By CrumpledPaperJumper

Is the NBA Center Doomed to Extinction?

The closest thing to a center in the starting lineups of Saturday night’s game between the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs was 6’8″ Boris Diaw.  Of course, there were mitigating circumstances — the Warriors’ biggest, big men, Andrew Bogut (toe) and Festus Ezeli (knee), were injured and Tim Duncan is 100 years old — but, these are the two best teams in the NBA and they were playing without centers!  What does that say about the state of the center position in the league today?  Has the NBA colossus gone the way of the dinosaur?  Or, if he’s not already gone, is he doomed to extinction?

A Lineage of the Genus, Center

One thing I noticed in making my All-Decade Teams was the string of great centers that ties NBA generations together.  Even more so than other positions, centers seem to have had a tidy progression of the “league’s best” title from one generation-defining player to the next.  There have been some seasons when more than one great center was worthy of the title, but centers have tended to dominate the league for long stretches and the transitional periods without a dominant center have been infrequent and brief.  To illustrate my point, I’m going to use Basketball-Reference’s statistic, Win Shares (in the regular season), as a summary measure of a center’s quality.  During the 67 seasons since the start of the NBA, 20 different players have been the top center in Win Shares for a season; 11 individuals were the leading center more than once [note:  throughout my analysis, I have used Basketball-Reference’s positional definitions: Centers and Center-Forwards were included, Forward-Centers, e.g., Tim Duncan and Ben Wallace, were excluded].   Combined, these 11 centers were “the league’s best” for 58 seasons (83% of league history): George Mikan (3x), Neil Johnston (6x), Bill Russell (2x), Wilt Chamberlain (9x), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (11x), Moses Malone (3x), Hakeem Olajuwon (4x), David Robinson (7x), Shaq O’Neal (6x), Dwight Howard (5x), and DeAndre Jordan (1x and counting; he’s leading the way for a second straight year).

DeAndredonDeandre Jordan Dino

The TNT advanced analytics team (i.e., Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Webber, and Charles Barkley) would have you believe that the modern NBA Big Man  does not measure up to the NBA Big Man of seasons gone by; that he has attained a level of dominance far below historically great big men like, for example, I dunno: Shaq, Webber, and Chuck.  During their post-game shows, the trio frequently denigrate modern centers.   Trashing Howard’s game is a common trope; “he should be getting 20 and 15” is the refrain.  The guys lament that Howard has never fully realized the potential of his freakish athletic ability and complain when his impact on the game falls short of their standards.  Similarly, his contemporary, Jordan is often mocked for his shortcomings (free throw shooting and…all other kinds of shooting) and seldom celebrated for his abilities (catching lobs, blocking shots, and inhaling rebounds).  But is all this criticism of modern centers really fair?  Are Howard and Jordan just the NBA equivalent of parakeets; harmless evolutionary descendants of vicious dinosaurs, like Russell, Chamberlain, and Abdul-Jabbar, or do they deserve more credit?

When Centers Roamed the Earth

In stark contrast to their prehistoric counterparts, there is one distinguishing anatomical feature of the modern center: unburdened fingers.  Howard and Jordan — the two most recent players to win multiple league’s-best center honors — ain’t got no rings (“sure don’t!”).  On the other hand, every center who repeatedly earned the league’s best center mantle before them, had a championship to back it up: Mikan (4x), Johnston (1x), Russell (11x), Chamberlain (2x), Abdul-Jabbar (5x), Malone (1x), Olajuwon (2x), Robinson (2x), and O’Neal (4x).  At the inception of the league, having a world-class center was pretty much a necessity for any would-be champion, as 16 of the first 20 NBA titles were won by a team with Mikan, Johnston, or Russell.  Put differently, 19 of the first 20 NBA champions had a Top-5 center (by Win Shares) anchoring the squad; 11 of the first 20 NBA champions had a Top-2 center (of course, there were as few as 8 teams in the league during this initial stretch, but still).  In the subsequent 20 years (from 1969-70 season to 1988-89 season), the centers’ relaxed their stranglehold on the league, as Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar, and Malone, managed only seven championships.  Moreover, only 14 of the 20 champions had a Top-5 center and only 7 champions had a Top-2 center.  In the third 20-year interval (from 1989-90 season to 2008-09 season), Michael Jordan and his before-their-time, small-ball Bulls redefined the role a center could play on a championship team.  Jordan’s greatness made any deficiencies of Bill Cartwright, Will Perdue, and Luc Longley totally irrelevant.  The Bulls won their six championships despite of, not because of, their center play.  During the 1990s-2000s era, Olajuwon, Robinson, and O’Neal, managed 8 combined championships, but only 8 of the 20 champions from this period had a Top-5 center and only 4 of the 20 champions had a Top-2 center.  In the last six years (and counting), the relationship between strong center play and championships has apparently ceased to exist.  The standard-bearers for modern centers, Howard and Jordan, have won zero championships.  The six most recent NBA championships have included only two Top-5 centers: Andrew Bynum on the 2009-10 Lakers (4th in Win Shares) and Tyson Chandler on the 2010-11 Mavs (2nd in Win Shares).  Two of the last four champions have featured Joel Anthony (17th and 40th for the 2011-12 and 2012-13 Heat, respectively) at the center position.  The 2014-15 Spurs didn’t have any centers on the roster by my definition (Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter, and Boris Diaw are all listed as F-C on Basketball-Reference).

I think it’s fair to say that this recent championship drought for elite NBA centers is indicative of a lack of truly transcendent play at the position during this particular moment.  But keep in mind, Howard did reach the NBA Finals (in 2008-09 with the Magic) and he’s also been to the Conference Finals twice (once in 2009-10 with the Magic and last year with the Rockets).  Jordan has had less playoff success, but he and the Clippers are consistently competitive at the top of the Western Conference.  So, it’s probably too reductive to judge all modern centers on the basis of Howard’s ability to win a championship, even if that does seem to have a strong influence on how the state of the NBA center is perceived publicly. In my opinion, it’s more informative to look at the performance of all centers in the league, aggregated by season.  For example, we can plot the proportion of all Win Shares in the NBA that have been contributed by the center position for every year since 1950 .

