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.

Watch Stephen Curry drop 36 in Game 7 to knock off Thunder (VIDEO)

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If you watch the highlights, you will see plenty of Stephen Curry hitting threes — including the dagger late — to lead the Warriors to a 96-88 Game 7 win over the Thunder. He was masterful and finished with 36 points.

But it was more than just the threes.

Curry was attacking the bigs that switched on to him off the pick-and-roll far more this game, both by hitting threes over them — four of his seven threes came against bigs switched onto him, according to Synergy Sports — but also by blowing by those bigs and getting into the lane. Look at his shot chart from the night.

Curry Game 7 shotchart

“I could tell in Game 6 that he was starting to feel like himself,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after Game 7. “He looked better. He looked like he was moving better. I told our coaching staff yesterday, I have no doubt Steph’s going to have a huge game. That’s just who he is. And he looked right again.”

When Curry is attacking and hitting threes, well, you get nights like this.

Kevin Durant entering free agency on sour note

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 30:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder hugs Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors after losing 96-88 in Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 30, 2016 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 superstar free agent enters the offseason with three straight playoff losses, a once-promising season ended in devastating fashion.

Kevin Durant? Yes.

LeBron James in 2010? Also yes.

Will Durant follow LeBron’s lead and leave the team that drafted him?

Those Cavaliers didn’t beat the 67-15 Spurs. They didn’t push the 73-9 Warriors to a Game 7. They didn’t have Russell Westbrook.

And, of course, Durant isn’t LeBron.

But the Thunder must feel sick about letting this opportunity slip away – not just a trip to the Finals, but a chance to remind Durant of their virtues. Golden State – a leading suitor for Durant – undid so much of the progress Oklahoma City made in the postseason with this comeback from down 3-1, capped with a 96-88 win tonight.

“We just lost like 30 minutes ago,” Durant said. “So, I don’t have any thought about it.”

For much of the playoffs the Thunder did everything they could to convince Durant to stay. They carved up the Mavericks, overpowered the Spurs and outraced the Warriors through the Western Conference finals’ first four games. It seemed no team could offer Durant a better situation.

Now, it’s as tempting as ever to imagine Durant with Golden State.

Durant must weigh what joining the team that beat him would do to his image, but there’s no doubt that the Warriors are better than the Thunder. There can’t be after a 16-win difference in the regular season and these last three games. Oklahoma City might flip the script next season if Durant re-signs, but he must also assess how much better Golden State would be with him. At minimum, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson not guarding him anymore.

The Thunder didn’t do their part to send Durant into free agency on a high note, but he did all he could. Unlike LeBron in 2010, Durant didn’t shrink from the moment of his high-pressured closeout game with free agency looming. Durant scored 27 points on 10-of-19 shooting against those elite defenders, including a late personal 7-0 run that cut the deficit to four points.

Then, Stephen Curry scored six straight – drawing a foul on a 3-pointer and hitting a 3-pointer – to put the game out of reach. These Warriors are special. Durant has to see that.

Not that he’s focused on Golden State (or the Spurs, Celtics, Rockets or…). This loss is too raw.

“It hurts losing,” Durant said. “It hurts losing, especially being up three games to one.

“It sucks to lose. It sucks.”

How long will that feeling last, and how strongly will Durant associate it with Oklahoma City? The Thunder can offer more money, but one of their biggest selling points is their team success – and that seems like a distant memory. Right now, Oklahoma City is on a three-game losing streak that won’t be snapped before Durant signs somewhere.

Durant will weigh the prudent details, but his will be an emotional decision. Where does he feel most comfortable?

There’s plenty of time to decide. Free agency begins July 1, and he’ll surely want to meet with teams before finalizing a choice.

The Thunder have done him well for years, and they’d remain elite with him.

But they can’t feel good with this being Durant’s final image of their season – victorious Warrior after victorious Warrior hugging Durant and consoling him on Oklahoma City’s third straight failure.

Too much Stephen Curry, too many threes bury Thunder in Game 7, Warriors win 96-88, advance to Finals

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For seven games the athleticism and improved defense of the Oklahoma City Thunder smothered nearly everything Golden State tried to do inside the arc. The Thunder length and aggressiveness had them owning the paint and dominating the glass much of the series. Oklahoma City outplayed Golden State below the arc all series long.

But the Warriors owned the three ball.

“They beat us from the 3-point line the last two games, we beat them from everywhere else,” Kevin Durant said after Game 7.

