In the new NBA, the gunner is a good teammate, not a ball hog
Steve Kerr: ‘They make ’em, so they’re allowed to shoot ’em’
Nov. 12, 1985, a forgotten moment in NBA annals: the Denver Nuggets’ Mike Evans attempted 10 3-pointers, missing eight, in just 18 minutes of playing time in a loss to the Houston Rockets. No other player in the league put up 10 or more shots from behind the arc in an entire 48-minute game that season, let alone the equivalent of 1 1/2 quarters.
Ball hog in a gimmick offense, they said.
Poor Mike Evans. He was born 30 years too early.
Last season, 90 players jacked up 10 or more 3-pointers 401 separate times. The Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry alone accounted for 53 of the 401 instances. That meant the two-time MVP, launch-from-the-Bay Bridge guard attempted 10 or more 3-pointers in two-thirds of the 79 regular-season games in which he appeared. The frequency of those bombs has created a league unrecognizable to many of his predecessors.
“If you were 0 for 8 five years ago or even seven years ago from the 3-point line, your a– might get cut,” Isiah Thomas said through a lament-filled laugh. The Hall of Fame Detroit Pistons guard added, “They’ve completely twisted the boundaries in terms of what an acceptable shot is in our sport.”
Once, there were clear lines of delineation in the game, a side reserved for the showoff/selfish gunner, and another for the serious, play-the-game-the-right-way winner. Now, the modern NBA coach has to be OK with ridiculous circus shots from anywhere on the floor, the shots your scowling Catholic Youth Organization coach marched you to the bench for shooting in seventh grade.
One generation’s unrepentant chucker is another’s “volume shooter.”
The Showtime Lakers were the most free-wheeling offensive team of their generation after the Nuggets. When they won the NBA title in the 1987-88 season, they averaged less than six 3-point attempts per game – 25 fewer than the Warriors’ 31.6 tries last season. In just the last five years, teams have gone from a leaguewide average of hoisting 18 per game to more than 25.9 through the first weeks of this season.
“The leading scorers on all these teams can shoot the ball however many times the hell they want,” said Tim Legler, a former NBA 3-point champion and now an ESPN analyst. “I don’t know whether it necessarily relates to a higher-quality product and better cohesion on the floor, but it’s certainly the evolution of what the game has become.”
In this gun-and-gun NBA, whoever shoots the bomb with aplomb gets a GIF before the demoralizing dunk. The main proponents are coaches such as Golden State’s Steve Kerr, a great shooter from the last millennium whose accuracy was still only afforded so long a leash in a patterned offense.
“I look at Curry, [teammate Klay] Thompson and Kerr as having normalized the distance you can attempt shots from now – and not be criticized,” Thomas said. “From a coaching standpoint, no coach that I can remember or can think of would have ever given these two guys the latitude and the freedom to shoot from that distance without being yelled at or taken out of games.”
The player who keeps shooting and shooting isn’t new. What’s really changed are the coaches, who have learned to coexist with the gunner and to understand that they’re not always a “coach killer.” Unleashed, some actually become contract extenders.
Partly, the change in the game reflects changes in the larger society. Players aren’t controlled as much as they used to be; they’re empowered. Any coach who doesn’t foster a relationship with his best players is an ex-coach before too long. More than in any other major team sport in North America, NBA players decide what’s going to happen more than the coach.
Perhaps more importantly, Curry isn’t the only guy to ever play this way; he’s just the most successful. There have always been players who could go out and get you 30 or 40 points. The question is, could you win consistently with them.
It turns out you can. You just have to live with their failures and be willing to unleash the gunner, flaws and all, for a greater good.
“Have you corrupted the game?”
Kerr could not keep a straight face when I asked him that question in an empty corridor of the Oracle Arena during last June’s NBA Finals.
Half-smiling he replied, “When I’m at basketball camps I always say, ‘If you want to be a great shooter from 25 feet, you better be a great shooter from 4 feet first.’ So if kids are out there shooting 28-footers and they can’t make a 10-footer, that’s a problem.”
When I mentioned how Thompson wouldn’t be allowed to chuck up eight crazy misses in a row from 25 feet or more and stay in a game even five years ago, he scoffed.
“Why would they have the leash?” he said. “No one shoots like these guys today. If Larry Bird was 0 for 8, they wouldn’t have sat him down. This is what they do.
“Look at their percentages. It’s pretty simple. They make ’em, so they’re allowed to shoot ’em.”
