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The Milwaukee Bucks Have Played The Fewest Clutch Minutes Ever. Does That Matter?

The team’s dominance has meant little to no crunch time this season

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The short answer: probably not. Even if the Milwaukee Bucks’ 50 clutch minutes this year (72 if adjusted for a full season) would be the fewest since the NBA started tracking the stat in 1996, significantly-smarter-than-me stat folks have already broken down that clutch play in the regular season does not necessarily correlate to clutch play in the postseason. From this piece over at Nylon Calculus:

...This is reflective of a larger point: clutch stats are noisy and often shift wildly from year to year. The year-to-year correlation of team clutch ratings, when adjusted for overall point differential, is virtually zero. Yes, due to team turnover and other factors, you wouldn’t imagine that teams stay the same, but one would expect some correlation. And the correlation last year for regular season to playoff clutch net rating was -0.1 (the scale is -1 to 1, where 0 means no relationship.) Meaning, we shouldn’t worry too much about the Warriors’ clutch performance in the regular season. The same goes for just about every team.

Given the massive variability in store for NBA teams within Bubbletopia, from positive tests derailing key players to no home court advantage, regular season clutch ratings probably mean even less than their negligible relation to begin with.

Every year, we see all sorts of random stats getting thrown around that qualify as a Championship teams bona fides. Last season, we all heard stats like, “12 teams have won 10 games in a row by a margin of 13 or greater while dunking 15 times; eight went on to win it all.” Plenty of those random qualifications have been bandied about this year too. And so, while clutch stats may not correlate to playoff clutch stats, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the lack of clutch opportunities might correlate across seasons to past championship contenders. Additionally, I keep pondering the flipside, whether a lack of clutch minutes in the regular season will damage the Bucks when they face gut-check time in the Playoffs.

First, an explainer: the NBA defines “clutch” minutes as anything within the last five minutes of a game where the teams are within five points of one another. Here’s a chart of the teams with the fewest clutch minutes each year since the NBA started keeping track of the stat. In the two lockout shortened seasons (98-99 and 2011-12) as well as this year, I’ve taken that team’s average number of clutch minutes per game and extrapolated their total out to 82 games.

Teams with Fewest Clutch Minutes By Season

Season Team Clutch Minutes Played Regular Season Record
Season Team Clutch Minutes Played Regular Season Record
19-20 Milwaukee Bucks 72 53-12
99-00 Golden State Warriors 93 19-63
14-15 Golden State Warriors 96 67-15
11-12 Charlotte Bobcats 97 7-59
16-17 Golden State Warriors 100 67-15
18-19 Cleveland Cavaliers 101 19-63
15-16 San Antonio Spurs 106 67-15
09-10 Indiana Pacers 106 32-50
97-98 Denver Nuggets 106 11-71
17-18 Houston Rockets 107 65-17
96-97 San Antonio Spurs 108 20-62
98-99 Cleveland Cavaliers 112 22-28
13-14 San Antonio Spurs 114 62-20
07-08 Utah Jazz 114 54-28
01-02 Sacramento Kings 115 61-21
02-03 Denver Nuggets 118 17-65
10-11 Atlanta Hawks 121 44-38
08-09 Cleveland Cavaliers 121 66-16
12-13 Los Angeles Lakers 128 45-37
00-01 Dallas Mavericks 129 53-29
04-05 Phoenix Suns 130 62-20
03-04 New Jersey Nets 130 47-35
06-07 Los Angeles Lakers 132 42-40
05-06 New Jersey Nets 142 49-33

Once again, these are subject to variability given one team might have merely two fewer clutch minutes played than the second place team, but we still see a few different clusters form:

  • Strong performers (50+ wins): 11 teams
  • Below to slightly above average teams (30-49 wins): 6 teams
  • Tankers (29 and below): 7 teams

It’s also instructive to point out that the distribution of teams at the top and bottom are closer to the extreme ends of the spectrum. Eight (it would be nine extrapolating out this year’s Bucks record) of the “Strong performers” have 60+ wins. Additionally, the most wins out of anyone in the “tankers” category” is 22. So, beyond a few teams just treading water, the team with the fewest clutch minutes usually results from a spectacularly tanktastic season, or a mega-dominant one.

Equally intriguing is that dominance does not always correlate to lack of clutch minutes. In 2015-16 for example, the 73-9 Golden State Warriors played the 8th fewest clutch minutes, and 38 more clutch minutes total than the San Antonio Spurs, who had the fewest. They dominated in those minutes though, posting an ABSURD 34.1 net rating (the Spurs were second with 14.1). In 2016-17, the Spurs won 61 games, but were middle of the pack in terms of total clutch minutes.

So, is there some correlation between runaway regular season success and facing significantly fewer clutch minutes? What about eventual champions? Let’s create our own silly championship correlation table to help us figure that out.

NBA Champions Clutch Minute Totals

Season Champion Fewest Clutch Minutes Rank
Season Champion Fewest Clutch Minutes Rank
18-19 Toronto Raptors 26th
17-18 Golden State Warriors 3rd
16-17 Golden State Warrriors 1st
15-16 Cleveland Cavaliers 8th
14-15 Golden State Warriors 1st
13-14 San Antonio Spurs 1st
12-13 Miami Heat 20th
11-12 Miami Heat 13th
10-11 Dallas Mavericks 9th
09-10 Los Angeles Lakers 9th
08-09 Los Angeles Lakers 6th
07-08 Boston Celtics 11th
06-07 San Antonio Spurs 2nd
05-06 Miami Heat 3rd
04-05 San Antonio Spurs 4th
03-04 Detroit Pistons 22nd
02-03 San Antonio Spurs 13th
01-02 Los Angeles Lakers 6th
00-01 Los Angeles Lakers 21st
99-00 Los Angeles Lakers 5th
98-99 San Antonio Spurs 13th
97-98 Chicago Bulls 9th
96-97 Chicago Bulls 2nd

It’s an interesting list, particularly given the strong correlation since 2013-14 with teams ranking first or in the top ten of fewest clutch regular season minutes played, with the exception of last year’s Toronto Raptors. Nick Nurse’s squad makes plenty of sense though given the frequent load management of Kawhi Leonard, with whom I’m sure they could’ve shredded down those clutch minutes. I think 2013-14 is a worthwhile cutoff point, when the Spurs decimated the Miami Heat in the Finals with their 3-point barrage and the 3-point revolution was about to blossom fully across the league.

