You’re in a dream. In this dream you’re a basketball coach. Your team is in the championship game but is behind by a point, 8 seconds to play. Your ball is at half court.
Time has been called, and you’ve huddled up your squad and are ready to designate a final play and a player who will take the last, possibly game-winning shot.
You look one by one at the players gathered around you: Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Reggie Miller, Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce, Steph Curry, and, for the old-schoolers among us, Jerry West and Sam Jones — did I mention this was a dream? — all clutch players, accustomed to launching the big shot.
Every one of these players is brimming with confidence, with brio, is possessed of steely eyes and hearts of courage. Every one will look you in the eye and parrot the words of Jimmy Chitwood to coach Norman Dale in Hoosiers — “I’ll make it.”
So, who gets the ball?
Obviously, someone who wants the ball. Not everybody does. Consider the likely circumstances: Thousands of fans are shoehorned elbow to elbow into an arena, all on their feet, every cell of their beings concentrated on the rectangle of hardwood beneath them — no one is distracted from it — and all are ready to erupt in volcanic joy or collapse in inconsolable sorrow depending on whether you can make a 9-inch-wide orange sphere go into an 18-inch-wide ring situated 10 feet above the floor. Do you want a coach metaphorically handing you that ball and saying, “Here you go, Ace. Get us a bucket”?
That’s enough to weaken the spirit of many a player, to suck the juice right out of his legs and reduce him to a gelatinous mass of unformed protoplasm.
Getting the ball in clutch moments is a matter of intense pride at the higher levels of the game.
Players who take the last shot usually want to take it. They possess a sense of fate, a calmness, a supreme confidence that once the ball leaves their hands it will go in the basket. They have the unique ability to block out all ambient noise and collect their many gifts and talents and surge them toward achieving possibly the most difficult feat in all of sport — hitting a game-winning shot.
For many it’s a gift, and those who have gained a reputation for it, who succeed at a high rate, most likely were born with the requisite emotional hardware. You can’t really practice this sort of shot. The conditions are sui generis — you can’t replicate the pressure of the moment with your driveway hoop, no matter how many times you imagine yourself shooting with the clock counting down in your mind.
Often a wing player is the go-to guy — a small forward. It’s difficult at times to enter the ball to a big man, many of whom, in addition, are a liability at the free-throw line. The quick little guard? Sure, he might beat the first defender, but will he get the ball up on the board among the massive trees protecting the rim?
Superlative wing players are both big enough and quick enough to create their own shots. Usually between 6’5” and 6’8”, they’re solid enough to absorb contact from opponents and still get their shot off, and tall enough to shoot over smaller defenders. They’re also likely the best athlete on their team, capable of getting open with creative, winning moves no matter what the defense does.
One school of thought says that the team’s best player should get the ball in these circumstances. It’s expected. It comes with the territory — you’re the star, you get all the hype and make the big bucks, you win the game for us.
Indeed, getting the ball in clutch moments is a matter of intense pride at the higher levels of the game. In a moment he probably wants to forget, Scottie Pippen, the best player on the 1994 Chicago Bulls (Michael Jordan was playing minor-league baseball at the time), refused to enter a tied playoff game with 1.8 seconds remaining because he was not designated to take the last shot. He watched from the bench as Toni Kukoc hit the game-winner.
And while the final play is almost always designed for the star, the great ones are willing to pass the ball to the open man. Michael Jordan, the clutchest of clutch shooters, and one who jealously guarded his status as such, deflected the glory to teammates in two huge final-shot possessions. In the 1993 NBA Finals-clinching sixth game, John Paxson got the big bucket, and in the 1997 Finals-clinching sixth game, Jordan passed the ball to Steve Kerr, who made his jumper from 17 feet.
Not surprisingly, Jordan soars over his competitors, past and present, as a clutch shooter. He went nine for 18 in clutch moments, defined as shots that tie or put a team ahead in the last 24 seconds of regulation or overtime of NBA playoff games. The league average, in 2013, was 28.3 percent under such conditions. Kobe Bryant, as of 2011, had converted only seven of 25 attempts, 28 percent, at clutch time. LeBron James chimed in at 42.1 percent, seven for 17. NBA players themselves, when polled in 2013 as to whom they’d like to see take the last shot, voted 23 Jordan to three Bryant, with James failing to record a tally. None of the other obvious last-shot-takers since 2013, Curry, Damian Lillard, and Kevin Durant, for example, have reached the MJ level of success.