Proportion of League Win Shares Contributed by NBA Centers and the Individual Centers that Contributed the Most Win Shares during Each Season, 1950-2016win shares for centers

League-wide, centers (collectively) contributed as much as 31.4% of the Win Shares during the 1950s.  Centers remained hugely valuable to their teams during the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, but the plot suggests that the role of the NBA center decreased drastically in more recent decades.  The cumulative contribution of the center position reached its nadir in 2007 at a meager 12.3% of the total league Win Shares.  Clearly, there’s evidence that centers are less important now than they were in the past, but the plot suggests that the diminishing role of the NBA center may not be a recent phenomenon, with the downward trend beginning in earnest in the late-1980s or early-90s.

Asteroids or Mega-Volcanoes?

It is perhaps a bit counterintuitive to see that the downfall of the NBA center began at a time when there were seemingly so many great players at the position.  Take 1990-91 for example, here’s the list of top centers by Win Shares that season:

  1. David Robinson
  2. Patrick Ewing
  3. Robert Parish
  4. Brad Daugherty
  5. Hakeem Olajuwon
  6. Vlade Divac
  7. Bill Laimbeer

So, how did it happen, what precipitated the diminished role of the NBA center?  We can conduct some NBA archaeology to come up with a few theories.  One plausible culprit for the decline of the NBA center is the creation of the 3-point line.  For anybody under the age of 40, the three-point line is just a given, a stripe of paint that has always been included as part of the basketball court.  As such, we tend to take for granted the effect of the 3-point line on the strategy of scoring baskets, but in 1979 the addition of 3-pointers to the NBA must have felt revolutionary.  Think about it, since the league began, the smartest way to score was to get as close to the basket as possible.  Sure, you might find a more open and, therefore, more efficient shot far from the basket, but, in general, closer was better.  Of course, in this paradigm, the biggest men would always be the best scorers and the best defenders and, ultimately, the most important players in the league.  Then, suddenly, players were being awarded an extra point for making a shot far away from the basket.  That’s a pretty radical rule change and as offensive strategies shifted to include a greater emphasis on creating shots away from the basket, the role of large men consequently became less important.  You can see the basic trend of increased 3-point scoring leading to decreased scoring by centers in the plot below.

Total Points Scored by NBA Centers vs. Total Points Scored by Three-Point Shots* as a Fraction of Total League Scoring for Each Season, 1950-2016Centers v 3s
*The small number of 3-point shots that were made by centers were excluded from the 3-point total each year

While, in broad strokes, there seems to be an inverse relationship between 3-point scoring and scoring by centers, the timing of the increases in the former and the decreases in the latter are sufficiently disconnected to cast doubt on the existence of a true cause-and-effect relationship.  For example, the distance from the 3-point line to the basket was shortened from 23’9″ (22′ in the corners) to 22′ all around the arc at the start of the 1994-95 season.  The rule change resulted in a huge spike in 3-point scoring.  When the 3-point line was subsequently moved back to its original dimensions at the start of the 1997-98, the league’s collective three-point scoring abilities immediately regressed.  The change in 3-point line dimensions during the 1990s had quite a dramatic effect on 3-point scoring, but there was no equivalent dip in scoring from centers, which calls into question the strength of the inverse relationship between 3-point scoring and center scoring.  Likewise, while the proportion of league scoring contributed by centers has basically remained constant since 2000 in the range of 10-12%, the proportion of scoring contributed by 3-point shots has continued to grow, reaching the current record high of 24.6% of all scoring.  Again, this observation suggests that the relationship between 3-point scoring and center scoring is perhaps not very strong, or at least not very linear.

Identifying the K-T Boundary

The K-T boundary refers to a major extinction event 65 million years ago — which marked the end of the Cretaceous (K) Period and the beginning of the Tertiary (T) Period — when dinosaurs became extinct.  There may be an equivalent boundary in the history of NBA centers.  Let’s look at the minutes played by centers as a fraction of all NBA minutes to find out.

Proportion of League Minutes Played by NBA Centers during Each Season, 1952*-2016Centers minutes 2
*Minutes played data was not available for 1949-50 and 1950-51 seasons on Basketball-Reference

As you can see, the drop-off in minutes played by centers is even more stark than the decline in Win Shares contributed by centers or the decline in the proportion of points scored by centers.  For the first 35 years of the league, the proportion of minutes played by centers was pretty consistent, hovering right around 20% (equivalent to 1 center on the court for each team, at all times).  However, in 1988-89 there was a sharp decrease in the proportion of minutes played by centers from 21.6% to 18.4%, followed by another decrease to 16.9% the following season.  The proportion of minutes played by centers continued to drop, ultimately reaching 13.5% by the 1993-94 season.  It appears quite clear from this plot that something happened at the start of the 1988-89 season, which diminished the role of centers in the league.  As an alternative to the Three-pointers-Killed-the-NBA-Center Theory raised above, I suggest that the decrease in production by centers relative to the rest of the league was due to league expansion.  At the start of the 1988-89 season, the NBA expanded from 23 to 25 teams and, the following season, the league expanded again, from 25 to 27 teams.  This rapid four-team expansion seems to represent the NBA-equivalent of the K-T boundary.  Perhaps the number of athletic 7-footers available in the NBA talent pool was the rate-limiting factor for league expansion.  That is, it may be that all of the NBA-suitable centers were already playing in the 23-team league in 1987-88.  Adding these four additional teams would have essentially added more talented guards and forwards to the league while redistributing the same amount of center talent across a larger number of teams.

Life After the Cretaceous Period

It’s worth noting that since 2010, centers have made a comeback in terms of minutes played, points scored, and Win Shares contributed.  I suppose this isn’t necessarily surprising, considering the analytics revolution extols not only three-point shooting, but also scoring at the basket.  So, in this new, more efficient, era of the NBA, centers who can score are perhaps increasingly valuable.  Another important aspect of the recent center resurgence is the influx of young centers from exotic locales: Enes Kanter, Jonas Valanciunas, Nikola Jokic, Steven Adams, Rudy Gobert, Nikola Vucevic, Clint Capela, Festus Ezeli, Alex Len, and Jusuf Nurkic, to name a few.  These are all players that might have gone unnoticed in the 1990s; unless, of course, Jimmy Dolan got involved with his shake and bake.  This flood of international players should eventually counterbalance the dilution of center talent caused by the league’s expansion 25 years ago.  There are also a handful of promising young American centers: Boogie Cousins, Greg Monroe, Hassan Whiteside, Andre Drummond, Jahlil Okafor as well as forward-center hybrids: Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Nerlens Noel.  So, perhaps, the future of the NBA center isn’t so bleak after all.

