We're living in an age of great shooters

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dirk.jpgIt’s a lazy Saturday afternoon in the NBA offseason. Our primary choices of discussion are the latest in Chris Paul rumors (nothing of substance will develop until after his meeting with NOLA brass Monday), Shaquille O’Neal rumors (the great celebration of the marginal), and a Las Vegas team that doesn’t exist.

So instead, I thought we’d take a look back at something everyone can love.

Shooters shooting.

Throughout the history of the league we’ve seen a lot of changes. Fast paced, slow paced, physical, non-physical, hand-check prohibited, zone, the league has shifted and developed over the years. Often when we examine stats in historical contexts we’re ignoring the texture of the league in terms of pace, flow, and relevant rules. But one thing remains the same. We love players hitting shots at a tremendous clip. Stat-heads love efficiency, and shooting percentage is the very model of it.

So I started looking at some of the more memorable scoring season-long performances in NBA history, with a particular look at high percentage performances in FG%, FT%, and 3-point %. When I started poking around, I didn’t really anticipate any particular element of note coming to the forefront. As usual, I was surprised. But we’ll get there.

I limited my target over at Basketball-Reference.com to players scoring 25 points a game, shooting at least 40% from the floor and 80% from the stripe. I’m not going to give you the full list, you can check it out yourself if you’d like, but mostly I just wanted to appreciate some performances that may not be as famous as some others. Here are a handful I noticed.

The tops on the list is, unsurprisingly, not a sharpshooter. It’s a big. Kevin McHale, to be precise. McHale averaged 26.1 points per game on 60.4% from the field and 83.6% from the stripe in the 1987 season. The Celtics won the East before falling to the Los Angeles Lakers in six games. Six out of ten shots dropped for McHale that season, and he wasn’t even the leading scorer for the C’s, as Larry Bird averaged 28.1 points per game on 52.5% shooting from the field including 40% from the arc.

But you’d expect a player like McHale on this list, and certainly Bird. (You might be a bit surprised to know that based on our parameters, Amar’e Stoudemire was second, scoring 25.2 points per game on 59% from the field in 2007-2008, the last year of Seven Seconds or Less. Keep that in mind when you’re questioning D’Antoni’s ability to get the best out of STAT this year.)

Here’s a blast from the past. Adrian Dantley, the interim head coach of the Denver Nuggets while George Karl is recovering from throat cancer, had himself quite the year in the 1980-1981 season. Dantley scored 30.7 points per game that year, shooting 55.9% from the field and 80.6% from the stripe that year, and even 28.6% from the arc (on 2 of 7 shooting, the sniper that he was). That’s the highest shooting percentage for a player scoring 30 points per games over at least 80 games in NBA history. It’s also the highest True Shooting Percentage (factoring three point and free throw shooting performance) on the list. Guess who was second? Dantley, who three years later had a huge drop-off from that lofty 81 season, only scoring 30.6 points per game on 55.8% from the field. Tsk tsk, Coach.

You probably know Kiki Vandeweghe as the four-eyed executive and brief coach of the New Jersey Nets this season. But in 1984, he had one hell of a shooting season. Vandeweghe scored 29.4 points per game while shooting 55.8% from the field, 36.7% from the arc (only 30 attempts), and 85.2% from the stripe. That’s ridiculous. I mean, that’s absolutely ridiculous. Scoring nearly 30 points per game while hitting over half your shots. Not bad for a guy who looks like the tall guy from “The Simpsons.”

As if to outline how underrated he is in NBA history, George Gervin pops up on the list, scoring 29.6 points per game on 54.4% shooting from the field and 82.6% from the stripe in 1979.

The usual suspects arrive. Jordan. Bird. Chris Mullin, the beer-swilling jump shooter (check out Chris Ballard’s The Art of a Beautiful Game for more) had one of the better overall shooting seasons in 1990, scoring 25.1 points per game, 53.6% from the field, 37.2% from the arc and a whopping 88.9% from the stripe. Shooter like that, it’s painful that he and Don Nelson couldn’t get along.