A cursory unspooling of the memory tape yields many epic moments, a highlight reel of huge shots that win huge games. An abridged inventory would include Magic Johnson’s baby skyhook against the Celtics in the 1987 NBA Finals, Reggie Miller’s masterful three-pointer versus the Bulls in 1998, Jordan’s first big game-winner versus the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1989 (called “the shot”) bookended with his final, final shot against the Utah Jazz in 1998 (“the last shot”). There’s Jerry West’s 60-foot buzzer-beater to tie Game Three of the 1970 NBA Finals. Probably the most sensational, odd, cliff-hanger of a game-winner was Kawhi Leonard’s falling-out-of-bounds corner shot in the 2019 playoffs that bounced four times on the rim without hitting the backboard before falling in. And, lest I forget, Larry Bird commands highlight reels documenting his own late-game heroics.
While some such last shots develop organically from a team’s offense, many come via “iso” ball (plays where one man is isolated). These isolation, one-against-the-world plays feature a team’s star player. The “main man” gets the ball, holds it until a few seconds remain, and, after a few dribbles, makes a move and jacks it, usually from some distance. A fitting term has been coined for this phenomenon: It is called “hero ball.”
Ironically, the final play in the actual championship game dramatized in Hoosiers foreshadowed this concept. In the fourth quarter of the 1954 Indiana state finals, Bobby Plump (the real-life Jimmy Chitwood), of the Milan High School Indians, held the ball up top, without moving, for 4 minutes and 13 seconds before taking, and missing, a shot. The team got the ball back right away, with the game tied and 1:18 on the clock, at which time Plump stood up top alone for a full minute before, with 18 seconds remaining, he called time. Coming out of the timeout, they ran the “play,” which amounted to Plump dribbling to the elbow and launching, and converting, a jumper. Said Plump, “The final 18 seconds were the only thing factual in the movie about the [championship] game. From the time the ball was in bounds after the final timeout, the movie was accurate.”
The 24-second shot clock prevents so lengthy a “drama” nowadays, but the idea of the star hogging the ball until making a move with a few seconds remaining still rules. But its reign is troubled. Many hate it.
Wrote Matt Laczkowski in 2015: “Hero ball is epitomized by the uber-isolationist, the ball hog, the selfish ball-dominant player that freezes out, looks-off, and all-but-ignores his or her otherwise open teammates — the ones with better shots — choosing instead to shoot the shot themselves.”
And besides, it’s inefficient. Here’s Jason Concepcion, also in 2015:
In this age of enlightenment, “hero ball” has become an epithet. And no wonder. Numerous studies have found that iso offense is, because of its predictability, not as efficient as actions that involve motion — both of ball and players. Take away the element of surprise and eschew misdirection, and even the lamest of NBA defenses will look pretty good when given the time to set up.
Any random open player is a better option. Or get the ball to a dynamic player on the move heading toward the basket. Ja Morant or Giannis Antetokounmpo running full speed toward the basket and getting a pass would present difficulties for the best of defenses.
The unofficial motto of the San Antonio Spurs, during their dynastic years, was “pass up a good shot to get a better shot.” Writes Adam Fromal: “Teams need to stop insisting that difficult shots by the best players are the route du jour and instead focus on getting the easiest look…. Instead, teams should be attacking the rim and devising plays that free up open looks, not heavily contested one-on-four situations for their best players to navigate.” (READ MORE by Tom Raabe: LeBron James, Laker Slayer)
Hero ball is, to be sure, an aesthetic downer — selfishness on display — think of Kobe Bryant or Carmelo Anthony on their bad days, hogging the ball to take a bad shot.
But every NBA player, when he was a kid, on his driveway or at the playground or rec center, was standing with a basketball in his hands counting down the seconds in his head and shooting the shot that wins the game. Every grade-school kid, every middle-school kid, every high-school kid is doing the same thing. None are practicing their passing or their picking-and-rolling. They’re all taking the big shot. For that reason alone, hero ball will remain.
So, coach, back to your dream: Who’s taking your final shot?
For me, my head says Jordan, but my heart says Mr. Clutch, Jerry West.