DwightasaurusDwight T-Rex

 

 

 

NBA All-Decade Teams

[All stats provided by basketball reference]

I love a good ranking as much as the next guy, but there is something so arbitrary about comparisons made between eras, between players that never competed against each other.  On the other hand, forming an All-Decade Team is a much less daunting task, one  that can be undertaken using direct comparisons between players that were peers.  Indeed, it’s pretty simple to aggregate All-NBA honors from past individual seasons into All-Decade honors for past decades.

The Ground Rules

I’ve tried my best to draft the seven honorary teams in a fair and objective way.  I don’t consider my opinion “expert” in any way, the teams are the result of a simple accounting of past NBA awards and championships.  Still, there is some level of decision making involved in selecting the teams, so for the sake of transparency, I’ll lay out my ground rules below.

1. The All-Decade Point System

In selecting the All-NBA teams, the voting system awards 5 points for each first-team vote from qualified sports writers or broadcasters, 3 points for each second-team vote, and 1 point for each third-team vote.  I used an analogous scoring system to rank players within decades (1949-50 to 1958-59, 1959-60 to 1968-69, etc.).  Each first-team NBA selection within the decade was worth 5 points, second-team NBA selections were worth 3 points, and third-team NBA selections were worth 1 point (there were only two All-NBA teams until 1988 and three thereafter).  A regular season Most Valuable Player Award was worth an extra 2 points in my point system, as was a team championship.

2. Allowable Roster Composition

Since 1956, each All-NBA team has consisted of two guards, two forwards, and a center.  The All-Decade teams reflect the same roster composition (2G, 2F, 1C).   Candidates for the All-Decade teams were generally assigned to the position which they played most commonly during the decade.   However, individuals who played multiple roles within a single decade (e.g., shooting guard + small forward or power forward + center) were eligible for multiple positions on the All-Decade Team.  In these instances, positions were assigned to optimize the total score of the five players selected for the All-Decade team.  That is, players with positional flexibility were moved around to avoid positional log-jams and to fill positional gaps in the All-Decade Teams.

3. Only One All-Decade Team per Player

One quirk of the All-Decade Team concept is that some players had a ten-year period of productivity that coincided tidily with a decade (e.g., Larry Bird in the 1980s), whereas other players were productive at the end of one decade and the beginning of the next (e.g., George Gervin in the late-1970s and early-1980s).  Moreover, some players had such long periods of sustained productivity that they could make legitimate claims at multiple All-decade-Team spots.  I limited each player to a single All-Decade Team.  Players who earned  consideration for more than one All-Decade Team were assigned to the decade where they earned the higher score.

4. The ABA Counts

From 1967-68 to 1975-76 seasons, the ABA produced its own 1st- and 2nd-Team All-League selections.  You could quibble with the relative worth of the ABA vs. NBA All-League selections, but I’ve treated them equally, here.

1950s

Below you can find a summary of the All-Decade point system for the 1950s.  The colors range from highest (green) to lowest (yellow) scores.  The colors help to illustrate the close calls and to show how talent was balanced across positions within a decade.  I’m presenting the Top-15 most decorated players from each decade with five stars to indicate the All-Decade Team selections.

1950s top 15 bs border

No Brainers

Bob CousyBob Cousy long
Dolph SchayesDolph Schayes long

There are two standout, no-doubt-about-it selections: point guard, Bob Cousy, and power forward, Dolph Schayes.  Cousy had eight 1st-team All-NBA selections during the decade (5*8 pts), plus an MVP (1*2 pts), and two rings (2*2 pts, 46 pts total, shown in dark blue above).  In addition, Cousy chipped in two 1st-team and two 2nd-team All-NBA selections in the 1960s plus four championships (no points for out-of-decade merits, shown in light blue above).  Schayes had six 1st-team (6*5 pts) and four 2nd-team (4*3 pts) All-NBA selections as well as a championship (1*2 pts, 44 pts total).  He had two more 2nd-team All-NBA selections during the 1960s (again, no points for those).

Bill SharmanBill Sharman

The second guard position goes to Cousy’s Celtic teammate, Bill Sharman.  The backcourt of Cousy and Sharman were jointly awarded four consecutive 1st-Team selections during the 1950s.  Sharman added two additional 2nd-Team All-NBA selections during the decade.

Tweeners

Bob PetitBob Petit

Power forward, Bob Petit, had an eleven-year NBA career split nearly equally between the 1950s and the 1960s.  He notched five 1st-Team All-NBA selections during the 1950s, the same number he garnered in the 1960s, when he had an additional 2nd-Team All-NBA selection.  However, he won his lone championship and his two MVPs in the 1950s.  As such, I’m including him here, in the 1950s team.

George Mikan, Five 1st-Team All-NBA Selections during the 1950s

George Mikan

Tough Calls

George MikanGeorge Mikan merits
Neil JohnstonNeil Johnston

The closest call from the 1950s was George Mikan over Neil Johnston for the center position.  During his seven-year NBA career from 1949-50 to 1955-56, Mikan dominated the nascent league, winning five championships.  However, he retired after the first half of the decade.  Mikan’s five 1st-Team All-NBA selections in six 1950s seasons still edged out Johnston’s four 1st-Team and one 2nd-Team All-NBA selections.

1960s

1960s top 15 bs

No Brainers

Oscar RobertsonOscar Robertson
Jerry WestJerry West
Elgin BaylorElgin Baylor

Point guard, Oscar Robertson, posted nine 1st-Team All-NBA selections during the 1960s and an MVP award.  Guard, Jerry West, had a similarly impressive six 1st-Team and two 2nd-Team All-NBA selections during the decade.  West’s Laker teammate, small forward, Elgin Baylor, had nine 1st-Team All-NBA selections during the 1960s.

Tweeners

As discussed above, Bob Petit was included on the 1950s  squad, leaving the second forward spot open.  Tommy Heinsohn was slotted in on the back of his six championships with the Celtics and his four 2nd-Team All-NBA selections.

