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MVP Tier Shooting list (WARNING: LONG)
Tier 8: Shaquille O’Neal
Shaquille O’Neal – 0.0 3PA, 0.45 3P%, 52.7 FT%
This is what interests me about Shaq: he broke both of his wrists at 11 years old, and they never healed properly, making it impossible for him to snap his wrist properly and develop anything approaching a passable jump shot or free throw stroke. (It’s been argued that Shaq had a fixable mechanical flaw or should have shot underhand, but we can talk about that another time.)
Shaq’s wrist issues meant that his scoring arsenal was essentially limited to a jump hook over his left shoulder or a drop-step leading to a dunk or right-handed bank shot. He also happened to be one of the most physically imposing big men of all time.
So the question becomes: if you have a player with the ability to create and convert shots at the immediate basket area at a historically high rate, is it the worst thing in the world if he is physically incapable of taking a difficult shot? How many missed free throws is it worth to have a dominant post player who never wastes possessions by falling in love with his 18-footer? Is it worth giving up the ability to dump the ball to Shaq at the mid-post and get a decent fadeaway out of it late in the clock in order to guarantee he’ll never take one early in the clock?
The sheer terror of what Shaq would have been if he hit 75-80% of his free throws keep me from going as far as saying Shaq’s messed up wrists were a blessing in disguise (we’ll talk more about this when discussing why Shaun Marion is accidentally one of the 5 most influential players of the 21st century), but I think the floor spacing and shot creation teams gave up by accepting Shaq’s limitations may not have been worth Shaq being forced to take every shot from a high-percentage area. When you consider Shaq’s somewhat laisse-faire approach to the game and prideful streak, it’s not terribly hard to imagine an alternate-universe version of Shaq firing up shot after shot in attempts to capture the scoring title and daring his coaches to bench him for it.
Tier 7: True Big Men
Moses Malone – 0.0 3PA, 0.96% 3PT%, 76.0% FT%
Gonna be honest, I know pretty much jack shit about Moses Malone other than that he was a dominant offensive rebounder and was one of the first players to win a Finals MVP with a team that did not acquire him on draft day. (There were 5 of them in 2011, now there are like 40.) Considering he lived underneath the basket grabbing those offensive boards and shot 49.5% from the field over his career, I’m assuming he wasn’t much of a marksman. although I do know enough about him to know his FG% was dragged down because he did a lot of his damage playing volleyball under the basket but ultimately coming away with the bucket. I could be wrong, though. Solid FT% for a center.
Tim Duncan – 0.1 3PA, 17.8% 3PT%, 69.6% FT%
I enjoy putting Tim Duncan all the way down here while being a massive Tim Duncan fan. When people talk about all the things that made Tim Duncan great – his efficient, no-flash approach, the beauty of his banker from the left block, his footwork and passing from the post, his quiet brand of leadership, his willingness to play whatever role his team asked him to, his defensive acumen, his work ethic, and his intelligence, they tend to forget a very important part of why Tim Duncan was so great: TIM DUNCAN WAS A FUCKING MONSTER.
I do not know why people are so willing to forget that Tim Duncan was a fucking monster. Perhaps it’s because, despite spending the vast majority of his career as a center, he got labeled as “The Best Power Forward of All Time” because he began his career next to David Robinson. Maybe it’s because nobody can really look like a fucking monster while standing next to David Robinson. Maybe it’s because he spent so much time as a crafty veteran. In any case, Tim Duncan in his prime was a huge man who would put his left shoulder into your chest, push you under the basket, and flip in a hook shot as you caught your breath. It was only once enough of those put the fear of god in his defender that he’d turn to his right shoulder and deliver that boring bank shot. He had an odd jumper where he put his guide hand under the basket that went in a decent amount of the time and his free throws, which he shot in one quick yank like he was trying to get them over with as fast as possible, were never a hack-a-Duncan level weakness, but he was a pretty bad shooter. The “Big Fundamental” is one of only 2 MVPs in the 3-point era with a career FT% under 70%. However, the “Big Fundamental” is also a fucking monster.
David Robinson – 0.1 3PA, 25% 3PT%, 73.6% 3PT%
Another person whose demeanor tends to overshadow the fact he was a goddamn freak of nature. David Robinson was literally a super-soldier. Just a good enough outside shooter to get himself in trouble sometimes (surprisingly low career FG% of 51.8%, considering he didn’t make 3s, although his TS% was always excellent because he lived at the line), but he also had enough shot creation ability to drop an extraordinarily petty 71-point game, which I respect. Discussion question: what if David Robinson had come into the league at 19 instead of 24?