After a rough shooting first half (again), the three balls started to fall for Golden State in the second half of Game 7 Monday — many of them contested, the Thunder defense remained stout. The Warriors opened the game 2-of-6 from three, then hit 12 of their next 24 — 10-of-20 in the second half — while the Thunder missed 13 straight at one point.

The Warriors made 10 more threes than the Thunder in Game 7 and — just as it was in Game 6 — that proved to be the difference. The Warriors came from down 3-1 to win Game 7 96-88 and take the series.

Golden State will host Cleveland in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night.

“I knew we were ready for the moment,” Stephen Curry said after the game. “I knew we were a mature basketball team that tried our best to not listen to the noise outside. Six or seven days ago when we were down 3-1 everybody thought the wheels were falling off and it was the end of our run, but not the locker room. The talk was positive, it was let’s figure this out, let’s go out and take it one game at a time, claw our way back into the series, and see what happens.”

It took the best run of games these Warriors have put together in two-plus seasons — a stretch that included a championship and 73 regular season wins — to get past OKC and back to the Finals. The Thunder’s improved defense and great scoring  forced the Warriors to find another gear.

But Golden State always had the three ball to bail them out. Look at their shot chart from Game 7.

Warriors Game 7 shot chart

Curry, who finished with 36 points and hit 7-of-12 from three, was the difference as he played like the MVP version of himself. That version had been held in check much of the series by the Thunder’s defense, and likely a lingering knee issue (although he would never admit that). All series long Curry had struggled to beat the Thunder bigs who switched onto him off picks, but not in Game 7 when he hit four threes over those bigs, and blew by them and into the lane a host of other times.

“I could tell in Game 6 that he was starting to feel like himself,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after Game 7. “He looked better. He looked like he was moving better. I told our coaching staff yesterday, I have no doubt Steph’s going to have a huge game. That’s just who he is. And he looked right again.”

Kevin Durant was giving up the ball and finding teammates early in the game, trying to get others involved, but late in the fourth he put together a personal 7-0 run that made it a four-point game inside three minutes. Durant was a beast and finished with 27 points to lead the Thunder. Russell Westbrook added 19 points and 13 assists. They just didn’t have the threes to keep up with the Warriors.

Early on it in Game 7 felt like it might be the Thunder’s night. It was a disjointed start to the game (as often happens in Game 7s), which helped Steven Adams get a couple of buckets and had the Thunder trying to move the ball. Both teams had jitters and guys are trying to do a little too much, evidence by Curry starting 3-of-8 and Thompson 0-of-4. What OKC did was get six offensive boards in first quarter, which had then up 24-19.

In the second, Waiters came in and played a little out of control but proved to be a spark that had the Thunder pushing the lead up to 13. The Thunder also got solid play early from Enes Kanter, who had eight points and four rebounds in eight minutes. Meanwhile, the Warriors were missing their twos — started 6-of-20 inside the arc — but unlike Game 6 they were missing their threes as well. Play Thompson started 0-of-7.

Then Thompson hit three in a row from beyond the arc, the Warriors’ energy returned, and they went on 11-2 run to make it a game again. Thunder responded with 7-0 run of their own. Then Warriors have 7-0 run to get it to five. By the half, it was 48-42 Oklahoma City.

Golden State came out gunning from three to start the second half and behind a few Curry threes went on a 15-4 run and the Warriors were up 57-54. The Thunder hung around but got sucked into the wrong style of play and they missed 13 consecutive threes at one point. The threes were falling for the Warriors, the Thunder could not buy a bucket, it was a 29-12 third quarter for the Warriors and they were up 71-60. The Warriors felt in control.

“I actually thought we got some good looks,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said of the third quarter. “I thought we really, really good looks. They made some shots… I liked the way we played on offense tonight, we moved the ball and played the right way…..

“We were right there every step of the way with them, and this was a record setting team, and a team that’s won a world championship. So you can sit there and say what happened, but you’ve got to give them credit. Give them credit.”

But the Thunder played too hard and too well this series to go quietly into that good night. Durant made his push, they crashed the glass, they defended with heart and made plays down the stretch. A foul by Serge Ibaka on a Curry three may have sealed the Warriors fate — a four-point game became seven, and that was too much to overcome.

Because the Warriors threes kept falling no matter what.

Stephen Curry goes high off the glass at the buzzer just before the half

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Golden State hadn’t shot well all first half — 38.6 percent — and Stephen Curry was 4-of-10 with time running out in half.

Then Curry hit this high, high off the glass to end the half and bring Golden State within six at the break, 48-42.

Notice that Curry grabbed his knee after the shot. He was out for the start of the second half.