Lakers’ Crunch Time Usage Rates Tell a Story That Needs Revising

Darius Soriano —  March 25, 2013

I’ve long struggled with the idea of “crunch time”. At times I’ve felt the definition used to describe this part of the game — the last 5 minutes of a game with a margin of 5 points or fewer — is a bit arbitrary. This feeling is compounded by the fact that I’m a firm believer that all parts of the game are important. A contest can be lost in the first quarter by surrendering a big lead through sloppy defense and turnover prone offense as much as it can be lost at the end of the game through the same type of poor play.

That said, it can not be ignored that the end of a close game feels different and, thus, creates a different environment in which the players compete. Defense tightens up and offensive players have a more difficult time scoring in general. The seconds seem to tick down slower and every possession takes on a greater importance. This often leads to the types of pressure packed plays that either build or destroy legends. Bring up the words “clutch” “Michael Jordan” and “Nick Anderson” in the same sentence and someone will surely say the word “choke” within a fraction of a second.

As fans we too take this part of the game more seriously and tend to heap praises on the heroes who can summon the skill needed to thrive at this time of the game. Forget analysis in the closing seconds, we love a guy hitting the big shot and then screaming at the top of our lungs in celebration. These are the most memorable moments.

The problem is, though, is that it’s never smart to forget the analysis. It’s better to know what actually happened and how a team got to the point where it made (or missed) those final shots that we think decided the game. It’s better to know what trends to expect from a team or player at any part of the game, but especially one that’s close late. This makes us better fans, even if in the moment most of us — or at least those of us with rooting interests — only really care if the shot falls or not.

The Lakers, for a long time, have been a predictable team down the stretch of close games. Kobe Bryant is a ball dominant guard and doubles as one of the premier shot creators of all time. Giving him the ball and having him create a shot has long been the Lakers’ strategy and that’s that. Some blame Kobe for this. Others blame Michael Jordan for glorifying the end of game isolation as a viable offensive approach. I, personally, spread the blame out but include Phil Jackson since he coached both Jordan and Kobe and helped influence this strategy. That’s another story for another time, however.

Most close Lakers’ games are decided with the ball in Kobe’s hands. Whether you agree with this style of play or not isn’t as important as the fact that in a results based league the Lakers seem to win a fair amount of these games historically (even if their overall offensive efficiency dips in the process). The ones they don’t win are the price of doing business with Kobe Bryant on your roster. While it’s frustrating, I think this is a fact that most Lakers fans accept — even if it’s begrudgingly — though that doesn’t stop the complaints from popping up now and again. It’s all great when Kobe goes nova down the stretch of the Hornets and Raptors games and produces exciting wins. It’s another thing altogether to watch him miss shots down the stretch of the Wizards game and play a major role in a disappointing loss.

And it was Kobe’s performance down the stretch of the Wizards game that has brought back critiques about the Lakers’ (and his) approach down the stretch of a close game. Kobe took 10 shots in that final period (plus seven free throws), missing six of them including the shot that would have tied the game on the team’s final meaningful possession. His teammates mostly stood and watched as Kobe used the P&R to mainly set up isolations for himself so he could shoot. At the time, I tweeted something along the lines of “maybe now would be a good time to let Nash run some P&R” only to say “I guess not…” after Kobe used up another possession by shooting without making a single pass.

Again, this isn’t necessarily new for Kobe and it’s part (not all, but part) of the package that comes with him. The thing is, though, is that this season has seen Kobe operate this way more than in recent years. Consider the following:

  • This season Kobe’s usage (a percentage of plays that end with a shot, free throws, or a turnover) in crunch time is 50.7. That’s an astronomical number. In comparison, last season, Kobe’s usage in these situations was 40.1. That’s still high, but obviously much lower than this season.
  • This season Steve Nash’s usage in crunch time is 13.3. Last season for the Suns it was 18.8. Not a huge difference there but Nash has typically been a player who doesn’t dominate how possessions end, but rather how they start. In other words, Nash is used to initiating the P&R and then having that play develop organically. This season he’s mostly spotting up off the ball. The end result is usually the same (Nash not ending a possession with a shot, turnover, or at the FT line), but the difference in approach is noticeable.
  • This season Dwight Howard’s usage crunch time is 11.5. Last season with the Magic it was 18.7. That’s a fairly big difference and reflective of the fact that Dwight rarely gets a touch down the stretch of a close game. With creators like Kobe and Nash (who both are much better shooters, especially from the foul line than Dwight) it’s not a huge surprise his usage is lower than theirs, but how little he sees the ball is still surprising.