Hakeem Olajuwon – 0.1 3PA, 20.2% 3PT%, 71.2% FT%
Seems low, right? Hakeem, with the beautiful fadeaway? Well, Hakeem took too many fucking jumpshots. He could make them, absolutely, but a guy with Hakeem’s physical ability and skill in the post has no goddamn business having a career FG% of 51.2% and a TS% of 55.3%. (The league average TS% over his career was 53.5%.) This is an idea I’ll expand more on, but in every competitive game of imperfect information, the player acting with initiative has to balance his action between how efficient it is and how deceptive it is. I think Hakeem chose the deceptive option too much. I call Hakeem’s choice to settle for more difficult (and aesthetically pleasing) shots the Ian Malcolm syndrome – he got so caught up wondering if he could make those shots that he never asked whether or not he should.
However, it can certainly be argued that against better defenses, such as ones teams face deep in the playoffs, deception gains value, as better defenses will be better at allowing their opponents to get efficient shots. Hakeem and his destructive playoff performances are certainly a good argument for this.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – 0.0 3PA, 0.56% 3PT%, 72.1% FT%
Fun fact: Like Shaq, Kareem made exactly one 3-pointer in his career. This is a tricky one. Like another 6-time NBA champion you’ll see later on this list, Kareem was essentially completely unique as a shooter. On the one hand, Kareem was nobody’s idea of a stretch big, didn’t have much of a turnaround, and wasn’t a particularly good free-throw shooter.
On the other hand, he made 15,837 of the 28,307 shots he took (55.9%), and a whole lot of those 23,307 shots were skyhooks. And Kareem’s skyhooks were nothing like the jump hooks you see today. In fact, a very good answer to the question “why does nobody shoot the skyhook anymore?” is “it’s a fucking miracle anyone was able make that shot effectively, let alone someone 7 foot 2.” Look at this shit – a lot of those are closer to midrange shots than post shots, and he’s flicking the ball over his goddamn head with his body perpendicular to the backboard. That should not be possible.
Hence, the question of “is the skyhook a ‘shot’” becomes crucial to determining if Kareem was a fairly poor shooter or one of the best shooters ever. I’m going to put him at the top of this tier and shrug my shoulders. Kareem was really good.
Tier 6: Big Men With Some Stretch
Giannis Antetokounmpo – 2.1 3PA, 28.4% 3PT%, 72.2% FT%
First things first – Despite the fact Giannis is his team’s primary ballhandler and could easily be classified as a wing, I’m calling him a big. He’s 6-11, 242, shoots under 30% from 3, and a full quarter of his shots were dunks the first year he won MVP. He’s not not a big man.
I am writing this on the night of August 31st, 2020, a pretty bad night in Giannis’ career. The Miami Heat have just taken a 1-0 lead against Giannis’ Bucks in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, and Giannis was held to 18 points on 6-12 shooting from the field and 4-12 from the line. It currently looks like Giannis may have a true Achilles’ heel when it comes to teams that can wall off the paint effectively, and looking forward his shooting stroke seems built more for catch-and-shoot situations than it is for keeping defenses honest off the dribble. This all may change in a few weeks, so hang with me here.
Giannis’ rise to two-time MVP was atypical – generally, hyper-athletic players ascend to the MVP level when they “round out” their game by developing a jumper. Giannis won his first MVP by packing on muscle and doubling down on attacking the paint. In his first MVP season, his 3PT% fell from 30.7% to 25.6%, his FT% fell from 76.0% to 72.9%. (This season, Giannis’ overall effectiveness went up even though his FT% was a truly abysmal 63.3%.) He also dunked the ball 279 times last season and 197 times this year. Instead of working on his backhand, Giannis found more ways to run around his forehand. The next several weeks will show if that’s enough to take the Bucks where they want to go. Giannis is allowed to join the Warriors when LeBron retires and not before.
Charles Barkley – 1.9 3PA, 26.6% 3PT%, 73.5% FT%
Charles makes it easier than anyone else, especially pre-shot tracking era, to do a “loss leader” analysis of his shot selection. His 26.6% 3PT% for his career is the lowest among qualified players. He also had an absolutely ludicrous career TS% of 61.2% (league average TS% over his career was 53.5%), made 58% of his career 2-pointers, and led the league in 2-point shooting percentage 5 times in a row between 1986 and 1991.
Given that data, it’s fairly easy to conclude that Charles should have just pocketed the 3-point shot, but let’s do a little experiment. Let’s assume 2 things: that Charles was taking a relatively high percentage of 3-pointers compared to long 2-point jumpers, and the 3-pointers he did take helped “keep the defense honest” and opened up the floor for his drives. (It should be noted that Charles’ overall efficiency pretty much fell off a cliff from 2-point range as his athleticism dipped at age 30, so we’re talking about prime Charles here.)
Given those assumptions, did Charles Barkley take the correct amount of 3s? For our case study, we’re going to compare Barkley’s 89-90 season to his 90-91 season, as these were the last two years he led the league in 2-point percentage and he changed his shot selection fairly dramatically.