With that long ball bloom could have also come more variability within outcomes across games, particularly in the regular season, where teams can both blow a team out handily and make up ground quickly. Case in point, six out of the top ten teams with the fewest clutch minutes played have occurred within that narrow seven year window since 2013-14. So, there’s likely some stratification taking place within the regular season over that time, additionally borne out by the fact that over that period, six of the seven teams with the fewest clutch minutes won 60+ (or projected 60+) games outside of last year’s Cleveland Cavaliers team.

What does that mean? Not that regular season teams are necessarily growing more dominant (at least based on net rating), but that they’re facing a tad fewer minutes of high pressure situations down the stretch. We’re dealing with small sample sizes, so just one game with four minutes of clutch play could dramatically switch these rankings, but there’s still been a general trend towards the best of the best playing fewer and fewer minutes down the stretch.

So what does this all mean for the Milwaukee Bucks?

Well, it could mean that a lack of crunch-time reps hurts them when they could face them in spades during the latter stages of the Playoffs. Or at least, that’s likely a complaint fans would hear levied. Looking at last year, the Bucks played 138 clutch minutes in the regular season (still not a massive sample size), but finished with a middle of the road 1.6 net rating. That ranked 12th, and well below their league-leading 8.6 net rating throughout all minutes in the regular season. In the 18-19 Playoffs (merely 29 clutch minutes total), the Bucks tanked to -10.6 net rating.

This year, Milwaukee is ranked second in clutch minutes with a 22.3 net rating. Again, I refer you back to the start of this article with “clutch stats shifting wildly from year-to-year,” and their mere 50 minutes are a massive “small sample size” alert. So it’s difficult to faithfully draw any sort of wide conclusion for this Milwaukee team given the tiny minute loads we’re dealing with, but we can see if this Bucks team is playing markedly different in any way from last year’s squad during those clutch minutes.

Here are the minute totals and usage percentages for the five Bucks who played the most clutch time the past two regular seasons:

Bucks Clutch Usage%

Player Clutch Usage% (19-20) Clutch Usage% (18-19) Clutch Minutes (19-20) Clutch Minutes (18-19)
Player Clutch Usage% (19-20) Clutch Usage% (18-19) Clutch Minutes (19-20) Clutch Minutes (18-19)
Giannis Antetokounmpo 45.50% 28.80% 36 108
Khris Middleton 37.10% 19.00% 34 103
Eric Bledsoe 20.00% 25.90% 30 101
Malcolm Brogdon N/A 15.10% N/A 85
Brook Lopez 17.50% 11.00% 26 84
George Hill 9.60% N/A 34 N/A

This year hasn’t exactly shaded away from what the narrative has been all season, Giannis leads the way, with Khris offering some fringe-superstar backup duty on an increased workload. One can see Middleton’s usage was deflated last season in favor of Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon (who was absolutely deadly in the clutch last regular season for what it’s worth). This year, George Hill is nominally a ghost in clutch time, while Middleton and Giannis feast plus Bledsoe and Brook pick their spots.

That type of usage percentage is too ungodly high to hold up in the Playoffs for Giannis and Khris, but from a structural standpoint, the team is allocating possessions how one would expect. Perhaps an even better indicator as to how Middleton has taken charge in what few late game situations there have been this year is that he’s already attempted 14 free throws in the clutch, after attempting just 16 all last season. His raw shooting totals are tougher to swallow, but he’s finding ways to compensate. Giannis’ effective field goal percentage has dipped a bit from last year in the clutch, but it’s only 4% lower than his season average.

So, what are we left with. Thus far, Khris hasn’t found the bottom of the bucket in clutch time, albeit on just 26 shots total. Historically, he has struggled to shoot in clutch situations relative to his regular season success, but given his overall rise in play this year, I’m not as concerned about a shooting slump in 34 minutes of total clutch play. Giannis is hawking the ball almost as much as is humanly possible, which never feels like a poor strategy. The real question (as most questions do) falls upon Eric Bledsoe, who was solid in the regular season clutch last year, but fell off a cliff in the Playoffs, failing to even make a shot in his seven attempts. Brook Lopez remains an intriguing option down low as well as a safety valve, with his post-ups also doubled this year so far. If he’s needed, can George Hill capably create on his own in the clutch? He did in his few opportunities last year’s postseason. Maybe Bud will opt for a different configuration for his closing five come Playoff time.

If you’re a fan concerned that Milwaukee’s regular season dominance has robbed them of valuable reps to practice how they’ll perform in the clutch, seeing that Milwaukee has thoroughly dominated opponents in what appears like a replicable fashion of play should provide comfort to you. Given the minuscule sample sizes we’re dealing with though, it is tough to fashion any definitive answer. But as we all learned last year, the Playoffs are a game of small sample sizes, and sometimes the season-long math doesn’t sway your way. So does the dearth of clutch minutes matter?

Long answer: probably not.