Comparing Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James in the Clutch, by the Numbers

Jared Wade@@Jared_WadeContributor IMarch 27, 2013

Statistically, Kobe Bryant is having his best season in years, while LeBron James is having one of the best seasons of all time for any player.

In many ways, this translates to crunch time as well.

Each loses a lot of his normal effectiveness in the clutch, when defenses across the league become more potent and lock in on the opponents' stars. Offenses simply become predictable, and even the individual brilliance of James and Bryant can't overcome that entirely.

But there have been a few major differences between how the NBA's two biggest stars have approached the end of games this season, and they largely reflect the fundamental differences between how LeBron and Kobe play the game.

(For the purposes of this comparison, the term "clutch" refers to situations in which the team is ahead or behind by five or fewer points in the final five minutes of regulation or overtime.)

As a baseline, this chart shows how both the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Lakers have fared this season while James and Bryant have been on the floor in games that included clutch situations.

The total games are comparable, but the results are not.

This may seem to prove that LeBron is the superior crunch-time player, but really, it mainly highlights—with a giant red arrow—what we already know: The Heat are a historically elite team, and the Lakers might not even be good.

The winning percentages (.800 for Miami vs. .444 for Los Angeles) and plus/minus totals are glaring, but each team has put together a high positive net rating (the number of points scored per 100 possessions minus the number of points allowed per 100 possessions).

The Heat's number with James on the court in the clutch (33.4) is off the charts, but it's surprising that the Lakers have such a poor record given that they have performed very well on a per-possession basis (8.6) late in close games.

Perhaps it is something Kobe is doing?

The two superstars' scoring numbers show why, in terms of individual play, the gap doesn't seem to be as wide as their teams' outcomes have been. In fact, they have scored an identical 130 points in the clutch this year with a relatively similar shooting percentage. 

In more minutes, James has one more make on a few less attempts from the field, but Bryant has hit a few more three-pointers and been slightly more accurate from the line.

The raw field-goal percentages may make it seem like one player (LeBron at 44.2 percent) stands out from the other (Bryant at 41.8 percent), but the sample size skews reality a little bit.

We are talking about one more make on three fewer shots. This isn't exactly comparing Kevin Durant to Allen Iverson on an efficiency scale.

In terms of shooting efficiency, we can call it a draw.

The major outlier here, however, is just how many possessions Bryant uses.

He has an unbelievably high clutch usage rate (the number of possessions while he is on the court that end with him taking a shot, going to the line, making an assist or turning the ball over).

It is so large (above 50 percent), that it means his teammates have become onlookers.

Essentially, what this says is that Bryant is incredibly ball dominant at the end of close games as Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol have stood around waiting for a pass that will probably never come.

So even though his scoring and shooting numbers aren't bad, perhaps Kobe deserves a large share of the blame for the Lakers' inability to win close games.

By breaking it down further to show where James and Bryant get their clutch points, we see the other key difference between the two. Kobe has scored more of his clutch points on three-pointers while LeBron scores more often at the rim. 

Nearly half (45-of-95) of James' attempts have come from either the restricted area or in the paint, while less than one-third (30-of-98) of Bryant's have.

Oddly enough, the larger, stronger, younger and faster of the two hasn't been as successful at the hoop. Kobe has converted 71.4 percent of his attempts in the restricted area compared to just 60.5 percent for LeBron. But James has attempted so many more that, even with a lower conversion rate, he has been more efficient overall.

Kobe, as has long been the case, lives or dies by the jumper. 

The numbers showing where the bulk of each player's points come from only further confirm what the shot-location data shows.

James has scored 41.5 percent of his 130 clutch points in the paint, and Bryant has netted 23.1 percent of his 130 clutch points from behind the arc.

The two players' shot charts illustrate more of the same, but also reveal something strange: LeBron, apparently, doesn't go right. Only one of his makes in the clutch this season outside of the paint has come from the right side of the floor.

This is odd.

In my head, I see James driving hard right and being successful late in games.

Perhaps he is so effective going right that he generally gets all the way to the rim? Maybe he is just more comfortable pulling up for a jumper while driving to his left? Or maybe defenses are helping hard on this drives to the right, so he ends up passing off more?

I don't know.

It's possible that this oddity in his late-game play is a one-season sample size blip or simply the result of happenstance. Or who knows, maybe some opposing scouts have found LeBron's Kryptonite.

Kobe, on the other hand (quite literally), doesn't go left much.

It isn't as glaring as James' one-sided tendency, but there are a lot fewer shot attempts and makes for Bryant on the left side of the court.

The last areas to look at are playmaking and rebounding. Each of these just further illustrate why LeBron stands head and shoulders above Kobe, and just about everyone else in the league.

Even with all the points he pours in late in close games, James still picks up an assist almost every three minutes, not to mention all the "Gretzky assist" kick outs he makes that lead to open three-pointers for other Heat players.

Throw in his ferocious rebounding (as well as his defense, which is uncharted here), and there really isn't much comparison between how LeBron and Kobe have fared in the clutch this season.

One player has seemingly been very good without much team success.

The other has been LeBron James, the best basketball player on the planet in the first quarter or the closing seconds.


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