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.

Raptors’ summer gamble pays off with trip to Finals after Game 6 win over Bucks

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Toronto’s big gambles paid off.

Last summer, after five years of winning at least 48 games and looking impressive in the regular season only to stumble in the playoffs, Toronto’s team president Masai Ujiri went all in. He fired the NBA’s coach of the year in Dwane Casey to hire his assistant Nick Nurse, with the hope of installing a more creative offense.

Then they traded fan favorite and (at least to that point) the greatest Toronto Raptor in franchise history to get Kawhi Leonard, a guy coming off an injury that essentially sidelined him for a season. A guy who would be a free agent after one season. Leonard could bolt — like other stars had done north of the border — and leave the Raptors high and dry.

It was all a massive roll of the dice.

Toronto hit their number with that roll — the Raptors are headed to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.

Toronto stormed from 15 points down in the third behind another monster game from Kawhi Leonard — 27 points, 17 rebounds, 7 assists — and held on to win Game 6 in front of a raucous home crowd, 100-94.

Toronto will host Game 1 of the NBA Finals Thursday night against the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors.

The Raptors may not be familiar with that stage, but Leonard knows both the Finals stage and that opponent (recall that the last time he faced them Zaza Pachulia slid under his foot on a jumper, spraining Leonard’s ankle and ending San Antonio’s playoff hopes that season). Thoughts about July 1 are banished for now in Toronto, the party is on.

“It means a lot,” long-time Raptor Kyle Lowry said about making the Finals. “It’s taken a long time to get here in my career, 13 years, seven years here [in Toronto]….

“But I’m not satisfied.”

This series changed in Game 3 when Nurse changed things up and had Leonard as the primary defender on Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak still got his, but everything became harder, and as the Raptors slowed the pace their halfcourt defense locked in. On the offensive end, Leonard just made plays.

“He’s a great player, he made some very special plays, give him a ton of credit,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said of Leonard.

For the Bucks, who had the best record in the NBA this season and a likely MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo, this was a learning experience about their shortcomings — both his and the Milwaukee roster. He had 21 points and 11 rebounds, but he was not able to dominate the game like Leonard did in crucial moments. That comes with being just 24 and making a deep playoff run.

“In our minds, we feel he’s going to get a lot better,” Budenholzer said of the Greek Freak. “At 24 some guys are… I don’t want to say they are who they are, but at 24 some of the great ones were the same at 30 and 32 and so forth. Giannis we feel has a lot of room to grow.”

So does the roster around the Greek Freak. Antetokounmpo sat just 7:28 in this game, and that proved to be too much — the Bucks were -9 in those minutes. They lost by six.

Eric Bledsoe struggled again, with 8 points on 9 shots. Khris Middleton — who is a free agent this summer — had 14 points on 5-of-13 shooting.

Still, this is a good team on a learning curve. One with some tough decisions ahead for the front office, but a team on the rise.

They showed that early.

Milwaukee came out playing with a sense of desperation – it showed in their energy and second efforts on defense — but they raced out to a 15-point lead early in the second quarter mostly because they just hit shots. In the first half the Bucks did not get the ball inside (only seven shots at the rim) but were 9-of-18 from three and hit 50 percent of their shots from the midrange. Antetokounmpo had 10 points and seven rebounds and Ersan Ilyasova surprised with nine points in the first 24.

That had the Bucks up 50-43 at the half, but it felt precarious. Then in the third, Milwaukee had an 8-0 run and the lead was pushed to 15 at one point. The Raptors were stumbling. Pascal Siakam hesitated on shots, not trusting himself. Danny Green trusted himself but couldn’t hit anything.

The tide turned thanks to Leonard. The Raptors finished third on 10-0 run — with Leonard scoring or assisting on every bucket — and the lead was down to 5 after three.

Early in the fourth was when Antetokounmpo sat again, and the Raptors went on a 7-2 run to tie the game at 78-78. That lead kept growing and then Leonard did this.

Milwaukee would not go away down the stretch, but Leonard kept making plays while Antetokounmpo and company got tight. Milwaukee could never get back in front.

For the Bucks, it’s a lesson.

For the Raptors, it’s the trip to the Finals they bet big on.

Watch Kawhi Leonard dunk all over Giannis Antetokounmpo, highlight of 26-3 Toronto run

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For most of the first three quarters of Game 6, the Milwaukee Bucks were in control of the game and looked to be on the way to forcing a Game 7.

But Kawhi Leonard sparked a 10-0 run for Toronto to end the third, scoring eight and assisting on a Serge Ibaka bucket.

That run carried over into the fourth and became a 26-3 run that was highlighted by this insane dunk by Leonard over Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Insane.

I’d say that’s Leonard’s best shot as a Raptor if not for the series winner against Philadelphia.

The Bucks responded with a 7-0 run and this game is going to go down to the wire.

Bucks play with desperation, lead by as many as 15 in first half

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If you think a 15-point lead is safe, go talk to a Portland Trail Blazers fan and get back to me.

The Bucks will still take it. Milwaukee has come out with a sense of desperation, but more importantly got to play with some pace and couldn’t miss early from three — they started 4-of-6 and were 7-of-13 from three as of this writing — and what we saw were play after play from the Bucks, the kinds of things we haven’t seen the last three games. They led by 13 after one, and the lead got as high as 15.

Can the Bucks sustain this, or will they cool down as the Raptors heat up? It’s going to be a wild rest of the game in Toronto.

The Raptors are up 3-2 in the series and playing for their first ever franchise trip to the Finals. The Bucks are playing to force a Game 7 Monday back in Milwaukee.

 

Dwyane Wade got an All-NBA vote, Gabrielle Union would have gone with Klay Thompson

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Honesty from your spouse is a bedrock of any good relationship.

But come on Gabrielle Union, show your man a little love.

Dwyane Wade got one second-team All-NBA vote, and he took to an Instagram story to thank that voter (even if he wouldn’t have voted for himself). His wife would not have voted for her man.

Just a few notes:

• That is a funny video.

• We do not know who cast that vote for Wade, yet. The NBA’s end of season awards are voted on by 100 media members who cover the league (the NBA selects those voters). There is transparency, the full votes will be released after the NBA’s award show next month.

• Third team All-NBA guard was probably the toughest choice on the entire ballot. Because the NBA forces voters to select only two guards for each of the teams (six guards total), rather than allowing voters to just chose the 15 best players for the honor, deserving guys get left off every year. In this case, Stephen Curry and James Harden were first-team locks. Damian Lillard was a clear second-team choice, and a majority of voters had Kyrie Irving joining him on the second team. Russell Westbrook was not far behind Irving and was clear-and-away the fifth choice for voters. That left one guard spot between Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson, Bradley Beal, Ben Simmons, or anyone else considered worthy (Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, etc.). There is no wrong choice in that group. If players were not locked into positions for All-NBA more guards would have made the cut in an increasingly backcourt dominated league. (For transparency purposes, I did vote Walker in on my ballot barely over Thompson.)

• No media members I know are comfortable with these votes having an impact on player salaries. It makes us all uneasy, even as voters study and try to make the best choices. The NBA and players’ union need to come up with a better system in the next CBA. I’ve got a crazy idea, how about letting the teams decide who is worthy of being paid that much?