Jordan’s 30.4 points per game, hitting 49.5% from the field, 83.4% from the stripe and a devastating 42.7% from three hits you in the face like a sack of hammers. But he’s the greatest of all time. Can’t exactly be all that stunned.

Then I decided to look at the easiest shot to make, the shot where so many points are left on the floor and that so many critics of the NBA say is its fundamental weakness: free throws. And therein I discovered that we’ve got some greatness happening right now, in this very day and age.

All-time high in free throw shooting for a player scoring 25 points or more is Calvin Murphy with the Rockets in 1977-1978. It was a stellar season for Murphy, scoring 25.6 points per game, while shooting 49.1% from the field, and at the stripe… the man did work. 91.8% from the stripe. He left almost nothing at the line. It was a phenomenal season for the 5-9, 158 pound dynamo. Unfortunately, that’s the season you probably know best as the year The Punch happened, with Kermit Washington leveling Rudy Tomjanovich with a punch that broke nearly every bone in his face, causing enough damage for spinal fluid to leak into his mouth. Stories, man.

Number three on that list is what really caught my eye, though. It’s a name we take for granted, which is bizarre considering how many syllables are contained within it. Last season, Dirk Nowitzki was an All-Star, but wasn’t even an official starter, starting only when Kobe Bryant pulled out with one of his zillion injuries. Nowitzki is rightfully criticized for his defense, rebounding, and all-around game. But then you look at the shooting numbers, and, well, geez.

Last season, Nowitzki plugged in 25.0 points per game, hitting 48.1% from the field, 42% from the arc (!), and 91.5% from the stripe. While not on par with the incredible numbers put up by other players on this list, his shooting efficiency is stunning and a reminder of how great Nowitzki is. His name appears five times on the list.

But there’s another player playing now that appears on the list.

Kevin Dura
nt.

Durant won t
he scoring title last year, averaging 30.1 points per game. He shot 47.6% from the field and 36.5% from the arc. Not bad, but not elite, certainly. But then you realize he hit 90% from the stripe, while attempting the ninth most number of free throws (840) on the list. Oh, and by the way, Durant is 21. Twenty-one. Freaking. Years old.

What got me started on this kick was thinking about Chris Paul. Not the trade demands or his relationship with LRMR or any of the other stuff. The fact that prior to injury, Paul had started the year rocking at 61% from the field, 64% from three. He would have come back to the pack regardless, but it’s worth noting just how good Paul was to start the year last year, even as his coach was fired and his team was floundering.

Along with Nowitzki and Durant, to go along with the king of the 50-40-90 club Steve Nash, we’re looking at an era of amazing shooters. There’s potential for some all-time numbers, and even if none of them touch the shooter’s ceiling, the sheer number of them is enough to make us realize that we’re living in a time of a shooter’s paradise.

The NBA has had a world of attention on it the last few weeks for all the wrong reasons. Legacy, selfishness, branding, marketing agencies, trade requests, “The Decision,” free agency, “teaming up,” “being your own man,” “the Championship of Me” these are all distractions from why we really love watching the NBA. The game itself. It’s a few months away, but it’s coming. Try and remember that for all the off-court ridiculousness, we’re still living in a special era. Embrace it.

Three Things We Learned, Cavaliers/Warriors edition: What can we take away from Monday to NBA Finals?

OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 16:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers holds his face after being fouled by Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on January 16, 2017 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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The NBA goes big on Martin Luther King Jr. day — as they should — but if you missed the action because you were busy counting to 100,000 for no reason, we’ve got you covered with the key takeaways from the biggest game on the schedule.

And we’re doubling our usual three things we learned to six for a day.