Tom HeinsohnTom Heinsohn

Tough Calls

Russell vs. Wilt is a classic NBA argument.  The pair went head-to-head during the 1960s, with each earning All-NBA honors nine times.

Bill RussellBill Russell
Wilt ChamberlainWilt Chamberlain

Wilt had seven 1st-Team and two 2nd-Team All-NBA selections, whereas Russell had two 1st-Team and seven 2nd-Team All-NBA selections.  Each player had four MVPs during the decade, which is a bit astounding, because, again, Russell only earned 1st-Team honors twice.  So, paradoxically, Russell was considered the best player in the league despite being the second-best center.  At that time, MVP voting was the responsibility of the players, and Russell’s peers seemed to have appreciated his championship success, regardless of any statistical deficiencies compared to Wilt, the walking box score.  I have to agree: Russell won a championship ring nine times in the 1960s.  Nine times.  Nine rings, nine All-NBA selections, and four MVPs, now that’s a decade.

1970s

1970s top 15 bs

No Brainers

Kareem Abdul-JabbarKareem
Julius ErvingDr J
Walt FrazierClyde Frazier merits

The only player more decorated than Bill Russell in NBA history is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.  Kareem garnered six 1st-Team and three 2nd-Team All-NBA selections during the 1970s plus five MVPs and a championship.  In the 1980s, he added four more 1st-Team and two more 2nd-Team All-NBA selections, another MVP, and five more championships with the Showtime Lakers.  He clearly outpaced his rival NBA centers, Dave Cowens and Bill Walton, and his contemporaries from the ABA, Artis Gilmore, Mel Daniels, and Dan Issel.

Small forward, Julius Erving, dominated both the ABA (shown in purple above) and the NBA during the 1970s.  Dr. J had two 1st-Team and one 2nd-Team All-NBA honors to go along with his four 1st-Team and one 2nd-Team All-ABA honors.  He also won two ABA championships.  Any doubts about the level of Dr. J’s competition in the ABA were put to sleep when he returned to the NBA to produce four 1st-Team and one 2nd-Team All-NBA selections, a MVP, and a championship.

Knicks’ point guard, Walt Frazier had plenty of individual and team success at the beginning of the 1970s, earning two NBA championships, four 1st-Team and two 2nd-Team All-NBA selections.  He also had an amazing collection of fur clothing.

Walt “Clyde” Frazier, Four 1st-Team All-NBA Selections during the 1970s

Clyde Frazier

Tweeners

John HavlicekWalt Frazier

There was a real log jam at the forward position in the 1970s with fully seven forwards earning at least 20 points.  On the contrary, Frazier and West (already on the All-1960s Team) were the only guards to reach 20 points during the decade.  As such, John Havlicek– who was listed as a small forward eight times during the decade and as a shooting guard only once — was included as a guard on the All-1970s team.  Havlicek earned four 1st-Team and three 2nd-Team All-NBA selections and two championships during the 1970s.  He won eight rings with the Celtics in all.

George GervinGeorge Gervin

Small forward George Gervin had the poor fortune of splitting his NBA and ABA accolades across two decades — the 1970s and 1980s. As a result, the Ice Man missed the cut in both decades.

Tough Calls

Rick BarryRick Barry
George McGinnisGeorge McGinnis
Elvin HayesElvin Hayes

There was a trio of forwards, Rick Barry, George McGinnis, and Elvin Hayes who all had similar scores.  Each was a champion during the 1970s.  Rick Barry earned the All-1970s nod, partly due to his ABA resume.  He earned three 1st-Team and one 2nd-Team All-NBA selections plus three more 1st-Team All-ABA selections during the 1970s.  This is one instance where the relative weight assigned to the NBA vs. ABA awards became a determining factor for the All-Decade Team selections.

1980s

Kurt Rambis, Zero All-NBA Team Selections, One 1st-Team All-NBA Haircut 

Kurt Rambis

No Brainers

Larry BirdLarry Bird
Magic JohnsonMagic Johnson

Small forward, Larry Bird, and point guard, Magic Johnson, battled for dominance of this decade trading MVPs and championships on-and-off from year-to-year.  Bird had nine 1st-Team All-NBA selections, three MVPs, and three rings.  Magic had seven 1st-Team and one 2nd-Team All-NBA selections, two MVPs, and five rings.

1980s top 15 bs border

Tweeners

Not surprisingly, shooting guard, Michael Jordan, was nearly good enough to be included on the All-1980s Team in addition to the All-1990s teams.  However, his score from the 1990s (55 pts) was better than for the 1980s (20 pts).  It’s fitting that Jordan was edged out by his 1980s rival and recurrent playoff road block, Detroit Pistons’ point guard, Isiah Thomas.  The Bad Boys’ baddest little boy had three 1st-Team and two 2nd-Team All-NBA selections during the decade plus a ring.

Isiah ThomasIsiah Thomas

Given that Dr. J was included in the All-1970s team, power forward, Charles Barkley, didn’t have that much competition for the second forward spot in the 1980s.  Sir Charles entered the league in 1984-85, but quickly managed two 1st-Team and two 2nd-Team All-NBA selections in his five seasons played during the 1980s.  Based on his career merits, he really belongs in the 1990s with his contemporary, Michael Jordan; however,  as you’ll see below there was no room for him.  I’m glad we could find a spot for him here in the 1980s.

Charles BarkleyCharles Barkley

Tough Calls

I’m pretty happy with how this team turned out.  But, the closest call of the 1980s was, once again, at the center position.  Moses Malone is a fine candidate and an NBA champion.  He earned three 1st-Team and four 2nd-Team NBA selections during the 1980s, plus two MVP awards during the 1970s.  The only drawback of his selection is that it edges out another worthy All-Decade honoree, Hakeem Olajuwon.  Of course, Dream will have another chance in the 1990s.

Moses MaloneMoses Malone
Hakeem OlajuwonHakeem 80s

1990s

1990s top 15 bs

No Brainers

Michael Jordanair jordan
Karl MaloneKarl Malone

Where else could we expect to find Jordan, the greatest player in NBA history, but at the top of the 1990s scoreboard?  His 55 points is all the more impressive given that he compiled his resume in a little over seven years, sitting out 1993-94, 1998-99, and most of 1994-95 seasons.