In 1989, Charles averaged 25.2 on 60%/21.7%/72.2%, for a league-leading TS% of 66.1%. In 1990, Charles averaged 27.6 points per game on 57%/28.4%/72.2%, for a TS% of 63.5%, which broke his four-year streak of leading the league in TS%. Charles also almost doubled his 3-pointers taken per game, going from 1.2 3PA per game to 2.3. Again, we’re going to assume that Charles could not have simply turned those 3-pointers into 60%+ 2-pointers, or that he could have shot the exact same percentage from 2 if those 3-point attempts simply disappeared entirely. Without further ado:
A 28.4% 3-point shot has a TS% value of 42.6%. The league average TS% in 1989 was 53.4%. This means that every Barkley 3 had an expected value of 0.972 points per attempt, compared to a league average of 1.068. This means Barkley cost his team .096 points per 3-point attempt in ’89. Barkley’s 2-point percentage that season was 59.7%, for a TS% (we’re not even factoring in FTr) of 1.194. That means the 76ers gained .187 points every time Charles shot a 2-pointer.
This means, by my quick-and-dirty math, Charles “gave back” the added value of his 2-point attempts about every 2 times he shot a 3 – if Charles had shot 1.95 as many 3s as 2s, he would have had league-average efficiency in 1991.
Based on the above, Charles taking 1.6 more 3-point attempts per game in 90-91 to get 1.4 more 2-point attempts per game was worth it for the 76ers, although not by an overwhelming amount. The 3s made Charles less efficient, but Charles’ efficiency was so far above the league average that it was worth sacrificing some of Charles’ efficiency for volume for the 76ers. (This version of the shot creation vs. efficiency argument is a variation on “is it selfish for your best hitter to take a 6-pitch walk with 2 outs and a man on 2nd?” question brought over from baseball.)
Forgive my math, especially since I’m not very good at it. The point is that Charles was a pretty bad shooter, but his 3-point attempts were probably worth the extra 2-point attempts they generated for him.
Karl Malone – 0.2 3PA, 27.4% 3PT%, 74.2% FT%
Alright, it’s the first person I’d call a good shooter! Malone is the exception to two rules: that players improve from the foul line way less often than you think, especially after their third season (Malone went from a 48% foul shooter his rookie year to 70% his 3rd year, and ended up with a career FT% of 74.2%), and that if you’re going to take a spot-up shot, you should always take it from beyond the arc, because nobody shoots better than 50% on long 2s – Malone shot 53.6% on long 2s in 96-97 and 52.8% on long 2s in 97-98. He ducked under that for the last years of his career and there isn’t tracking data from before 96-97, but it’s safe to say he was really good at knocking down mid-range jumpers.
Kevin Garnett – 0.4 3PA, 27.5% 3PT%, 78.9% FT%
We got robbed of the best version of KG, right? Not only did his giant pre-cap contract and the Joe Smith fiasco keep him from ever getting a good supporting cast in Minnesota, he was so much better suited to the post-handcheck, pace-and-space era (and no, it is not the “everyone arbitrarily decided to shoot a bunch of 3s” era) than the era he played in. The MVP version of KG lived on midpost fadeaways, and the version who won a championship played defense and shot spot-up 20-footers. Look at what Anthony Davis gets to do with LeBron feeding him the ball and the freedom to go beyond the arc, or what Giannis is doing, and tell me KG wasn’t tragically ahead of his time.
An aside: “KG went undefeated in the 2000 Olympic team’s 1-on-1 tournament” is one of my favorite basketball tall tales that are probably true, along with “when the UCLA Freshman team with Kareem scrimmaged the varsity team, who had just had an undefeated national championship season and were about to win another championship, Kareem fucking destroyed them,” and “lane violations were created because Wilt started dunking all his free throws in high school.”
Tier 5: Guards Who Weren’t Terribly Good at Shooting
Russell Westbrook – 3.7 3PA, 30.5% 3PT%, 79.9% FT%
It should be noted that Russ’ shooting is getting worse. He was a reliable free throw shooter during the first part of his career, and was a passable if below-average jump shooter, but his jump shot and free throws have both been trending downwards. (His FT% did bounce back to 76.3% this season after last season’s 65.6% nightmare.)
It’s not the most unique observation that Russ has more in common with Charles Barkley than just about any player, especially on the micro-sized Rockets, who traded away their center to leverage Russ’ strengths (his rebounding and ability to attack the basket) and minimize his glaring weakness (shooting).