Six things from Warriors’ thrashing of Cavaliers that could play out in NBA Finals.
 Nothing that happens in the regular season guarantees anything come the NBA playoffs, let alone the Finals. Last season’s 73-win Warriors were just the latest in a long line of teams to prove that. Which means we need to be careful reading much into Golden State’s thrashing of Cleveland on Martin Luther King Jr. day. The Finals are a little less than six months away — both of these teams will be different by then (the Cavaliers hope to have a healthy J.R. Smith and Kevin Love by then, for example).  Remember, in January one year ago the Warriors thrashed the Cavaliers on national television, and how did the following Finals turn out?

However, when these teams meet some strategies are tested, little things in the game that we could see — or teams will need to at least account for — come the Finals meeting we all expect. Here are six things from Monday’s game that could well play out in June in the NBA Finals.

1) In the four straight wins the Cavaliers had in this series prior to Monday, they were very aggressive in defending Stephen Curry — they trapped him off picks, were physical, tried to pressure him into decisions to give up the ball, then when Curry tried to make the playground passes that worked against other teams the Cavaliers help defenders made steals and were off in transition the other way. All of that made Curry passive — remember the guy floating on the perimeter taking just 11 shots on Christmas Day?

On Monday night Curry took that pressure in stride, attacked Kyrie Irving from the opening tip (remember Curry’s first possession he blew right by him), used his handles to create space, used his gravity to draw defenders to him, then he whipped smart passes around the floor. In the first half, Curry had 10 assists and zero turnovers. For the game Curry had 20 shots. If he can match that, or even come close, in the Finals, the Cavs are going to struggle to slow this offense down. Like every mortal team has.

2) In January 2016 the Warriors thrashed the Cavaliers on national television, and that was a critical step in the Cavaliers deciding they needed to let David Blatt go, hire Tyronn Lue, and make changes that put them on Golden State’s level. With Monday’s loss, one thing that was evident was the depth of playmaking options the Warriors have and how that can be difficult to guard. Cleveland has two playmakers right now, Kyrie Irving and LeBron James. Cavs’ GM David Griffin has talked about wanting to add playmakers, LeBron has called for a backup point guard, but it’s clear whatever position they could use to add another playmaker or two heading into the trade deadline.

3) Can Kevin Durant guard LeBron? Chris Haynes of ESPN with an interesting stat:

The Cavaliers were on the last night of a six-game, 12-day road trip — they were not at their best. LeBron clearly wasn’t. However, if KD can even do a reasonable job on LeBron — or can switch on to him without getting torched — the Warriors will be a lot more comfortable and have more options on defense.

4) How did Warriors handle Kyle Korver? They went right at him and made him play defense, which has never been a strong suit (to put it kindly). The Warriors have enough playmakers that whoever Korver was guarding just went at him, and it worked — particularly during the stretch that saw the Warriors first push their lead north of 20. Korver didn’t have a great shooting night, by June he likely is far more comfortable, but if the Warriors can expose him on the other end it will be hard to keep Korver on the court for extended periods.

5) When JaVale McGee checked in for the Warriors, Tyronn Lue countered with Channing Frye. JaVale is not a strong defender, doesn’t step out away from the basket if he can help it, and the Cavs saw an advantage. JaVale’s offense covered that in this game scoring inside, but it’s something to watch.

6) DeAndre Liggins is a good defender, but he’s more focused on-ball than off, and in the fourth quarter Klay Thompson torched him a few times making Liggins chase him off screens away from the ball. You can be sure Steve Kerr noticed and filed that away.

Isaiah Thomas’ big fourth quarter carries Celtics past Hornets 108-98

Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) raises his arms as he celebrates after hitting a 3-pointer against the Charlotte Hornets during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Boston, Monday, Jan. 16, 2017. Thomas had 35 points as the Celtics defeated the Hornets 108-98. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
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BOSTON (AP) — Isaiah Thomas scored 17 of his 35 points in the fourth quarter, and the surging Boston Celtics beat the Charlotte Hornets 108-98 on Monday night for their ninth victory in 11games.

