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.

Kyrie Irving, LeBron James lead Cavaliers past Knicks, 119-104

OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 16:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers stands on the court during their game against 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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CLEVELAND (AP) LeBron James recorded his 48th career triple-double and Kyrie Irving scored 23 points, leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 119-104 victory over the New York Knicks, who hung on to superstar Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose at Thursday’s trade deadline.

James scored 18 points and had 13 rebounds with 15 assists for his sixth triple-double of the season.

Anthony, the subject of trade rumors because of a strained relationship with Knicks President of Basketball Operations Phil Jackson, scored 20 points, going 9 of 25 from the field.

Kyle Korver scored 20 points for Cleveland, which is 8-1 in February and has beaten New York 10 straight times.

Courtney Lee had 25 points for New York, which has lost six of seven and is 12th in the Eastern Conference playoff race.

Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis, the team’s second-leading scorer, left the game with a sprained right ankle in the second quarter and didn’t return.

New York took an early lead in the first game since the All-Star break for both teams, but the Cavaliers closed the first half on a 25-8 run. Cleveland built the lead to 72-51, but Anthony scored eight points in the third quarter and kept New York in the game.

The Knicks trailed 87-79 entering the fourth, but the Cavaliers quickly regained control. James scored on two layups while Korver and Channing Frye each hit two 3-pointers, pushing the lead to 110-91.

James, who had eight assists in the fourth, also turned in two outstanding defensive plays. He swatted Rose’s layup attempt into the courtside seats in the second quarter and pinned Lee’s breakaway drive against the backboard in the fourth.

Rose, another subject of trade rumors as the deadline approached, scored 13 points.

TIP-INS

Knicks: C Joakim Noah (sore left hamstring) traveled with the team to Cleveland, but coach Jeff Hornacek said no timetable has been set for his return to action. . Lee has been battling an illness, but has stayed in the lineup despite not being fully healthy.

Cavaliers: James’ missed layup earlier in the quarter fooled the arena PA announcer, who began calling the four-time MVP’s name as the ball spun out. …. Irving missed a free throw in the second quarter, snapping a streak of 29 made foul shots in a row.

OAKLEY RETURNS

Former Knicks forward Charles Oakley watched his former team in his hometown. Oakley sat next to Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert in a front row seat adjacent to Cleveland’s bench.

Oakley attended his first Knicks game since being arrested after getting into an altercation with security guards at Madison Square Garden earlier this month.

UP NEXT

Knicks: Host Philadelphia on Saturday night.

Cavaliers: Host Chicago on Saturday night.

Rockets rout Pelicans, 129-99, in DeMarcus Cousins’ New Orleans debut

Houston Rockets guard James Harden watches his 3-point shot during the second half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Milwaukee Bucks, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017, in Houston. Houston won 111-92. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)
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NEW ORLEANS (AP) The Boogie-and-Brow era in New Orleans is off to a highly inauspicious start.

The Pelicans’ tandem of newly acquired All-Star DeMarcus Cousins and All-Star Game MVP Anthony Davis was no match for the surging Houston Rockets on Thursday night.

Reserve Lou Williams hit seven 3-pointers and scored 27 points in his Rockets debut after a trade from the Lakers, and Houston crushed New Orleans, 129-99.

Davis had 29 points, and Cousins finished with 27 points and 14 rebounds after he was acquired from Sacramento during the break. But New Orleans turned the ball over 20 times couldn’t keep pace with the firepower of the Rockets, who hit 20 3-pointers.

Eric Gordon scored 19 points and Ryan Anderson added 17 in both players’ first game in New Orleans since leaving the Pelicans. James Harden had 13 points and 14 assists.

Houston led by as many as 35 points when Gordon’s free throws made it 100-65 late in the third quarter.

Patrick Beverley had 12 rebounds for Houston. Montrezl Harrell added 10 points for the Rockets, who shot 49.5 percent (45 of 91).

After New Orleans acquired Cousins, nicknamed “Boogie,” in a deal involving five players and two draft choices, Pelicans general manager Dell Demps hoped Cousins and Davis would thrive playing off one another while point guard Jrue Holiday initiated offensive sets. But Holiday had arguably his worst game this season, turning the ball over seven times and finishing with only six points and four assists.

The crowd was charged up for both Cousins’ debut and Davis’ resumption of a sensational season following his record 52-point performance on Sunday.

Both players received rousing receptions during introductions and the crowd roared when Cousins hit a jumper for games’ first points.

Cousins and Davis each scored eight in the first quarter, but it was also apparent that the integration of new personnel had New Orleans a bit out of sync. The Pelicans turned the ball over 12 times in the first half, leading to 17 Rockets points.

The Rockets also hit nine 3s in the opening half, including three each by Gordon and Williams, and led 66-50 at halftime.

By the end of the third quarter, the crowd that had been so rowdy at tip-off was starting to file out with their team down 100-67.