Aside from never winning an NBA championship, power forward, Karl Malone, had a fantastic decade, too.  The mail man delivered a perfect-ten 1st-Team All-NBA selections during the decade (the only player to accomplish this feat) and two MVPs.

Tweeners

Scottie PippenScottie Pippen

Having Barkley slotted in the All-1980s Team avoids any controversy at the second forward position.  Jordan’s six-time champion teammate, small forward, Scottie Pippen, earns the spot with his three 1st-Team, two 2nd-Team, and two 3rd-Team All-NBA selections.  Pippen benefits from timely decade alignment, whereas Barkley split his time between two decades.

John StocktonJohn Stockton
Gary PaytonGlove

Point Guard John Stockton appears to have a pretty big cushion over his closest All-1990s Point Guard, Gary Payton.  But, if you were to define the “1990s” a bit differently (i.e., 1990-91 to 1999-00 rather than 1989-90 to 1998-99), the Glove (see what I did there?) would have eclipsed Stockton for the second guard spot.  Payton had a 1st-Team All-NBA selection in 1999-00 and Stockton was not honored that year, whereas Stockton had a 2nd-Team All-NBA selection in 1989-90, before Payton entered the league.  With a different definition of the decade, Payton would have gained 5 points and Stockton lost 3, giving Payton the nod by one point.  I have no regrets though.  Stockton had two 1st-Team, four 2nd-Team, and three 3rd-Team All-NBA selections during the 1990s, he battled the Bulls in two memorable championship series, he has the most career assists in NBA history, and he was a Dream Team member.

Tough Calls

The  1990s offers an opportunity for some serious debate!  As discussed above, Hakeem just missed out on the All-1980s center spot and he finds himself second-best in the 1990s too (by two measly points!).  This is really too bad, because Dream scored eight All-NBA selections: three 1st-Team, two 2nd-Team, and three 3rd-Team in this decade to go with his four previous selections from the 1980s.  Moreover, Olajuwon led the Rockets to two championships in the 1990s, one of those during an MVP performance.  Of course, his competitor, David Robinson, was no slouch.  The Admiral outpaced Olajuwon with four 1st-Team, two 2nd-Team, and two 3rd-Team All-NBA selections and he added his own championship and MVP.  However, there’s something a bit unsatisfying about this pick.  In the 1994-95 season, the two players were basically in their primes — Olajuwon was 32 and Robinson was 29 —  when they faced off in the Western Conference Finals.  Olajuwon, who was infamously upset about Robinson’s MVP award that season, owned the matchup, the playoffs, and the championship.

Hakeem OlajuwonHakeem 90s
David RobinsonDavid Robinson

2000s

No Brainers

Tim DuncanTim Duncan
Kobe BryantKobe Bryant
Shaq O’NealShaq ONeal

There were three pretty solid selections for the All-2000s team. Tim Duncan had seven 1st-Team and three 2nd-Team All-NBA selections, two MVPs, and three rings during the 2000s.  Kobe Bryant had seven 1st-Team, two 2nd-Team, and one 3rd-Team All-NBA selections, an MVP, and four rings.  Kobe’s long-time teammate, Shaq O’Neal, had seven 1st-Team and one 3rd-Team All-NBA selections, an MVP, and four rings.

2000s top 15 bs

Tweeners

Steve NashSteve Nash
Jason KiddJason Kidd
Allen IversonAllen Iverson

The competition for the second guard spot features four players separated by only three points, two of whom are inter-decade ‘tweeners.  Jason Kidd was a rookie in 1994-95 and he earned a 1st-Team All-NBA nod during the 1990s prior to his four 1st-Team and one 2nd-Team All-NBA selections during the 2000s.  Likewise, Allen Iverson entered the league for the 1996-97 season and he collected one 1st-Team All-NBA selection in the 1990s prior to his two 1st-Team, three 2nd-Team, and one 3rd-Team All-NBA ranks during the 2000s.  In other words, if we were ranking by career honors rather than decade-specific honors, Kidd (28 pts) and Iverson (27 pts) would match Nash (27 pts).  But, alas, these are the All-Decade Teams, so Nash is in.

Tough Calls

Kevin GarnettKevin Garnett
Dirk Nowitzki Dirk Nowitzki

This was the closest score of any of the All-Decade Team competitions — just one point separated Garnett from Nowitzki.  Both players had four 1st-Team, three 2nd-Team, and one 3rd-Team All-NBA selections plus a MVP award.  Garnett’s championship ring gave the edge to the Big Ticket by a nose, just beyond Dirk’s additional 3rd-Team selection.  Too bad for Dirk that his own championship season came just outside of the 2000s.

2010s (Provisional)

2010s top 15 bs

No Brainers

LeBron JamesLebron
Kevin DurantKevin Durant
Chris PaulChris Paul
Dwight HowardDwight Howard

LeBron James has posted six straight 1st-Team All-NBA appearances during the first half-decade of the 2010s (8 straight, total) and he has a chance to become the second player to earn ten 1st-Team All-NBA selections during a decade.  LeBron also earned three MVPs and two championships in the past six years.

Kevin Durant is right on LeBron’s heels with five 1st-Team All-NBA selections and a MVP in the 2010s.  Only last year’s foot injuries could keep KD off the 1st-Team ballot.

Chris Paul and Dwight Howard are at the top of their respective heaps for 2010 guards and centers, each with three 1st-Team, one 2nd-Team, and one 3rd-Team All-NBA selections during the last six years.

Tweeners

Kobe was included as the captain of the All-2000 Team, so he’s left out, here.  It may eventually be a moot point, since Kobe’s 22 points may not hold up over the remainder of the decade.

Russell Westbrook, Four 2nd-Team All-NBA Selections

Russ Westbrook

Tough Calls

Dwyane WadeD Wade
Stephen CurrySteph merits
Russell WestbrookWestbrook
James HardenHarden

For now, Dwyane Wade steps into Kobe’s void for the second guard spot, with his one 1st-Team, one 2nd-Team, and two 3rd-Team All-NBA selections and MVP.  It’s not clear who will own the second guard spot at the end of the decade.  A trio of the league’s best guards — Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden — are within striking distance of D-Wade’s 14 points.    It’s shaping up to be Curry and Westbrook on the 1st-Team this year with Paul and Harden on the 2nd-Team (although Kyle Lowry might see it differently).  If Steph also wins the MVP, as I’d expect him to do, the updated All-2010s guard scores would be: Paul (22 pts), Curry (19 pts), Westbrook (17 pts), Harden (14 pts), and Wade (14 pts), pending the 2-point bonus for the championship.