Curry has made 44 percent and Thompson 42 percent of their career 3-point tries, respectively. Proof of the live-by-the-bomb, die-by-the-bomb league they helped birth, Curry missed all 10 of 3-point attempts in a loss to the L.A. Lakers on Nov. 4 (ending his streak of making at least one in 157 games). But he followed that eyesore by breaking his own league record Nov. 7 against New Orleans, surreally dropping in 13 of 17 from behind the 3-point line.
Thompson made 10 3s in a pivotal Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals against Oklahoma City last season, eclipsing the playoff record shared by mad bombers of their day Ray Allen, Vince Carter, Rex Chapman and Jason Terry. His 276 3-pointers last season now rank third in NBA history, uh, behind Curry’s totals from the past two seasons.
“We evolved as a league,” said Jeff Van Gundy, the former New York Knicks and Rockets coach turned analyst. He recalled how longtime Utah Jazz assistant coach Gordie Chiesa would react “when a guy would take an awful shot. ‘That shot right there, that’s a shooting turnover,’ he would say. And he was right.
“But shot selection has been redefined as more teams fell in love with the 3 and the transition game. You can’t look through the prism of 1980 shot selection to evaluate 2016 shot selection.”
Legler makes a similar point: “You’ve gone from a league of post-play and midrange games to transition sets where anyone on the floor is allowed to take a 3. There are nights when both teams on average will combine for more than 50 3s.
“I’m watching the Cavs at one point in the second quarter the other night and it felt like all everyone did was shoots 3s – LeBron [James], [Iman] Shumpert, Channing Frye, Kyrie [Irving], Kevin Love, J.R. Smith. It was the only option on offense for a while.”
Van Gundy said the freedom coaches give their players now works both ways. “As a coach, you don’t micromanage each and every shot. And players are also taking responsibility for taking their best shots. It still comes down to rosters, though. The guys who put the best ones together are the teams that win. Period.”
In the beginning, there were chuckers. Pistol “Pete” Maravich and World B. Free and Rick Barry and Freeman Williams and Travis (The Machine) Grant lived to shoot.
Lord, they lived to shoot.
They all graduated from the school of Jack It Up First & Pass Later (if at all). The only shot attempts they regretted were those taken by their teammates.
Barry once put up 50 shots in a single game and averaged 28.7 attempts per game one season – in a league without a 3-point line. Pistol Pete also averaged 28 shots per game one season, and Williams once attempted almost 17 shots per game coming off the bench for the San Diego Clippers.
They were certified ball hogs next to millennials such as Curry (20.2 shots per game last season) and Kevin Durant (19.2), and they were followed in spirit over the years by Bernard King, John Starks, Reggie Miller, Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony.
Of course, the success of Curry, Durant, Russell Westbrook and dead-eye role players like Jamal Crawford and J.R. Smith doesn’t mean every no-conscience player is worth indulging. Former bit-part gunners Ricky Davis and Jordan Crawford, for instance, often had the shot selection of an Imperial stormtrooper, shooting their teams out of games faster than they kept them in.
Still, as the latitude for even role players has grown, the “standards for what great shooters are have completely dropped,” said Legler, who when he was with the Washington team in 1995-96 shot .522 from 3-point range, attempting about four 3-pointers a game.
“People like Brent Price and me had to lead the league in 3-point shooting to have a green light. Now it’s eight or nine guys per roster,” he said. “You’re considered this gunslinger if you make three of nine now, because that means that guy is worth 250 3-pointers a season. If I shot less than 38 percent from there when I played, I wouldn’t have been on the floor or in the league very long.”
Despite the rising number of attempts, the league average for made 3-pointers hasn’t changed much over the decades, hovering around 35 percent. But the rise of analytics favored the 3-pointer over the long 2-pointer. Shooters outside the line could shoot a worse percentage than inside the line, but the potential bonus of the extra point was worth it statistically.
The game’s original mad bombers never had the data to support their gift and few of them won championships. Plus, they were coached by men who played before the NBA adopted the 3-point line in 1979. Those coaches looked at the shot as a novelty and believed the league could only be conquered by controlling their offenses and playing through a big man in the middle.
If Williams or Pistol Pete (whose pro career largely predated the 3-point line) ever played for someone like Kerr, who knows how many titles they could have won?
Of course, who knows if today’s unrepentant chuckers could have starred in a different era?
“Certainly if Steph Curry was playing in the format of two bigs, he’d be facing more traps,” Van Gundy said. “He just doesn’t face the amount of traps that teams used to throw at the best players when two bigs were always playing together.”
