[All statistics provided by Basketball-Reference.com]
On Wednesday, against the Washington Wizards, Stephen Curry made eleven three-point shots (11 for 15), including seven in the first quarter. Steph’s eleven three-pointers matched his career high and brought him once again within one shot of the NBA single-game record (12) held by Kobe Bryant and Donyell Marshall. So, when will the best shooter on the planet get over the hump?
The single game three-point record is a bit odd, right? The co-leaders, Kobe and Donyell Marshall, are 12th and 109th on the career three-pointer list, respectively. Moreover, many of the most notable three-point shooters in NBA history — Ray Allen (single game personal best of 10 3s), Reggie Miller (8), Kyle Korver (8), Dirk Nowitzki (8), Larry Bird (7) — have never approached the single-game record. How do we make sense of this seeming disconnect between career three-point productivity and single-game three-point productivity, specifically, how can we reconcile Donyell’s limited career productivity with his one record-setting game? Did he just have a lucky night?
Three-point Shot Histograms: Stephen Curry vs. Kobe Bryant and Donyell Marshall
Donyell’s histogram is furthest to the left side of the plot, indicating that he mostly made only one or two three-point shots per game. You can also see how his green line drops to zero after 7 three-pointers (his second highest single-game mark). As such, his 12-triple outburst definitely seems to have been an aberration.
In contrast to Donyell, Kobe’s purple curve is further to the right of the plot, indicating more nights with more threes, including three additional games with nine three-pointers. Of course, Steph’s blue line is the furthest to the right, as he consistently hits bunches of threes. As I’ll explain below, it’s possible to use this type of curve to predict the probability that a player will make 12 three-point shots in a game. The information from the above histograms can also be summarized by looking at specific three-point cut-offs (i.e., 0-1, 2-4, 5-7, 8-12) using the pie charts below.
Proportion of Games by Three-point Shots Made: Stephen Curry vs. Kobe Bryant and Donyell Marshall
As you can see, of the three players, Steph has by far the most nights with 5-7 three-pointers (21% vs. 3% for Kobe and 3% for Marshall) and the most nights with 8-12 three-pointers (4% vs. 0.3% and 0.1%). Moreover, Steph rarely hits fewer than two three-pointers (24%), whereas the others did it all the time (64% and 77%). Amazingly, the pie chart above, which shows his career numbers, actually undersells Steph’s current three point production.
Steph is Making More Threes Now than Ever Before
Steph began his career like a normal human being. In his first three seasons, he averaged only 2.1, 2.0, and 2.1 three-pointers per game, respectively. However, starting in his fourth season and continuing into his fifth and sixth seasons, Curry upped his output to 3.5, 3.3, and 3.8 three-pointers per game. But in this, his seventh season, Curry’s long-distance shooting has reached an unprecedented level; he’s taking double-digit three-point shots each night and making nearly five per game.
Career Three-point Shots Taken (Yellow) and Made (Blue) by Stephen Curry
As you can see there is more blue and more yellow as you move from left (2009) to right(2016). It’s also worth noting the uninterrupted blue block in the bottom right corner of the plot, which represents Curry’s 141 consecutive games with a made three-point shot.
Recognizing these three phases of Curry’s career (Years 1-3, Years 4-6, and Year 7), it is helpful to redraw Steph’s three-point histogram from above as three distinct curves. Below, the yellow curve represents Steph’s three-point production from 2009-12, the blue curve represents his output from 2012-15, and the red curve represents his shooting this season. The circles on the plot show the proportion of games with each made three-point total. The curves running through the circles were created using the Poisson distribution, based on Steph’s per game three-point averages from each of the three career phases.
Stephen Curry’s Three-point Shot Histograms by Career Phase
Using the red curve, we can estimate the probability that Steph will hit 12 three-pointers in his next game [ P(12) = 4.94^12 * exp(-4.94) / 12! = 0.3% ]. Based on the per-game probability of 0.3%, the expected time until Steph makes 12 three-pointers in a contest is 319 games or just under four 82-game seasons.
Steph’s increased three-point production is a microcosm of the league-wide tendency; more players are taking and making more threes. As a result, there have been several recent games in which players have approached the 12-three-point mark, as indicated by 9 or more three-pointers made, or 75% of the record.
Number of Individual Performances with at least Nine Three-pointers Made, by Decade
Both Donyell and Kobe achieved their 12-three-point games in the 2000s, but they were among only 24 performances of 9 or more threes during that decade. In comparison, there have already been 35 such performances in the first half of the 2010s decade. At this pace, there could be something like 30 additional 9+ three-point games in this decade, suggesting that it’s only a matter of time until a new record is established.
According to Monsieur Poisson, the best predictor of a player’s probability of breaking the single-game three-point record is his per-game three point average. Here’s the top 15 in per-game threes for 2015-16:
- Stephen Curry, 4.9
- Klay Thompson, 3.3
- Damian Lillard, 2.9
- Paul George, 2.8
- Kyle Lowry, 2.8
- James Harden, 2.7
- J.J. Redick, 2.7
- Eric Gordon, 2.5
- J.R. Smith, 2.5
- Kevin Durant, 2.4
- C.J. McCollum, 2.4
- Trevor Ariza, 2.3
- Wesley Matthews, 2.3
- Ryan Anderson, 2.2
- Isaiah Canaan, 2.2
Steph has come closest to the record more often than any other player in NBA history (seven 9+ three-pointer games: 11, 11, 10, 9, 9, 9, 9). But among this group of today’s best shooters, there are some other competitors, including his Splash Brother Klay Thompson (2x: 11, 10), Paul George (1x: 9), J.J. Redick (1x: 9), J.R. Smith (5x: 11, 10, 10, 9, 9), Trevor Ariza (1x: 10), and Wesley Matthews (1x: 10) who have also challenged the record. So, if you had to bet on Steph vs. the field, where would you place your money? Leave comments below.