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De'Aaron Fox early front-runner in NBA Clutch Player of the Year race

De'Aaron Fox early front-runner in NBA Clutch Player of the Year race

Award talk is always fun — or annoying, depending on where you land with The Discourse™. The NBA is filled with talent, giving us plenty to enjoy on a night-to-night basis. It also makes it incredibly tough to parse out awards.

Listing a top-five MVP ballot means "disrespecting" the sixth guy who didn't make it. There are at least five centers — Brook Lopez, Bam Adebayo, Jarrett Allen, Nic Claxton and Joel Embiid — fighting for two All-Defensive center spots, and that's ignoring Anthony Davis. This stuff is tough, man. 

If there's one award that may wind up being a landslide, it's the newly announced Clutch Player of the Year award. 

We don't have an official guideline; the award's description is simply the "player who best comes through for his teammates in the clutch." It's vague, yet simple — reward the guy that makes big plays when it matters.

(My hope is that it doesn't become the late-game version of Sixth Man of the Year, where the scoring leader wins regardless of any other area of the game. In short: Scoring should matter, as should playmaking and making big stops defensively.)

Let's put it out there now: This should be De'Aaron Fox's award to lose.

He feels like an award casualty candidate in other discussions. His career year — 24.0 points on 59.3% True Shooting, 6.1 assists (2.6 turnovers), 4.3 rebounds and 1.0 steals per game — just happens to coincide with Luka Doncic, Stephen Curry, Ja Morant, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Damian Lillard and Devin Booker losing their minds individually. That's just in the Western Conference, which could complicate Fox's All-Star candidacy.

Add in Eastern Conference guards like Donovan Mitchell and James Harden, and the All-NBA conversation is going to be tough for Fox too. 

Clutch Player of the Year, though? Fox has been inevitable.

In clutch time — which NBA.com defines as the last 5 minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime, with the score within 5 points either way — leads the NBA in made baskets (44) while converting a ridiculous 60.3% of his shots. Among 59 players to attempt at least 30 clutch shots, Fox trails only Bradley Beal (65.6% on 32 attempts) in efficiency. 

(As a brief aside, have we forgotten how good Beal is? He's missed games, and has taken a bit of a step back with Kyle Kuzma and Kristaps Porzingis taking more ownership of the offense, but Beal is still slapping up 22-3-5 on 61.0% True Shooting. He's converting over 57.0% of his twos!)

Anyway, it starts with the drive for Fox, as it always does. He has a special ability to generate paint touches on a whim. He's one of the five fastest players in the NBA; he knows that, his opponents know that and he knows his opponents know that. What makes Fox dangerous is how he leverages that speed by decelerating — it's like he's realm shifting out there when he puts on the brakes.

That dichotomy makes him nearly impossible to stay in front of. At this point, it feels like we only see full-speed Fox in doses. Just the fear of him turning on the jets can throw defenders off-balance. Because he's able to create fruitful advantages, he's a dominant paint scorer and someone who can involve others when opponents toss too much attention his way.

On the season, the Kings are generating a robust 1.16 points per possession (PPP) on trips featuring a Fox drive, per Second Spectrum — sixth among 77 players with at least 300 drives under their belts this season. When filtering for clutch time, that number rises to 1.2 PPP.

Fox doesn't do it on his own, of course. The two-man game between him and Domantas Sabonis is tough to deal with. Sabonis' utility as a handoff hub, post hub and screening partner helps attract attention and pry Fox open.

Kevin Huerter, one of the NBA's most dangerous off-ball weapons, makes life easier for Fox. Keeping him one pass from Fox keeps help defenders away. And using Huerter as a (ghost) screener adds another layer for defenses to deal with. Huerter can feed favorable matchups to Fox for exploiting, or the Kings can flow out of HORNS Flare — with Huerter setting or ghosting a screen for Fox before flying off a screen for Sabonis — to induce further strain on the defense. 

Fox has also had some moments defensively late in games. His effort overall has improved this season. He's always been able to ramp things up on the ball when needed, but I've been impressed with how he's toggled his help assignments late, especially when you factor in the load he's carrying on the other end.

Overall, the Kings are 13-10 in "clutch" games with Fox this season, much better than last season's 11-19 mark. It's fueled by their offense, lapping the field in clutch offensive rating (130.4) by nearly six points. You can primarily thank Fox for that.

OTHER CANDIDATES

  • Hey, that Luka guy is pretty good. He's tied for fourth in clutch scoring (99) and leads the NBA in assists (23) and steals (8), oddly enough. The Mavs have gone 16-10 in clutch games featuring Doncic. They've also won the Doncic clutch minutes by 41 points, the fifth-best mark in the NBA.
  • While we're on bigs, Jokic is tied for 10th in scoring (70 points) and second in assists (22) while only turning the ball over five times. The Nuggets have outscored opponents by 69 points in Jokic's 83 clutch minutes — easily the best mark in the league. He just had a game-winning floater on Tuesday against the New Orleans Pelicans.
  • Jalen Brunson's third in crunch-time scoring (101), has canned nearly 46% of his threes, has gotten to the line a ton (36 free-throw attempts, tied for eighth) and is the biggest reason why the New York Knicks have a winning record (13-10) in clutch games.
  • Fox has made more clutch buckets than anyone, but DeMar DeRozan slightly edges him out in total scoring (113 to 108). No player has gotten to the line more than DeRozan, where he's drilled 42-of-45 foul shots (93.3%) during money time. He remains a terrifying mid-range scorer, with a filthy pump fake to bait you into easier points. The Bulls being 8-14 (and a minus-5 point differential) in clutch games isn't his fault, but that'll hurt him in the race.
  • Speaking of mid-range mastery and elite foul drawing, it's hard to ignore the production of Gilgeous-Alexander. He's tied for fourth with Doncic in clutch scoring (99) and slightly trails DeRozan in total free-throw attempts (41). Subpar efficiency (40.6% FG) and the Oklahoma City Thunder's bleh record (9-17, minus-16 differential) in SGA's minutes hurt him. 
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