It was Thomas’ 25th straight game with 20 or more points. He’s been putting up big final quarters of late – scoring 20 or more three times this season. No other NBA player had done it more than once entering Monday.

Al Horford had 22 points, while Kelly Olynyk and Jae Crowder added 15 apiece for Boston, which has won all three meetings with Charlotte this season.

Kemba Walker scored 24 points and Marvin Williams had 21 for the Hornets, who lost their fifth straight – all on the road.

Thomas scored 13 straight points, pushing Boston ahead 93-83 with his 3-pointer from the left wing with 7 1/2 minutes left.

Boston led 80-71 entering the final period.

TIP-INS

Hornets: Entered averaging the second-fewest turnovers in the league at 12.1 per game. They had 11.

Celtics: G Avery Bradley returned after missing four straight games because of a strained right Achilles. He scored five points on 2-of -9 shooting. … Thomas scored a team-record 29 points in the final quarter of a victory against Miami on Dec. 30 to finish with 52.

INSPIRING WORDS

Celtics rookie Jaylen Brown addressed the crowd before the game on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Without notes, he quoted King in saying: “The day our lives begin to end, the day we become silent about things that matter.”

NICE CATCH

New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount sat courtside behind a basket and made a two-handed grab of a ball flying out of bounds.

SPORTS TRANSITION

It was the nightcap of a hockey/basketball doubleheader, and 6-foot-4 Celtics guard Marcus Smart entered TD Garden wearing a winter jacket and hat. He paused and stood seemingly unnoticed as a group of youngsters and parents – most wearing Boston Bruins colors – walked down a hall to meet some of the hockey players.

Smart smiled when a media member said, “I don’t think anyone noticed you.”

Later, 6-foot-9 Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara headed past folks walking in for the basketball game.

 

Clippers guard Chris Paul leaves game with sprained thumb, more tests coming

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The Clippers have now won seven games in a row, but if they don’t have Chris Paul in the lineup that streak is going to turn around very quickly (remember just a couple of weeks ago when he missed seven games with a hamstring strain?).

Which is why Paul leaving the game with what the team has called a sprained thumb is potentially troubling news. Paul was trying to get over the top of a Joffrey Lauvergne screen when he ran into Russell Westbrook who had pulled up to take a three, Paul’s hand hitting Westbrook’s hip and seemingly getting caught up in his shorts. Paul walked off the court and went straight to the locker room, making it seem worse than the team said it is so far.

From the press release from the Clippers:

X-rays during the game were negative, but further tests still need to be done to determine the extent of the injury, which occurred in the second quarter after Paul jammed his left hand on Russell Westbrook’s right leg.

The Clippers held on without Paul for the comfortable win over the Thunder, 120-98.

The Clippers are the four seed in the West but could fall down that ladder if Paul is out for any stretch of time. Starting Saturday The Clippers have 10-of-11 games on the road — and the one home game is the Warriors. That’s going to be a tough run of games even with Paul.

Kevin Durant scores 21, Stephen Curry 20 to help Warriors cruise past Cavs (VIDEOS)

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Pretty much everything the Warriors did Monday against the Cavaliers worked — transition buckets, pull-up threes, drive-and-dish plays, curls off screens, you name it and the Warriors got enough space to get a shot they wanted. Then they knocked them down. Which is why the Warriors won going away.

Stephen Curry had a big night with 20 points and 11 assists, which you can see highlights of above. It was a big night for Curry’s confidence: In the Cavaliers four-straight wins against the Warriors, Cleveland trapped Curry off picks, were physical, and when Curry tried to make the playground passes that worked against other teams Cavaliers’ help defenders made steals and were off in transition the other way. Monday night Curry took the pressure in stride, used his handles to create space, used his gravity to draw defenders to him, then he whipped smart passes around the floor. Curry had 10 assists and zero turnovers in the first half.

Kevin Durant benefitted from some of those passes and had 21 points on the night, and he chipped in three blocks.