not related to the above … which I can’t think of any comments regarding anyway … :)

    DX has updated scouting on Andre Roberson and Tim Hardway, with a video on the latter.

    Andre Roberson was tagged by me as a possible 2nd round pick, but has been unloved by scouts, and he has actually fallen off the DX draft chart.

    Andre Roberson sounds to me a lot like Wes Johnson, for good and ill. He has the same basic size and wingspan, can guard 4, 3, 2, and he rebounds well (11 rebounds in 33 min). His 3 pt % is 33%, which scouts deride as horrible, and it is, but it is what Wes Johnson shoots.

    The upside is that Roberson is not a #4 pick and is apparently quite available. His lack of shooting accuracy is due to poor mechanics, which might be fixed. While he cannot dribble-drive, he does have a floater, and his defense is honest (he didn’t go to Syracuse).

    As for Tim Hardaway, his main weakness seems to be a low IQ on offense. He’ll take a contested jump shot rather than drive to the hoop or pass off to a teammate. So severe hero-ball, tunnel-vision, or whatever you want to call it, he’s got it. Aside from that, he’s lax enough on defense to look like a matador, as shown on the video. So if he’s going to perform well for a team, he’s going to have to shape up considerably and start playing responsibly.

  • Scott

    BTW, former Suns assistant coach Igor Kokoskov has signed on with the Cavs to assist Mike Brown. That sounds like a good move for them, considering offense appears to be a weakness for Brown.

  • john

    For as far as advanced statistics have come to show that set offenses and penetration result in the greatest points per possession, I’m amazed that the last plays of tight games so often come to “give the ball to the best player and let him take a contested, fading, mid-range jumper at the buzzer after he wastes 15 seconds.”

    In no way does the way most NBA teams handle last-minute situations make sense, except that it feeds the egos of the superstars who think they’ll make the shot every time (and hurt their team more often than not as a result).

  • Azbballfan

    I know this is off topic for this article, but i heard the Rockets are looking to trade Thomas Robinson and clear capspace to sign D-12

    All the rockets want is a non guaranteed deal or future draft picks or something like that to clear Robinsons 3.5 mil salary off the books

    The Suns should send Shannon Brown and the 57th pick to Houston for Robinson and Delfino

    Robinson (T-Rob?) has a ton of talent and hasnt stuck with Sacto or Houston mainly due to money problems with the teams he landed on

    Taking Delfino and Robinson clears 8 mil of capspace for the Rockets, and gives us Delfino who can come in and start of off the bench and has two years left on his 4 million dollar deal

    Houston gets a Eurostash pick who wont affect their cap, and gets more money to sign D-12

    The Suns add young talent too, plus i think Robinson has more potential then any of the Morris twins and is only going into his second year in the NBA.

    If for some reason it doesnt work out, he can always be moved in some future deal down the road if it comes to that

    Hopefully the Suns jump on this deal

  • Scott

    Isn’t the basic problem that in crunch time defenders go all out to foil the normal offense?

  • Scott

    @Azbballfan -

    I’m a bit worried about taking a player that everyone seems in a rush to get rid of, but I would definitely trade Shannon Brown straight up for Tom Rob. Heck, I would even consider giving $1.5m cash, so that Houston wouldn’t have to pay to cut Brown.

    As for Delfino, his contract next year is team option, so they can simply decline him. Same with Brooks and Garcia.

    If the Rockets trade Tom Rob for Brown, cut Brown, and cut Garcia, Delfino, and Brooks, plus their current cap, that adds up to $20m.

  • Bruce

    i’m pretty sure wes johnson shot better than 33% at syracuse. if he is shooting 33% in college, he will likely be worse at the nba level because the 3 is longer.

  • john


    “Isn’t the basic problem that in crunch time defenders go all out to foil the normal offense?”

    I don’t think so one bit. Defenders certainly do amp up their intensity, but they’ll do so whether that’s in a team setting or an individual setting. The fact still remains that it’s easier for a team to score in a set offense than by playing hero ball. If this article broke down set plays in “crunch time” vs. hero ball in “crunch time,” I would bet my left pinky that the set play numbers would be much more similar to season averages than the hero ball numbers.

  • Scott

    @Bruce -

    You are both right and wrong about Wes Johnson’s college shooting.

    3 pt shooting

    2006-7: 29.4% (Iowa State)
    2007-8: 33.3% (Iowa State)
    2009-10: 41.5% (Syracuse)

    So Wes Johnson shot well one season on 123 attempts.

    Oladipo’s numbers are similar and scouts might rightly be concerned about that:

    2010-11: 30.8%
    2011-12: 20.8%
    2012-13: 44.1%

    Oladipo’s numbers are also on low volume: 68 attempts.

    Last season, Oladipo shot 21.1% on jump shots and 17.9% on catch-and-shoot opportunities, which put him in the bottom 10% of college players.

    So really all the buzz about Oladipo is based on how he played last year, which may be either an indicator of things to come or a mirage.