These numbers tell the story of an offensive approach that needs more balance. Through a combination of coaching and players changing how they operate late in games, something needs to be adjusted in order to bring more diversity to the Lakers’ offensive attack when games are close late.

From a coaching standpoint, Mike D’Antoni needs to continue to emphasize what he wants from his team late in close games. After the loss to the Wizards he railed against his guys for playing too much isolation and not moving the ball. You can decide whether that was a not so veiled reference to Kobe, but you’d be wise to think that it was since he was the guy playing in isolation and not passing the ball. Getting this message across better in games would be helpful.

From a player standpoint, Kobe needs to defer more to Nash and Nash needs to be more assertive in getting the ball and initiating the team’s offense. Nash will always have value as a shooter who can spread the floor, but he’s also one of his generation’s best decision makers (especially in close games) and can be relied upon more to make plays for himself and his teammates. As for Dwight Howard, making his FT’s down the stretch would likely encourage his teammates to pass him the ball more, but he can also work the offensive glass harder and find ways to fight for position so he’s harder to ignore when he’s under the basket.

Now would be a good time to note that the Lakers haven’t been an awful crunch time team this season and, in fact, one of the main reasons their season has turned around is because they’re performing better down the stretch of close games. It’s also worth noting that in their current roles, Kobe, Nash, and Dwight have all been playing pretty well in crunch time by shooting well and making some timely plays (Dwight’s work on defense during this part of the game, while not a big part of this discussion, simply cannot be ignored) that have helped win games. Nash’s shooting numbers, for example, are off the charts excellent (76.2% effective field goal percentage, 74.1% true shooting) and part of that is because he’s getting so many open spot up chances off plays where Kobe draws extra attention and then makes the right read.

However, the usage rates of the players do not lie and show a style of play that isn’t best served for a team with weapons the caliber the Lakers have on this team. Last season Ramon Sessions had a usage of 18.1 in crunch time and Bynum’s was 18.9. These numbers are 5 and 7 points higher than Nash’s and Dwight’s (respectively) this year. If the team could be successful with Sessions and Bynum taking possessions away from Kobe, they can certainly do so with Steve Nash handling a bigger burden and Dwight Howard getting a few more touches.

Making this happen isn’t just about Kobe, though. The players must shift their mindset and take more responsibility for their own actions down the stretch and the coaches must use their influence to make sure those shifts are represented in the actions on the floor. This isn’t a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” but more of the need to tweak and improve what’s good to make it great. This team has the pieces to do just that, now they need to make it happen.

*Statistical support for this post from NBA.com

Darius Soriano

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14 responses to Lakers’ Crunch Time Usage Rates Tell a Story That Needs Revising

  1. Fantastic analysis. I only wish Kobe would read it . . . .

  2. I stopped trying to make sense of this season a long time ago. I’m just along for the ride now.

  3. The problem for Nash is when the defense picks up at the end of games he just isn’t athletic enough anymore to navigate through or around it. As for Dwight he hasn’t regained enough athletisism to make up for the fact his free throw shooting is so poor. You don’t want Metta initiating the offense and Pau is just a shell of his former self. That leaves Kobe. If he draws a double he will pass… If he doesn’t he will shoot.

  4. Exactly Aaron, this was the same issue we’ve had for a while now. We have no one who can create a shot in crunch time other than Kobe, not like we have 2 perimeter studs who can break down the D and then kick it out to snipers on the perimeter (OKC, Miami, SAN). Howard isn’t polished in the port, and majority of his baskets are spoon fed to him. Wish we could have kept Ramon for a bit longer. But having a couple of snipers on the court makes a world of difference.