For the first time in his career, Curry faced a backlash last season, especially from the fraternity of NBA players who played a more physical game in the 1980s and 1990s. He wondered if it was merely stylistic differences or something else – before finally chalking it up to in-my-day ego.
“Everybody thinks their era and their team and their situation was probably the best at the time they played,” he said. “But other than that, I don’t know.”
Grant Hill knows. Curry is the antithesis of every levitating, rim-shaking, hypermasculine MVP of the past, he said.
“I think we’re accustomed to the high fliers and the guy who is – whether it’s Shaq or Michael or LeBron or Kobe – a player who defies conventional wisdom with their strength and athleticism. And here’s this kid dribbling through everybody and dropping in left-handed arching layups over giants. It’s the style of play. I think a lot of older guys think the game has become too finesse, taking the physicality out. Some people think this style is a gimmick and it’s not real basketball.
“There was a backlash when Steve Nash was at his best and he was winning MVPs. People resented that.”
Kerr gets grief occasionally for allowing a chuck-it-up style of play, but most of the criticism feels misplaced because the Warriors are often the most aesthetically appealing team to watch now, whistling the ball around the perimeter, finding cutters and open shooters.
“Most players are very much incapable of what Steph does, they don’t have his skill-set,” said Brent Barry, son of Rick, a former slam dunk champion and now an analyst with NBA TV. “It’s hard to comprehend two things: the style of play and then that his skill set and that shooting ability is actually real.
“I think what Steve is alluding to when he says they can take bad shots is that with those two, there’s a lot more you can live with because what it is that he’s seen them do. He’s witnessed Steph and Klay’s greatness.”
Thomas wants to be clear: He’s not a bitter retired star who can’t stomach the money the players make today. He praised the Warriors after they acquired Durant this offseason, making them arguably the greatest collection of long-range shooters the game has had on a single team.
“They truly have the firepower,” he said. “It’s definitely going to be must-see TV. I believe in dominance. A team like this can make everyone reach another level.”
His biggest critique of the NBA focuses on how we got to a place where the majority of players – regardless of size or position – play a homogenized perimeter game.
“I love Steph, I’ve always been complimentary of him,” he said. “But this whole thing with pace of play, the idea of wanting to get up five or 10 more shots as the opponent. If you’re 0 for 10, does pace of play really help you?
“The era I played in, some people liked Magic [Johnson], some people liked me, some people liked [John] Stockton. The thing about the three of us, though, was that we all played the game different.
“The thing that I find troubling now with analytics and the sharing of information is that it normalizes everything. Our game is shrinking the players. Everybody is becoming the same size. Everybody is taking the same shots. Everyone is running the same offense. Teams don’t play different.”
He said the acceptance of the long-distance gunner is less about the evolution of the game and more about team executives and coaches who rely on analytics that say the quick 3-point shot is more effective than the conventional, walk-it-up 2-pointer.
“This is the first time in our sport you get no credit for institutional knowledge,” he said. “We live in an age now where we are bombarded by more data than any society that’s ever existed on this earth.”
Van Gundy says Thomas is right about the “lack of variety” in style of play now. But he disagrees with him about the value of analytics. “I think we simply had people that came in and made coaches think on a lot of different levels about a lot of different things. They had strong beliefs, and sometimes it made you go back and re-evaluate. The biggest thing is, it’s a players’ league. And it’s picking the right players. The Warriors get Curry and then get Draymond Green, who can play on the perimeter. Then they get Andrew Bogut for interior defense and more passing. They put the players around Curry that allows him the freedom to become who he is now.”
Thomas isn’t swayed.
“The people who collect this data and rely on it forget our game is more about reaching for the sublime,” he said. “It’s about the artistry. It’s about playing for that one moment that no one can describe how it happened.
“I just go back to Michael Jordan and Dr. J … they’re comin’ down the lane and all of a sudden they jump up and do a 360. Bam! We played for that. Now when science comes into our game – and there’s balance when science blends with creativity and art – the ones who haven’t participated in the sport find it difficult to describe the artistry or understand the DaVinci moment, the originality we shoot for.”
He keeps going, emboldened:
“Consequently, our game today is not about artistry and origination. It’s about shoot it 20 times from here. It’s been broken down into really a cold science, which takes emotions, feeling, love, passion – all of those things – out of the sport. And when you take those things out of the sport, do you really have a sport?”
Told that he sounds like a curmudgeon jealous of the latitude players get today, Thomas laughs again. “Whether you see that as good or bad, again it’s all a matter of taste.
“That’s not hate. That’s critique.”
This story has been changed to reflect the correct number of games in which Stephen Curry played last season.