    Keep in mind that Oladipo was not one of those wunderkind tracked from elementary school up till draft day. He was basically unknown till this last season.

    By comparison, Snell shot 39% on 164 attempts last season. His 3 pt shooting stats show consistent improvement.

    2010-11: 34.5%
    2011-12: 38.7%
    2012-13: 39%

    If you are looking for a real 3 pt shooter, Snell looks better.

  • Scott

    I stated something poorly, so let me make a correction.

    “Last season, Oladipo shot 21.1% on jump shots and 17.9% on catch-and-shoot opportunities, which put him in the bottom 10% of college players.”

    That’s in reference to the 2011-2012 season.

  • DBreezy

    I’m not so sure this is a thing that can be easily broken down using analytics unless someone were willing to sit there and actually watch a whole bunch of individual games throughout multiple seasons so that they could chart when teams ran plays, ran isos, or whether a breakdown occurred.

    Teams scout each other religiously, especially the teams that you may end up in key matchups with throughout the season and playoffs.

    So if a team like last year’s Miami squad sniffs out an attempt by the Celtics to run Ray Allen off a set of staggered screens and the ball ends up going to Pierce or KG instead who then puts up a difficult attempt, was that really ‘hero’ ball? I say it’s not, but how do the stats account for that? Often times if you listen to players in postgame conferences, you’ll hear them say that the play was actually designed for someone else but either there was a breakdown or the defense figured out the play and broke it up.

    Typically when I watch games I don’t see much iso basketball late unless the score is tied or there really just isn’t enough time on the clock for something more elaborate than freeing your best player up. Assuming there’s time, when a team needs a bucket most of them do in fact run plays although some are better at than others. Sometimes because the team is young/not good and doesn’t execute well, sometimes because they don’t have the personnel to do certain things in crunch time a la the Memphis Grizzlies.

    If the numbers say that taking running plays results in higher FG% is it necessarily a bad thing for a team to run the clock down in an iso play and force overtime? Look at those same Grizzlies for example. They don’t really have much in the way of shooters/creators and it’s generally hard to get the ball directly into the post with a short clock especially if your other players aren’t enough of a threat to generate a misdirection play. Do you run a play late that probably has an even lower than average shot of working by the numbers and risk leaving a team with closers like the Spurs or Thunder time on the clock? Or do you iso ‘hero; ball it, make sure the clock runs out or close to it and play the odds of going to overtime and relying on your superior defense and higher success running non crunch time offense?

    I get the idea, but often times it just doesn’t work and it’s hard to quantify broadly imo.

  • Michael Schwartz

    I completely agree, but unfortunately did not have access to any data that broke up clutch shooting by isolations and non-isos. I would certainly also guess that the isos would be absurdly low and the other category would probably still be lower than average but not nearly as much.

  • Azbballfan

    The Rockets apparently just want to clear 3.5 mil thats all they need to sign howard to a max deal

    so we dont have to take Delfino, i was thinking the more salary we take off their hands the more likely they trade robinson to us

    normally i wouldnt take a flier on a guy who hasnt stuck around and got traded twice in his rookie year despite being the 5th overall pick in the 2012 draft

    But, Robinson doenst have the issues Beasley has had, and the fact that Robinson is going to moved is really a victim of circumstance

    The Rockets have like 25 power forwards on their roster, not including their draft pick this summer

    They have so many young players, some one is going to either sit at the end of the bench or get traded

    Robinson put up fantastic numbers in college, just look at his draft express scouting video

    Sacramento traded him to save money due to penny pinching siutaiton the team was in, and Robinsons salary is exactly what the Rockets need to cut to sign D-12

    So, its a numbers game

    Whoever winds up with him is getting a steal in my opinion

    if the Suns dont jump on this deal, a team like Charlotte would love to have Robinson

    They need frontcourt help, have little expectations for next year, and i am sure have something they can do salary wise to make the deal work in a 3 team deal

  • Scott

    @Azbballfan -

    The problem with Robinson, so far as I can see, is that he’s both a relatively unathletic undersized big AND he lacks a jump shot.

    What everyone wants is either an elite athlete big man who finishes though contact (like Amare), or – to a lesser extent – a defensive PF who has a reliable jumper (like Kurt Thomas).

    So Robinson is neither fish nor fowl. For me the question is his IQ. If he has IQ he can learn to jump shoot, and that will help him get inside. You don’t have to be all that smart to get your shot off, so it’s not like he has to be Brainiac or whatever. With Hornacek being a former shooting coach and someone who likes to teach fundamentals, I think Robinson has a better shot at success with the Suns than with most other teams.

    I have no idea whether there will be any sort of bidding war over Robinson. Judging from all the negative sentiment here, it could be that if the Suns offer the Brown contract (and no money) that it will turn out to be the best offer.

    I think the Suns have a real opportunity here, as Rob Hennigan doesn’t have any assets to send to Houston, Sam Presti already has enough young guys, and after his big run this year Kevin Pritchard has to be looking to re-sign his current PFs.