Who are the best mid-range shooters in the league?

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The mid-range game is becoming a bit of a lost art in the NBA, and for good reason: according to Hoopdata.com, NBA players make 64% of their shots at the rim and 36.2% of their threes (which translates to an eFG% of 54.3%), but only make 38.4% of their shots from 10-15 feet and 39.7% of their shots from 16-23 feet.

Given how big and athletic most NBA players are nowadays, it’s almost always more efficient to get a shot at the rim or an open three-pointer than it is to settle for a mid-range jumper, but the mid-range game does serve a purpose. Mid-range jumpers are the easiest shots to get off, they don’t lead to turnovers, they keep the defense honest, and they can open up driving lanes or free up three-point shooters. If the mid-range game is used correctly, it can be just as overwhelming to a defense as a punishing interior game or a barrage of threes, and some of the NBA’s best offenses (like Miami) still rely on mid-rage jumpers to keep the defense off balance.

There you have it — the best mid-range shooters in the NBA so far this season.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the NBA’s best mid-range shooters:

Dirk Nowitzki:

Dirk is the best midrange shooter in the NBA, and it’s really not even close. Dirk is known for having a seven-foot frame and a sweet stroke, but the key to his success is how good he is at making “ugly” jumpers. Dirk is never quite on balance when he shoots over a defender from the high post or the midpost, but he’s never really rushing either — he takes his time, squares his shoulders to the target, fades away just enough to keep the defender from having any chance of blocking the shot and calmly shoots over him.

There are a number of players who have had “unblockable” shots over the years, either because they shot them so quickly the defender didn’t have time to react (Antawn Jamison comes to mind), or used a ridiculously high release to keep the ball away from the defender (Rasheed Wallace), but they had to sacrifice accuracy in order to keep their signature shots away from potential shot-blockers. That’s not the case with Dirk; his shot is unblockable, but it’s the exact shot he wants. Dirk’s fadeaway is now what Kareem’s skyhook was in the 70s and 80s: a shot that the offensive player is completely comfortable taking and the defensive player has no chance of stopping. (Blasphemy, you say? At 32 years old, Kareem averaged 24.8 PPG on 63.9% True Shooting; before getting injured, Dirk was averaging 24.1 PPG on 63.2% True Shooting.)

The numbers speak to just how devastating Dirk is from mid-range. Dirk makes 3.7 shots from 16-23 feet per game, which is easily the most in the league, and he makes a 53% of his attempts from that area — only Al Horford is more accurate from that range, and almost all of his midrange shots are catch-and-shoot opportunities. Dirk is also effective from the 10-15 foot range — he makes 1.7 shots from that range per game, which is tied for the league lead, and he makes an impressive 53% of those shots. Oh, and Dirk makes 40% of his threes, 76.3% of his shots at the rim, and 88% of his free throws. Dirk Nowitzki is better at putting a basketball in a 10-foot high hoop than you are at just about anything.

Dirk is having a historically great year from mid-range, but here are some other players whose mid-range exploits have been worthy of merit:

Al Horford:

A number of big men have all but mastered the art of the open catch-and-shoot 20-footer. Kevin Garnett and David West both make 48% of their 16-23 foot jumpers, Luis Scola makes 49% of his, pick-and-pop master Chris Bosh makes 46% of his, and Brandon Bass makes an incredible 52% of his. But as good as all of them are at the pick-and-pop jumper, Al Horford is nearly automatic: according to Hoopdata, Horford has made 57% of his 16-23 foot jumpers this season. It’s not like he rarely shoots them, either, because he takes nearly five jumpers from that range each game. Over 90% of his jumpers are assisted, but 57% is absolutely insane. I mean, Dwight Howard only makes 56.4% of his free throws.

Steve Nash:

Even though he’s mostly known for his passing, Nash is one of the best pure shooters the NBA has seen in the last few decades. Like Nowitzki, Nash is comfortable with a wide variety of shots that defenders have no chance of blocking, although Nash uses odd release angles and unorthodox footwork rather than his size to get his shots off. The results are the same, though — Nash can get a shot off from anywhere, at any time, and it will have a good chance of going in. Nash is “only” making 46% of his 16-23 foot shots, but he’s a master of the 10-15 foot range that most NBA players have no idea how to operate in: Nash averages one make from that area a game, and makes 56.7% of his attempts from the 10-15 foot range. I’ll also mention Ray Allen here — Allen’s shooting prowess is well-known, but the fact that he’s making 63% of his shots from 10-15 feet seems worth mentioning.

Luke Ridnour:

The lord of the pull-up jumper. Ridnour makes 56% of his jumpers from the 10-15 foot range, and 47% of his long twos despite the fact that only 9% of them are assisted.

Anthony Morrow:

Morrow is known for his three-point shooting, but he’s transformed himself into more of a “pure” shooter over the course of his young NBA career. Morrow is shooting 53.6% on 10-15 foot shots and 51% on 16-23 foot shots, making him one of few players who makes over half his shots from both areas. Do not leave Anthony Morrow unguarded.

There you have it — the best mid-range shooters in the NBA at this point in the season. I went with accuracy over volume for this list, which is why players like Carmelo, Kobe and Durant were left off — there’s no doubt that those guys are taking far tougher shots than most of the players listed above, but they’re also barely making more than 40% of their midrange jumpers. Besides, those guys get plenty of glory as is; let’s take a second to celebrate the guys who have been quietly knocking down the mid-range jumpers that open up those driving lanes and keep defenses from loading up on the superstars. And Dirk Nowitzki. He’s a freak. Get well soon, Dirk.