Summary

  • 1950s: Cousy, Sharman, Schayes, Petit, Mikan
  • 1960s: Robertson, West, Baylor, Heinsohn, Russell
  • 1970s: Frazier, Havlicek, Erving, Barry, Abdul-Jabbar
  • 1980s: Johnson, Thomas, Bird, Barkley, M. Malone
  • 1990s: Jordan, Stockton, K. Malone, Pippen, Robinson
  • 2000s: Bryant, Nash, Duncan, Garnett, O’Neal
  • 2010s: Paul, Wade, James, Durant, Howard

A Comparison to Bill Simmons’ Pyramid

To me, Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball is the most authoritative ranking of NBA players.  My simple accounting of All-NBA honors did a reasonable job of recapitulating Simmons’ pyramid.  Humbly, I might suggest that he would need to make only one change to the proposed All-Decade Teams: slotting Olajuwon over Robinson in the 1990s.  Most of the other tough calls would carry the Pyramid’s seal of approval: Mikan over Johnston (check), Russell over Chamberlain (check), Barry over Hayes, Gervin, McGinnis (check, check, check), Nash over Kidd, Iverson (check, check), and Garnett over Nowitzki (check).  Simmons might prefer Barkley to Pippen in the 1990s, but I’ve avoided this argument by giving Sir Charles a spot in the 1980s.

Anyways, forget about Simmons, who do you think I got wrong?  Who was the biggest snub?  The least deserving honoree?

 

Alumni 3-on-3 Tournament

There’s nothing like NCAA March Madness to bring out my school spirit.  Of course, there’s nothing like a soul-crushing March Madness loss by my alma mater to drain me of all interest in basketball.  Alas, I already started the research for this post, so I’ll fake it.

The Concept

A 16-team 3-on-3 tournament composed of current NBA players.  The teams are determined based on college attended.  Seeds are based on the quality of players available for each team (specifically, teams were ranked based on each individual’s value over replacement player, VORP, summed across all positive VORP players available to each college, see plot below).  There are no substitutions, each college picks three players and sticks with them throughout the tournament.  There are no specific requirements for positions, but there is obviously a checklist for things a team might want: rim protection, perimeter shooting, an ability to create off the dribble and initiate the offense by forcing help.  The most traditional way to obtain those ingredients for a successful team might be to include a point guard, a wing, and a big, but there would be other possibilities, too.

The Qualified Teams

To enter the 3-on-3 tournament, a college need only have three alumni playing in the NBA.  There are currently forty-three such teams, as listed below.

Colleges qualified for the alumni 3-on-3 tournament, ranked by positive team VORP Alumni 3-on-3 teams

There are four tiers of teams in this plot: the hopeless losers (like I said, I’m still feeling a bit jaded about my school at the moment), the one-star teams, the burst bubbles, and the 16 tournament teams.

Hopeless Losers

There are eleven teams in this lowliest category; seven of them had the minimum of three players available.  In total, there were 39 NBA players that were alumni from these eleven schools.  Of these 39 players, only 10 (26%) had a positive VORP and the highest VORP was a meager 1.0.  Here’s the complete list of hopeless losers, with players listed from highest to lowest VORP (to be clear, I’m not saying that these individuals are hopeless losers, it’s just that, as teams, they wouldn’t stand much of a chance of winning the alumni 3-on-3 tournament):

  • California: Ryan Anderson, Allen Crabbe, Jorge Gutierrez
  • Colorado: Andre Roberson, Alec Burks, Spencer Dinwiddie, Chris Copeland
  • Missouri: Jordan Clarkson, DeMarre Carroll, Phil Pressey
  • Alabama: JaMychal Green, Alonzo Gee, Mo Williams
  • Virginia: Mike Scott, Justin Anderson, Joe Harris
  • St. John’s: Mo Harkless, JaKarr Sampson, Metta World Peace
  • NC State: T.J. Warren, J.J. Hickson, Lorenzo Brown
  • Michigan: Jamal Crawford, Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway, Glenn Robinson, Nik Stauskas, Mitch McGary
  • Nevada: Ramon Sessions, JaVale McGee, Luke Babbitt
  • UNLV: Christian Wood, Joel Anthony, Lou Amundson, Anthony Bennett, Rashad Vaughn
  • Maryland: Alex Len, Steve Blake, Greivis Vasquez

One-star Teams

The next ten teams have more-or-less one star player, but not much else.  On these teams, no more than one player had a VORP above 1.0.  Here are the one-star teams, with players listed from highest to lowest VORP:

  • Louisville: Gorgui Dieng, Montrezl Harrell, Russ Smith, Terry Rozier
  • Utah: Andrew Bogut, Andre Miller, Delon Wright
  • Tennessee: Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson, C.J. Watson, Jordan McRae, Jarnell Stokes
  • Creighton: Kyle Korver, Doug McDermott, Anthony Tolliver
  • Memphis: Will Barton, Tyreke Evans, Derrick Rose, Elliot Williams; this team would be pretty interesting with a healthy Derrick Rose (I bet he’s tired of hearing that), if not a little undersized.
  • Pittsburgh: Steven Adams, Lamar Patterson, DeJuan Blair
  • Oklahoma State: Tony Allen, Marcus Smart, Markel Brown, James Anderson.
  • Arkansas: Patrick Beverley, Joe Johnson, Bobby Portis, Coty Clarke, Sonny Weems
  • LSU: Brandon Bass, Garrett Temple, Marcus Thorton, Jarell Martin, Jordan Mickey, Johnny O’Bryant
  • Wisconsin: Frank Kaminisky, Jon Leuer, Devin Harris, Sam Dekker

Burst Bubbles

These six teams were the nearest misses, the teams that came closest to making the tournament without getting in.  The selection committee (me) found their resumes lacking.  Here’s the list of burst bubbles, with players listed from highest to lowest VORP:

  • Ohio State: Mike Conley, Jared Sullinger, Evan Turner, Kosta Koufos, D’Angelo Russell; the Buckeyes have a nice team balance with a point guard, wing, and big, but they don’t have enough talent after Conley to compete with the tournament teams.
  • Stanford: Brook Lopez, Robin Lopez, Dwight Powell, Anthony Brown; the Lopez twins could cause some real matchup problems inside, but this team wouldn’t have enough speed or shooting to keep up.
  • Georgetown: Greg Monroe, Otto Porter, Jeff Green, Roy Hibbert, Hollis Thompson, Henry Sims; again, this team is lacking a bit of speed and shooting.
  • Washington: Isaiah Thomas, Terrance Ross, Spencer Hawes, Justin Holiday, Nate Robinson, C.J. Wilcox, Tony Wroten; an intriguing 1-2-3, but I’m not sure Hawes could provide enough rim protection to keep this team afloat.
  • Syracuse: Carmelo Anthony, Jerami Grant, Wesley Johnson, Dion Waiters, Michael Carter-Williams, Tyler Ennis, Chris McCullough; no bigs here and not much defense on the perimeter either.  I might let MCW run the point.
  • Indiana: Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo, Eric Gordon, Noah Vonleh; I think this team along with perhaps, Memphis, would have been the snubbed teams with the best chance at tourney success.

The Bracket

Here are the teams that I would put in the 3-on-3 alumni tournament.  Once again, seeds were based on the positive VORP for all available players (not just the three that were included on the team).  There were four regions with four teams each; four teams of each seed, 1 through 4.  I showed the players I would pick for each team, as described below.

Alumni 3-on-3 tournament bracket 3-on-3 bracket update

No. 4 Seeds

The four seeds were a varied group with as few as three available players and as many as 18.  A bit over half of the players from these four colleges had positive VORP (22 of 41, 54%).  Here’s the list of four seeds, with players listed from highest to lowest VORP, stars indicate players selected as team members:

  • Texas A&M: DeAndre Jordan*, Khris Middleton*, Donald Sloan*; the Aggies had the bare minimum number of NBA alumni, but it worked out pretty well for them, with a point guard, wing, and big available for the tournament.  Jordan and Middleton are both elite players at their respective positions.
  • Kansas: Marcus Morris*, Mario Chalmers, Andrew Wiggins*, Darrell Arthur, Cole Aldrich*, Jeff Withey, Brandon Rush, Nick Collison, Paul Pierce, Tarik Black, Kirk Hinrich, Ben McLemore, Kelly Oubre, Thomas Robinson, Sasha Kaun, Cliff Alexander, Markieff Morris, Drew Gooden; that’s 18 alumni available; unfortunately for the Jay Hawks, they mostly stink, as 16 of the 18 had VORP less than 1.0 and 11 of 18 had negative VORP.  Wiggins, Morris, and Aldrich would give Kansas a useful mix of size, creativity on the offensive end, and a stingy defense.
  • USC: DeMar DeRozan*, Taj Gibson*, Nikola Vucevic*, Dewayne Dedmon, Alex Stepheson, Nick Young, O.J. Mayo; Vucevic and DeRozan can be offensive machines.  Gibson would provide some balance on the defensive end.  They might have trouble guarding on the perimeter, especially against shifty guards.
  • Arizona: Aaron Gordon*, Andre Iguodala*, Jordan Hill, Derrick Williams, Channing Frye*, Richard Jefferson, Jerryd Bayless, T.J. McConnell, Chase Budinger, Solomon Hill, Jason Terry, Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson; another team with only two players above the 1.0 VORP mark.  I might include Frye with the two obvious picks, Gordon and Iguodala.  He could add some useful perimeter shooting while still providing some help around the rim on defense.

No. 3 Seeds

More than any other NBA player, Michigan State alumnus, Draymond Greeen, might be the one who would most enjoy actually playing in this tournament.  Here’s the list of three seeds, with players listed from highest to lowest VORP, stars indicate players selected as team members:

  • UConn: Kemba Walker*, Andre Drummond*, Rudy Gay*, Jeremy Lamb, Caron Butler, Shabazz Napier, Charlie Villaneuva; a good mix of one-on-one offensive creation from the point guard and wing combined with great rim protection and rebounding at the center position.
  • Michigan State: Draymond Green*, Zach Randolph*, Gary Harris*, Alan Anderson, Branden Dawson, Keith Appling, Adreian Payne; some teams just won’t lose in the first round, ever, just lock it in.  Right?  Seriously though, Draymond loves Michigan State way too much to let his alma mater down.  Draymond’s flexibility will help a lot and Randolph is the prototypical bully that will punish any team without a true big man.   But, Gary Harris might struggle to generate enough offense off the bounce to drive this team to victory.
  • Georgia Tech: Chris Bosh*, Derrick Favors*, Thaddeus Young, Anthony Morrow, Iman Shumpert, Jarrett Jack*; all lot of options for big guys on this team.  I think you’d need to add Jack to the mix to keep the offense flowing, but it’s tough to decide the best combination to play with Bosh.
  • Villanova: Kyle Lowry*, Dante Cunningham*, Darrun Hilliard, Randy Foye*; Lowry’s huge VORP (6.3) carried Villanova to the 3 seed.  I’m not sure if he has enough help to stay competitive in the tournament.

