The weekly NBA Power Rankings are back, but with a twist! Each week we'll take a different approach to sorting through the best of the best.
Up first? The NBA's most clutch players.
Clutch ... it's a convoluted and complex concept.
Is it who is the best at making tough shots? Is it who you'd most trust with the ball in their hands to find the best shot? Is it the player who can hit shots AND guard the other team's best player? Is it simply the best one-on-one player? How big of a role does free throw shooting play?
Is it in the final five minutes and score within five? Or are we just talking about the most intense moments, the one score game in the waning seconds?
Everyone has a different interpretation, which is what makes the debate so much fun! And let's be honest, regardless of what transpires on the hardwood, the raging debate over who are the league's most clutch players carries on year after year. It will never be settled.
For the purposes of this discussion, I'm assuming everyone is at full health. So Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson ... you're all back in the game!
And while I'm taking into consideration past performance, this isn't some career achievement award either. It's about RIGHT NOW. Just because I think LeBron James is the most clutch player in NBA history (spoiler: I do), doesn't mean I think he's the most clutch player in today's NBA ... or do I?
10. Kyle Lowry
Kawhi Leonard authored most of the big moments (more on him later), but one of the resounding themes to emerge from the Toronto Raptors run to the 2019 NBA title was Lowry's emergence as this generation's Chauncey Billups.
When the Raptors were starving for offence from anyone outside of Leonard against the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors, it was Lowry who repeatedly showed the confidence to take and make big plays with no hesitation.
Just as the Detroit Pistons once rode the steady hand, timely shot making and gritty hustle of "Mr. Big Shot" for an entire generation, the Raptors have done the same with Lowry, who is now the only player to make the Eastern Conference All-Star team each of the last six seasons and as he showed down the stretch of the 2020 All-Star Game, remains one of the NBA's toughest competitors.
Lowry is about as trustworthy as they come to make the right play and show up down the stretch in the tightest of moments.
9. James Harden
There are some concerns about track record and those are entirely valid. He didn't play well in the 2012 NBA Finals. Ditto for the first-round loss to the Portland Trail Blazers in 2014, in which he shot 2-14 in the final two minutes of games with the score within three points. Ditto for Houston's comeback against the LA Clippers in 2015 when Harden was essentially benched. Ditto for the elimination game against a Kawhi-less San Antonio Spurs. Ditto for some less-than-inspiring late series performances against the Golden State Warriors.
If you want to knock Harden for shortcomings in the postseason, it's hard to offer up much resistance. So yeah ... I get it.
So why is he in the top 10?
Because he remains the most gifted one-on-one scorer in the entire league and one of the most offensively talented players in NBA history. There aren't many players who command double and even triple teams when crossing half court. Would you REALLY want that many players ahead of Harden in tense moments?
8. Kyrie Irving
No matter the chatter surrounding Irving, he still hit one of the most iconic shots in NBA Finals history. In terms of actually swinging a championship series, there's a real case to be made that it's the single biggest shot in NBA history.
Does that one moment carry too much weight? Perhaps. But give credit where it's due!
Beyond that shot, there are others: the Christmas dagger against the Warriors and the OT-forcing 3 against the Spurs come to mind. He hit clutch shot after clutch shot earlier this season in his Brooklyn Nets debut while dropping 50 points, a game that feels like an eternity ago.
Irving is a certiable bucket getter that's proven time and again to be one of the very best with the game on the line.
7. Joel Embiid
Embiid remains a one-man wrecking crew and is the only big man inside our top 10. He's capable of complete dominance on both ends of the floor in huge moments.
Exhibit A? Game 2 of the 2019 Conference Semifinals against the Raptors in which he came up with a huge block, huge dime and huge bucket within the final three minutes.
Oh, and unlike some other bigs, he's not a liability at the foul line. In fact, he's among the game's elite free throw shooters in big spots. So far this season, Embiid is a sizzling 35-38 on free throws in the final five minutes and score within five.
6. Chris Paul
This is not being a prisoner of the moment.
The 34-year-old point guard has been the NBA's top clutch-time scorer this season and with one more made 3, would be a 50-40-90 player in the final five minutes and score within five. That's absolutely outrageous.
He's near automatic from the free throw line and on the other end of the floor, is tied for the league lead in clutch-time steals.
Paul's made an entire career of snaking through high pick-and-rolls to bury one pull-up jumper after another for what's become among the NBA's signature shots.