Report: Becky Hammon staying with Spurs, not coaching Colorado State men’s team

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Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon was a candidate to coach the men’s team at Colorado State, her alma mater. That would have made her the first woman to coach a Division I men’s team.

Alas, it won’t happen.

Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports:

It’s unclear whether Hammon was ever actually offered the job.

She’s still on the right track for a head-coaching job somewhere. Most importantly, by all accounts, she’s doing good work in San Antonio. There’s also more attention on her career because of her pioneering status, and that will appeal to some teams.

This dalliance with Colorado State raises her profile even further and shows just how close she is.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni: James Harden ‘best offensive player I’ve ever seen’

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James Harden torched a solid Trail Blazers defense for 42 points on 13-of-25 shooting, including 5-of-7 on 3-pointers, and seven assists.

That prompted his coach to heap praise on the runaway MVP.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, via Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

“That’s the best offensive player I’ve ever seen,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said of Harden. “They’re running guys to him and he just steps a little further back and makes a 3. The way he can pass and see the floor, get layups, floaters, maybe a lob, maybe out to the corner — he has so many weapons, and now he’s shooting those step-back 3s.

“It’s impossible to guard him. It’s impossible.”

At first, that sounds like hyperbole from a biased source. But Harden might actually the best offensive player ever. (D’Antoni has been around for all the major contenders.)

Michael Jordan gets overlooked because he was also excellent defensively. Ditto LeBron James to a lesser extent. Another contender: Stephen Curry, whose Warriors might file away D’Antoni’s assessment for if they meet Houston in the playoffs. (The Rockets provide plenty of motivational fodder.)

The list of contenders definitely skews toward the present. Players have gotten progressively more skilled, especially the generation that grew up with the 3-point arc and didn’t suddenly have to adjust to it.

And Harden might be the cream of the crop. He’s an incredible shooter with very deep range off the dribble or spotting up, and he can drive with the best of them. Yes, foul-drawing is a skill. Harden’s combination of scoring volume and efficiency is unprecedented. He’s also an impressive passer, a skill fully unleashed by D’Antoni making Harden a point guard.

I think I’d lean toward Curry, who’s an even better shooter and screener. But it’s very close, and Harden keeps raising his level. Curry probably peaked two years ago (though he obviously remains elite). I definitely wouldn’t dismiss anyone who picks Harden as biased or misguided.

Cavaliers star LeBron James: Raptors ‘in a better place than we are right now’

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It’s not enough to say the Raptors have the Eastern Conference’s best record.

The Celtics had the East’s best record last year, and most people thought the Cavaliers were better. Cleveland had a better point difference and more star power – LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love – than Boston. The Cavs confirmed that notion by cruising past the Celtics in a five-game conference finals.

The Raptors have been the Eastern Conference’s best team this season.

They rank fourth in the NBA in offensive and defensive rating, the only team top five in both categories. Led by DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, their starting lineup has embraced a more dynamic offense with more 3-point shooting and passing. Toronto’s bench is the best in the league.

LeBron, whose Cavaliers host the Raptors tonight, via Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

“They’re in a better place than we are right now because they’ve had more consistency and they’ve had their guys in the lineup for the majority of the year,” James said after the Cavs’ morning workout. “So, they know what they want to accomplish. They know who they are at this point in the season. Obviously, you guys know about us, we’re still trying to figure that out.”

This is so obviously correct. It’s just surprising to see LeBron put it so directly, though it’s unsurprising he’s hanging on the Cavs’ instability to date.

Kevin Love and Isaiah Thomas were injured for long stretches, and Thomas and several others were traded. Coach Tyronn Lue is on a leave of absence.

But the Cavaliers made those major trades because they were struggling, and this new group won’t necessarily simply figure things out with time. Defensive problems persist. Lue’s health is unclear.

LeBron understandably remains confident in himself, even as the Cavs enter the postseason as a middling seed. He’s also setting up a narrative of Cleveland coming from behind if it advances to the NBA Finals. We’ll see whether it happens.

Tonight likely won’t be a referendum, though. Tristan Thompson, Rodney Hood, Kyle Korver and Larry Nance Jr. are out for the Cavaliers. That roster instability still exists.

If LeBron dials up playoff intensity tonight, that could send a warning to Toronto, though I’m not sure it’s necessary. As far ahead as the Raptors are right now, after Cleveland soundly eliminated them the last two years, I think everyone knows it’s a couple months too early to properly assess these teams’ relative places.

Report: Optimism remains for Kawhi Leonard returning this season

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Kawhi Leonard reportedly planned to return for last Thursday’s Spurs-Pelicans game – but didn’t.

A couple games later, and Leonard remains out. Will he actually play again this season?

Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

Leonard resumed working out in San Antonio on Feb. 27 and is feeling “much better,” according to the source. Eleven games remain in the regular season, but there remains optimism he will return this season, the source said.

Sources told ESPN that Leonard’s target date to return from the quadriceps tendinopathy that has kept him out for all but nine games this season has always been “mid-March.”

It’s March 21. We’re nearing the end of what anyone would consider mid-March.

A month ago, Spurs president-coach Gregg Popovich said time was running out for Leonard to return and acclimate to the lineup. But Popovich has sounded more open lately to Leonard – whose own doctors must still clear him – returning whenever the forward is ready.

San Antonio (41-31, tied for fifth in the West) has probably done enough without Leonard to make the playoffs. The Spurs have a 3.0-game buffer over the Nuggets and 3.5-game buffer over the Clippers for playoff position.

But San Antonio would become far more dangerous in the playoffs – a threat to any team, including the Rockets and Warriors – if Leonard returns to full strength.

First, he must just get back on the court at all, and maybe that’ll happen sooner than later. The way this injury has gone, though, it’s hard to believe anything until we see it.