  5. So when for example Kobe, Lebron, etc… Misses a game winning shot their not clutch? Its not really it being about making the last game winning shot because up until the wizards game Kobe was hitting the game winning shots, but since he misses theres a problem with isolation baskets? Im Confused.

  6. I would call launching 26 footers after trying to get open for 12 seconds “creating” shots. It’s more like desperation launch

  7. Lakers have a future hof playing pf and nobody on this forum can name a Wizards pf. Instead of what would seem like a clear mismatch to exploit the hofer is stuck on the bench in favor of a worse player. A more quicker springy Dwight versus a traditional plodding center would also favor the Lakers. But seeing a post up is the lowest percentage play in basketball Lakers avoid advantages of theirs because of a statistic says the probability of converting that aren’t as high as the lowest percentage shots in basketball. That makes sense.

  8. “If he draws a double he will pass… If he doesn’t he will shoot.”
    Even some of the times Kobe is double teamed, he still shoots. It is those moments, especially when he is at 20 feet and fading away – that are what make this game Fantastic !

  9. Spot on analysis once again Darius, what a good read..
    D´s post reminds me that in spite of the post all-star break resurgence, inconsistency keeps rearing its ugly head. Besides the plethora of injuries which has afflicted the team all year and the hiring of MD`A after the season had already begun, and let´s not forget our roster´s bevy of older players, it´s been, more than anything, inconsistency that we just can´t break free from.
    For instance, the `Jekyll/Hyde´ game against the Warriors, the tendency to fall into a `crunch time´situation in the first place (as D´s post has detailed) and, of course, the squad having to `find´ each other once again after Pau´s return.
    Wöuld anyone disagree that our lack of offensive and defensive cohesion (effort and concentration as well?) has been what has led us to be `scoreboard watching´ and fighting to retain the 8th seed this close to the end of the regular season?
    That said, I still believe our boys can get it together for long enough stretches to get us once again past the 1st round and into an unpredictable 2nd – I know that doesn´t mean much to us Laker fans but at this point I´ve gotta keep it conservative for the sake of my own mental health! :)

  10. Good piece.

    The other issue with Howard of course, as noted, is the FTs.

    But Nash should be initiating more. I think late in games, Meeks should be in there on O, and KB should be at the 3. MDA has been doing that some.

  11. Numrude Daniel March 25, 2013 at 4:57 pm

    The Lakers offence has always has been the entire time the Lakers has been a baskitball team. 1. Inside Scoring through the bigs or Inside Scoring through the guards 2. Iso 3. Pick and Roll, And also every1 including Kobe balanced out the playmaking so it wasn’t Kobe playing point guard and shooting guard like this season and when ramon sessions was the point guard in 2011 and 2012 back when Lakers figured it out Kobe was able to play shooting guard at the same time of playing 2 his potential without having to play both his position and the point guard. I think either Dantoni stop turning the Lakers into a transition team it’s not the Lakers in 80′s 90′s 01,02,03,or the Knicks u coached b4 that was a transition team have the Lakers play like the Lakers or Bring the best head coach in (!NBA HISTORY!) back in Phil Jackon who understands the Lakers and knows how coach teams to play to their potential

  12. Numrude Daniel March 25, 2013 at 5:03 pm

    The Lakers offence has always has been the entire time the Lakers has been a baskitball team. 1. Inside Scoring through the bigs or Inside Scoring through the guards 2. Iso 3. Pick and Roll, And also every1 including Kobe balanced out the playmaking so it wasn’t Kobe playing point guard and shooting guard like this season and when ramon sessions was the point guard in 2011 and 2012. Back in the day when when Lakers figured it out Kobe was able to play shooting guard at the same time of playing 2 his potential without having to play both his position and the point guard. I think either Dantoni stop turning the Lakers into a transition team it’s not the Lakers in 80?s 90?s 01,02,03,or the Knicks u coached b4 that was a transition team have the Lakers play like the Lakers or Bring the best head coach in (!NBA HISTORY!) back in Phil Jackon who understands the Lakers and knows how coach teams to play to their potential

  13. **Coach players to play to their potential**