TIP-INS

Rockets: Houston has won seven of the past eight meetings. … The Rockets hit at least 10 3s in a game for the 55th time in 59 games this season. … The Rockets, now 41-18, have matched their win total for all of last season.

Pelicans: Before the game, New Orleans waived F Terrence Jones and signed G/F Hollis Thompson to a 10-day contract. Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said Jones, who joined New Orleans on a one-year contract this season, was released to help him find a team where he could play more. Thompson played a little more than four minutes and scored three points. … The Pelicans are now 14-16 at home.

UP NEXT

Rockets: Host Minnesota on Saturday night.

Pelicans: Visit Dallas on Saturday night.

Damian Lillard rallies Trail Blazers to 112-103 win over Orlando

Portland Trail Blazers' C.J. McCollum (3) and Damian Lillard (0) celebrate a basket by McCollum against the Dallas Mavericks during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Dallas, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017. McCollum had 32 points and Lillard had 29 in the team's 114-113 win. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) Damian Lillard scored 33 points, C.J. McCollum added 22 and the Portland Trail Blazers beat the Orlando Magic 112-103 on Thursday night to snap a three-game losing streak.

After trailing for much of the game, the Trail Blazers rallied in the fourth quarter behind Lillard’s 17 points. Recently acquired center Jusuf Nurkic also had 12 points and 12 rebounds during the much-needed win for the Portland.

The Trail Blazers spoiled Terrence Ross‘ debut with the Magic after being traded last week for Serge Ibaka. Ross, who is supposed to added athleticism and a scoring punch, managed just 13 points on 4-of-17 shooting with his new team.

Nikola Vucevic scored 25 points and Evan Fournier added 20 as the Magic lost for the sixth time in seven games.

Portland trailed by 11 points early in the fourth but then outscored the Magic 16-4 during a stretch that ended with the Blazers taking a 96-95 lead on a 3-point shot in the corner by Lillard with 5:20 left.

After trailing by as many as 14 points in the third, the Trail Blazers used an 11-0 run to pull within three late in the period with Lillard and McCollum doing most of the damage. But that was as close as the Blazers could come as the Magic pulled back out front with Vucevic hitting some big shots and then D.J. Augustin burying a 3-pointer just before the buzzer to give the Orlando an 85-77 lead going into the fourth quarter.

The new-look Magic were inconsistent in the first half with a permanent small lineup and the addition of Ross. But they played well enough to take a 55-46 lead into halftime.

Ross missed his first four field goal attempts before knocking down a 3-pointer that gave the Magic their biggest lead of the half at 37-26 lead with 8:22 remaining in the second quarter. Otherwise Ross struggled from the field, going 1 for 7 for the half.

TIP-INS

Trail Blazers: Forward Al-Farouq Aminu did not play Thursday because of continued problems with his left knee. Aminu missed the Blazers’ last game before the All-Star break against Utah on Feb. 15 because of a left knee sprain. … Nurkic was inserted into the starting lineup. … With his 3-pointer early in the third quarter, Lillard has now made at least one 3-pointer in a career-high 37 consecutive games dating back to Nov. 22. It’s the second-longest streak in franchise history.

Magic: Point guard C.J. Watson, who was recently inserted into the starting lineup, is listed as day-to-day with a sore right Achilles tendon. Watson said he expects to miss about a week to allow the injury to heal. … With Watson out, Frank Vogel went with a starting lineup of Elfrid Payton, Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, Ross and Vucevic.

UP NEXT

Trail Blazers: Portland continues its four-game road swing with a stop at Toronto on Sunday.

Magic: Orlando will host Dwight Howard and the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday night.

Report: Newly-acquired Pelicans F Omri Casspi breaks thumb, out 4-6 weeks

ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 18:  Omri Casspi #18of the Sacramento Kings against the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on November 18, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia.  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 Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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This has got to put a damper on the whole DeMarcus Cousins trade thing for New Orleans Pelicans fans. According to multiple reports, Omri Casspi — who was part of the trade that sent Cousins to Louisiana — has broken his thumb. The sharp-shooting forward will be out 4-6 weeks.

It’s disappointing news for the Pelicans, who could certainly use Casspi’s 3-point shooting ability. Casspi is shooting 38 percent from deep this season, and while the Pelicans make enough threes per-game they are near the bottom-third in percentage.

Casspi would have been a real help for Alvin Gentry’s offense, but for now it appears they’ll have to make do without him. Casspi should continue to occupy a roster spot for New Orleans, given his expiring contract and the fact that even if the Pelicans make a run for the playoffs they won’t be in a situation to add to their lineup since they won’t expect to get very far.

The good news out of New Orleans on Thursday night? Despite a loss to the Houston Rockets, Cousins nearly dropped a 5 x 5.

The race for the No. 8 seed is on.