No. 2 Seeds

Which one of these teams is not like the other?  Duke, North Carolina, and Florida have combined to win 6 of the last 11 NCAA championships. Marquette feels like a bit of a surprise here, but look at their alumni list! Here’s the list of two seeds, with players listed from highest to lowest VORP, stars indicate players selected as team members:

  • Duke: J.J. Redick*, Luol Deng, Mason Plumlee*, Rodney Hood, Kyrie Irving*, Jabari Parker, Justise Winslow, Gerald Henderson, Miles Plumlee, Lance Thomas, Jahlil Okafor, Austin Rivers, Josh McRoberts, Kyle Singler, Mike Dunleavy, Seth Curry, Ryan Kelly, Tyus Jones, Elton Brand; with all these choices it’s pretty easy to find a trio that fits well together.  I’d have Irving at the point creating, Redick on the wing spreading the court and shooting threes, and Plumlee patrolling the paint and helping out on defense.  I’m not convinced that their defense would hold water against the elite teams of the tournament.
  • North Carolina: Marvin Williams, Ed Davis*, Harrison Barnes*, Danny Green*, Raymond Felton, John Henson, Tyler Zeller, Vince Carter, Wayne Ellington, Reggie Bullock, Tyler Hansbrough, James-Michael McAdoo, P.J. Hairston, Brandon Wright, Ty Lawson, Kendall Marshall; I give Barnes the nod over Williams, due to his quicker feet on the defensive perimeter and his superior ball handling.  This team would have plenty of three point shooting, size, and an interior presence, but who would be the primary ball handler initiating the offense?
  • Marquette: Jimmy Butler*, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade*, Wesley Matthews*, Steve Novak; what a fun sleeper pick.  You don’t really think of Marquette as a basketball power house, but they’ve produced some fantastic wings.  These guys wouldn’t have any size inside, but they might score enough to keep it interesting.
  • Florida: Al Horford*, Chandler Parsons*, David Lee, Bradley Beal*, Marreese Speights, Corey Brewer, Joakim Noah, Matt Bonner, Udonis Haslem, Mike Miller; I’ve included Beal to share the ball handling responsibilities with Parsons, but neither is a point guard.  Horford’s positional flexibility would allow Florida to match up with multiple roster types.

No. 1 Seeds

Kentucky has the most current NBA alumni — 22 players in the league.  Here’s the list of one seeds, with players listed from highest to lowest VORP, stars indicate players selected as team members:

  • Kentucky: Antony Davis*, Karl-Antony Towns, John Wall*, DeMarcus Cousins*, Rajon Rondo, Willie Cauley-Stein, Patrick Patterson, Nerlens Noel, Eric Bledsoe, Devin Booker, Trey Lyles, Terrance Jones, Julius Randle, Brandon Knight, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Tayshaun Prince, Archie Goodwin, James Young, Chuck Hayes, Nazr Mohammed, Aaron Harrison, Jodie Meeks; Yikes!  These guys could have an all-rookie team that would be tournament-worthy.  What an embarrassment of riches.  That’s the great equalizing power of the 3-on-3 format though, only three of these players can contribute to the team.  Cousins, Davis, and Wall would be the overall #1 seed and the team to beat in this tournament.  One possible weakness of this team (as with some real-life Kentucky teams) would be perimeter shooting.  Davis’ foot speed would also be tested against smaller shooting guard types.
  • UCLA: Russell Westbrook*, Kevin Love*, Trevor Ariza*, Darren Collison, Jrue Holiday, Arron Afflalo, Kyle Anderson, Matt Barnes, Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad, Ryan Hollins, Luc Mbah a Moute, Jordan Farmar, Kevon Looney, Normal Powell, Jordan Adams.  Westbrook and Love are easy picks, but there are many intriguing possibilities for the third roster spot.  I went with Ariza for his shooting and defensive toughness.  On the other hand, since Love isn’t going to provide much rim protection, it’s tempting to throw in Shabazz and just forgo any semblance of defensive effort.  They could just score the first basket and never give up the ball for the rest of the game.
  • Texas: Kevin Durant*, LaMarcus Aldridge*, Tristan Thompson, Avery Bradley*, Cory Joseph, Myles Turner, P.J. Tucker, D.J. Augustin; another team with a clear one-two punch and a more ambiguous third option.  I’m selecting Bradley to support KD with the ball handling load and for his stifling perimeter defense.  These guys could be very good.
  • Wake Forest: Chris Paul*, Tim Duncan*, Jeff Teague*, Al-Farouq Aminu, James Johnson, Ish Smith; one could make an argument for including a bigger wing — “who’s going to guard K.D.?” — but I’m going with the play-your-best-player strategy.  Anyways, Paul + Duncan + any NBA player would be a pretty good trio.

Reader Participation

I’ll fill in a bracket with my own results next week, but I want to hear your thoughts.  Who are your final four picks?  Who’s your champion?  Can anybody stop Kentucky?  What’s the biggest upset?  Which colleges were left out?  Which players should be replaced and who should be inserted into their college’s lineup?  Leave a comment and earn a chance to win a free t-shirt with custom CPJ art!

Note: VORP stats provided by Basketball-Reference

Stephen Curry is Going to Obliterate the Single-Season 3-pt Record

But, he won’t be the first!

After draining 260 three-pointers in 55 games, Stephen Curry is fast approaching his own single-season record of 286 three-pointers made.  At his current rate of 4.9 threes per game, Steph might hit 132 more triples in his last 27 contests of the season, to finish with 392 on the year.  Increasing his own single-season record from 286 to 392 would represent an increase of 37%.

Surprisingly, a 37% increase wouldn’t be the biggest year-to-year change in the single-season three-point record in NBA history.  Since Brian Taylor set the pace for threes in 1979-80 (90 3s), nine players have broken the three-point shooting record.  Two others made comparable increases in the record: Dennis Scott (50 more 3s, 23% increase) and Danny Ainge (56 more 3s, 61%).

Single Season 3-pt Record Holders

3-pt record holders

Interestingly, whereas Dennis Scott held the record for an entire decade, Danny Ainge was dethroned immediately.  I wonder how long Steph will be the top 3-pt dog?

[Stats provided by Basketball Reference]

When Will Stephen Curry Break the Single Game 3-pt Record?

[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 Incumbents

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 

histogram comparison -- steph kobe donyell

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

3pt shot distribution comparison

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

Steph is making more 3s 3

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

Stephs 3pt distribution evolution

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.

The Competition

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

More people are making more 3s

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:

  1. Stephen Curry, 4.9
  2. Klay Thompson, 3.3
  3. Damian Lillard, 2.9
  4. Paul George, 2.8
  5. Kyle Lowry, 2.8
  6. James Harden, 2.7
  7. J.J. Redick, 2.7
  8. Eric Gordon, 2.5
  9. J.R. Smith, 2.5
  10. Kevin Durant, 2.4
  11. C.J. McCollum, 2.4
  12. Trevor Ariza, 2.3
  13. Wesley Matthews, 2.3
  14. Ryan Anderson, 2.2
  15. 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.