5. Stephen Curry
Amazingly, I get the feeling that Curry is somehow underrated.
Kevin Durant winning some Finals MVPs and Curry's inability to come up at the end of Game 7 in the 2016 Finals has thrown some water on what should be an ironclad case as one of the preeminent closers.
Did you know that in the annual GM survey released at the start of this season, Curry received four times as many votes as any other player for the question "which player would you want taking a shot with the game on the line?"
* Also receiving votes: Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, James Harden, LeBron James
He finished second behind Kevin Durant in that same question in the 2018-19 survey, but "won" it in 2017-18, 2016-17 and 2015-16.
4. Damian Lillard
Paul George knows why Lillard is this high.
So do the Rockets.
"Dame Time" has been alive and well for years and the big moments are the spots where Lillard routinely rises to the occasion.
Only two players in NBA history have hit multiple walk-off series-clinching shots with no time left on the clock: Damian Lillard. Michael Jordan.
3. Kevin Durant
On arguably the most talented team ever assembled, it was Durant who hit the biggest shots. The pull-up go-ahead 3-pointer over LeBron James to win Game 3 of the 2017 Finals was perhaps the crowning achievement of Durant's career, the symbolic shot which ultimately led to his first elusive championship.
Nobody can stop Durant from pulling up wherever he wants and he's a skilled enough passer and defender to warrant claim as far more than merely a clutch-time scoring assassin.
He may still be searching for something and there remains a mysterious cloud over how Durant perceives his place in the game, but there's no denying his brilliance in big moments.
2. LeBron James
For my money, the best closer in NBA history ... and yes, that includes some guy by the name of Michael Jordan.
For his career, LeBron is 7-15 on go-ahead shots in the final five seconds of playoff games compared to a 5-11 mark for Jordan. He's done it by hitting 3s, runners, off-balance jumpers, drives to the cup, you name it.
He's also routinely set teammates up for success. As one of the best passers in the history of the sport, James is all about making the best play, even if it means passing up a contested shot for a wide open look by a teammate. Toss in his iconic block on Andre Iguodala down the stretch of Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, and it's clear his all-around brilliance manifests itself in a myriad of ways.
If there's a knock on James it's that he's never been a knockdown free throw shooter, something that's exacerbated in big moments. Not once in his entire career has he shot over 80% from the charity stripe in clutch situations over a single season and he's been under 70% in three of the last four seasons.
1. Kawhi Leonard
This is Kawhi's spot.
And it's not just about the four-bounce dagger against the 76ers.
He's a strong and varied scorer capable of navigating double teams and getting to his spots. His pull-up midrange jumpers have become the league's most unstoppable shot and he can do it from either side of the court, going in either direction. He's also the single best clutch free throw shooter in the NBA, vitally important for someone living with the ball in his hands.
No player made more game-tying or go-ahead shots in the final minute last season than Leonard.
If your life depended on it, there might not be a single player you'd rather have for locking down the other team's best player, either.
The top 30
Some big names didn't make the top 10. The biggest?
Reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Upon first glance, it seems ridiculous to suggest that the player in the midst of one of the greatest individual seasons in NBA history isn't one of the top 10 players you'd most want down the stretch of a tight game. And you know what ... maybe it is ridiculous. Maybe I'm wrong.
But the poor free throw shooting and the (for now!) lack of a reliable jump shot are real detriments. There's a reason that Khris Middleton has taken more game-tying or go-ahead shots in the final 30 seconds dating back to the start of last season. As has Eric Bledsoe. And Brook Lopez. While he's getting markedly better as a passer as well, he's also not yet at the point where you'd necessarily feel comfortable just giving him the ball and letting him make the right read.
Not yet, though it's certainly coming.
And look, there's far more to it than simply finding a specific last second split and looking at how guys shoot. Antetokounmpo might be the most disruptive defensive player in the league. But is he going to be out there guarding the likes of Harden and Lillard and Leonard and Paul and Curry and Irving and all of those perimeter players who run everything for their teams? Probably not. Which also limits some of his defensive impact.
One other big name noticeably absent? Luka Doncic.
Simply put, the body of work just isn't there yet. Until there are some moments to shine in the postseason, he doesn't crack the top 10. On pure ability, there's a case to be made he's already among the top five. But again ... prove it.
There's plenty of more disagreement to go around, so here's more fuel for the fire! Behold the top 25...
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.