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In the National Basketball Association, superstar status is given to those who elevate their play in a game's closing minutes, when the outcome is still in doubt.
It's often forgotten that Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Bill Russell, all revered as all-time greats, missed more shots during their careers than they made. Their legacies are built largely on the reputation of carrying their team to victory in close and decisive games. Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to six titles, Bird brought home three championships for the Boston Celtics and Russell captured 10 titles for the Celtics.
Since the NBA now imposes a stiff penalty of one dollar for each dollar a team's payroll exceeds the league's tax threshold (amounting to roughly 61 percent of projected revenues, or $71 million this season), signing clutch performers to bargain deals provides valuable breathing room and is a priority for general managers who assemble team rosters. Clutch players can generate millions of dollars of profits for a team because of the extra cash playoff games generate from tickets, merchandise and advertising.
Ten years ago, during the height of the Michael Jordan era, Chicago Bulls-emblazoned products accounted for close to 40 percent of NBA-licensed-product sales. So far this year the Bulls – which haven't produced an all-star since Jordan – have accounted for just 3.8 percent of total sales, according to industry tracker SportsOneSource.
To determine the best clutch players for the buck, we compared player statistics to pay from last season. Our survey includes only players who averaged five or more points in the fourth quarter and hit at least 40 percent of their shots when it mattered most (during the last five minutes and in overtime, with neither team ahead by more than five points). These "clutch time" stats were compiled by 82games.com, an online leader in analyzing the NBA.
Scoring and shooting percentage carried the most weight in our formula, but we also accounted for assists, rebounds and blocks to get a more complete picture of player performance down the stretch of close games. Salaries were measured against those of players with similar years of experience in the league, since pay limits based on longevity are stipulated by the collective bargaining agreement between the league and Players' Association.
The best bargain guard was San Antonio's Manu Ginobili, who led the Spurs in fourth-quarter scoring last season with 5.2 points per game – a full point better than all-star teammates Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. Ginobili shot a league-high 57.4 percent from the field during the last five minutes of close games and was paid $9 million.
Third ranked among guards was Kobe Bryant, who lived up to his reputation as a money player last year, shooting 44.8 percent late in the fourth quarter. His downside: a $19.5 million salary that was 2.5 times the pay of other players who have been in the league for at least 10 years.
LeBron James' performance in late-game situations proved so superior to other forwards that he ranks as the best bargain at the position, despite his $13 million paycheck last year. If James' clutch time scoring were grossed up to 48 minutes (the length of a full game), he would have averaged 56 points – tops among those who played in at least 15 games that weren't decided until the last five minutes.
Orlando's Hedu Turkoglu ranked second among forwards, thanks to finishing seventh league-wide in fourth-quarter scoring, while earning 13 percent less pay than his peers. Turkoglu also hit two memorable game-winning shots last season, including a three-pointer that beat Boston, the eventual league champions, as time expired.
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