Ask pundits. Ask general managers. Ask players. Ask almost anybody.
Who would like to have take the last shot with the game on the line?
Kobe Bryant wins by a country mile. Every time. (In a general manager poll this season, he earned 79% of the vote, his ninth consecutive blowout.)
There is not really any other serious candidate.
Ask me, though, (as Ryen Russillo did last week and Mike Trudell the other day) and I'll tell you I don't know who's the best, but with all due respect to Bryant's amazing abilities scoring the ball, there's zero chance he's the king of crunch time.
The sin of predictability
Bryant makes crunch time defense easy for opponents by shooting just about every time he touches the ball (over a five-year period, he mustered 56 clutch shots, to go with one assist).
Fans of his raw machismo howl that such criticism misses the point, but the point is that when Bryant gets the ball in crunch time, it's a virtual certainty that he'll shoot it, and it's better than two-to-one odds that he'll miss.
In 1997, he famously airballed two shots that could have beat the Jazz -- instead the Jazz won the series. In 1999, he whiffed on a 3-pointer at the buzzer that would have tied Game 2 against the Spurs. In Game 4 against the Kings in 2002, he missed a 2-pointer that would have tied the game (before the ball was tipped out to Robert Horry for the winning 3). In Game 7 of that same series, Bryant missed a tip that would have won the game in regulation. In Game 3 against the Timberwolves in 2003, he missed two key shots in the last seconds of overtime, and the Lakers lost.
I'll spare you the entire list, but it's long. In the final 24 seconds of playoff games, Bryant has racked up almost as many airballs as makes, making just below 30 percent of game-tying or go-ahead shots. He hasn't hit such a shot in a playoff game, in fact, since 2008, including key misses in the closing moments against the Jazz and Magic in 2009, and the Thunder and Suns last spring. He made one of his four shots in the fourth quarter of Game 7 of last year's Finals.
No matter how you define crunch time -- from the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime to the last 24 seconds -- and no matter how you define production -- field goal percentage, offensive efficiency, David Berri's Wins Produced, the results tell the same story: Bryant is about as likely to hit the big shot as any player.
ESPN Stats and Information's Alok Pattani dug through 15 years of NBA data (see table below) -- Bryant's entire career, regular season and playoffs -- and found that Bryant has attempted 115 shots in the final 24 seconds of a game in which the Lakers were tied or trailed by two or fewer points. He connected on 36, and missed 79 times.
One shot for all the cookies. And the NBA is nearly unanimous that this is the guy to take it, even though he has more than twice as many misses as makes?
His crunch time production is slightly higher in the first half of this season, but still certainly not the best in the league. And analyzing any large number of games, one year, five years or fifteen years, and defining crunch time a number of different ways, shows the same pattern. (There are a many ways this has been sliced.)
Bryant shoots more than most, passes less, and racks up misses at an all-time rate. There is no measure, other than YouTube highlights and folklore, by which he's the best scorer in crunch time.
The un-clutch Lakers
One of the key arguments in his favor is that he draws double-teams, which allows other Lakers to score. But that doesn't seem to happen much. Over Bryant's 15-year career, the Lakers have had the NBA's best offense, and second-best won-loss record. No other team can match their mighty 109 points per 100 possessions over the entire period.
You'd expect Los Angeles to also have one of the league's best offenses in crunch time, right? Especially with the ball in the hands of the player most suited to those moments.
That's not what happens, though. In the final 24 seconds of close games the Laker offense regresses horribly, managing just 82 points per 100 possessions. And it's not a simple case of every team having a hard time scoring in crunch time. Over Bryant's career, 11 teams have had better crunch time offenses, led by the Hornets with a shocking 107 points per 100 possessions in crunch time, a huge credit to Chris Paul.
The Lakers are not among the league leaders in crunch time offense -- instead they're just about average, scoring 82.35 points per 100 possessions in a league that averages 80.03. They are, however, among the league leaders in how much worse their offense declines in crunch time.
When Bryant is on the floor in crunch time, Bryant's Lakers are actually outscored by their opponents.
A great offensive team performing at average levels, with a star setting records for number of shots attempted. Teammates left wide open. Evidence, even, that Bryant's play puts his team into nailbiters that needn't be so close.
That, my friends, is a ballhog.
Nobody playing today has a crunch time résumé with half the excitement, or sheer bulk, of Bryant's: A banked 3 against Miami in 2009. Two ridiculous plays in Game 4 in that 2006 playoff series against the Suns. Making the Celtics' great defense look meaningless. Those four shots would make a career for most All-Stars. They are a mere eighth of Bryant's best moments.
Respect the brute force of numbers. If you want to see someone who has proven he can hit big buckets, nobody can rival his collected works. That speaks to his preparation, his dedication, the trust his teammates have in him, and more subtle things like how his training regimen has kept him healthy and productive for such a long time.
At all times he's cool as hell. At all times he's polished, fearless, ruthless even. Most of the time he's double-teamed. The shots are impossibly difficult. It's intimidating. He looks like a robot of crunch time destruction, if robots could jump really high, shoot really well and scowl really hard.
Nobody can match that. And so we live in a world where Bryant has been appointed king of all crunch time and it's not hard to see why.
And well worth noting is that over that period he has clearly been one of the best players in the world, period, leading a team that has won five championships and has the potential to win more.
Bryant's absolutely the best in the world at the game of winning the hearts and minds of crunch time. A lot goes into it: creating shots against any defense, staying calm, ignoring fear and more. It's about who most has the rest of the league by the throat. In that game, it's cowardly to pass the ball, and misses are merely the cost of doing business. In that game, degree of difficulty counts.
That game, though, is not basketball.
In basketball, entrusting the ball to the open teammate really does benefit the team. Remember when Jordan passed to a wide open Bill Wennington in the lane? Or to Steve Kerr or John Paxson in the Finals?