However, while Charles managed to be hyper-efficient while hemorrhaging points from the 3-point line, Russ has not. Russ’ career TS% is 53.0%, with the league average over the course of Russ’ career being 54.5%. The reasons for this are essentially “all of the reasons” – a higher proportion of Russ’ shots over his career have been 3s, his free throw rate is lower than Barkley’s was, and most importantly, his career FG% on 2-point shots (46.9%) has been lower than the league average (49.6%). Russ is effective at the basket and nowhere else, and that hasn’t been a formula for efficiency for him.
Allen Iverson – 3.7 3PA, 31.3% 3PT%, 78.0% FT%
Would an efficient version of Allen Iverson been a better version of Allen Iverson? In the eternal struggle between shot creation and efficiency, Iverson is all the way on the side of shot creation. His ability to create a decent shot for himself is at a historic level, but it was a struggle for him to create particularly good shots – his career TS% was 51.8% against a league average of 52.8%.
Conventional Wisdom on Iverson is, of course, that he was saddled with horrible teammates during his prime years in Philadelphia, and I’m not arguing that he played with a particularly talented supporting cast. During his MVP season, the players who got the most minutes after Iverson were George Lynch, Aaron McKie, Tyrone Hill, Theo Ratliff, and Eric Snow, which is a war crime. (Dikembe was injured for the majority of the 2000-01 season.)
However, let’s flip this on its head for just a second and make the presumption that resource management is a crucial part of team-building. For example, if you spend the same amount of money for a good shooter as you do for a bad one, the bad shooter will be good enough at defense to have his value, in a vacuum, be exactly as good as the good shooter’s. (The draft, player empowerment, and other factors mean this isn’t quite the case in the actual NBA, but it makes enough sense as a concept.)
During the seasons Iverson played under Larry Brown, the 76ers chose to allocate their resources towards defense. They were a top-5 team in defensive efficiency from Iverson’s rookie season until Brown’s last year with the team, 2002-03, when they finished 12th in defensive efficiency. (They lost to the Pistons in the playoffs that year, Larry Brown said “fuck it, I’d rather be with that team than keep trying to make it work with this guard who shoots all the time but can’t shoot,” and won a championship with them the next season. Larry Brown was Kevin Durant before Kevin Durant.)
Iverson’s role on these teams was to be a sin-eater. Since the 76ers spent their resources on extremely good defensive players who couldn’t create shots of average quality, Iverson’s job was to try and drag the 76er offense towards league-average by getting up as many decent shots as he possibly could. During his MVP season, his 51.8% TS% was exactly at league-average, and he shot the ball 25.5 times a game. This took some shots away from more efficient players who could have benefitted from more of a creator (Ratliff and McKie, Mutombo and Kukoc when they were healthy), and it took the burden of shooting away from some truly horrific offensive players (Hill, Lynch, Snow. The end result was that Philadelphia’s TS% was league-average at 51.9%, and they managed to have the 13th-best offensive rating in the league to go along with their #5 defensive rating, and of course they ended up making the Finals that season.
I think Iverson certainly could have benefitted from playing on a team with enough talent to allow Iverson to take a higher proportion of the shots that were efficient for him (namely, ones at the basket) while playing championship-caliber defense, but I think the 76ers may have actually made the most of Iverson’s talents.
Iverson was never more efficient than he was on the 07-08 Carmelo/Iverson Nuggets, who played at the fastest pace in the league and finished 11th in the league in offensive rating, but had the 10th-best defensive rating in the league and were swept in the first round. I think there’s a legitimate argument that while Iverson was better on paper for the Nuggets than he was for the 76ers, he provided more value to the 76ers by allowing them to allocate all the rest of their resources to defense. A rising tide may not have raised Allen Iverson’s boat that much.
We should also probably talk about the 2004 Olympic team, where Iverson led the only “Dream Team” to ever fail to win the gold medal in FGA while shooting 37.7%/36.5%/71.1%. This feels significant to me.
Derrick Rose – 2.6 3PA, 30.4% 3PT%, 82.7% FT%
Like Iverson, Rose won his MVP for sin-eating on a defensively dominant Bulls team. People seem to forget that there’s a different MVP award handed out for every regular season. Rose’s MVP win over LeBron (and Dwight Howard) in 2011 probably wasn’t the best decision, but the Bulls had finished with a better record than the Heat after not being hailed as the superteam to end all superteams before the season, and LeBron had some real late-game gaffes that allowed the Bulls to get that better record. It made a lot of sense at the time! It wasn’t just “people were angry at LeBron and don’t like giving the MVP to one guy too many times.” In any case, people would remember LeBron ending Rose’s whole shit by destroying the Bulls in the ECF and locking Rose down defensively in the 4th quarter better if he didn’t follow that up with the Unforgivable Finals.
It should also be mentioned that Rose has managed to hang around the league despite the destruction of his entire body by being a guy who can come in and knock down some jumpers off the bench. Really good free-throw shooter, too. Also, people who like Derrick Rose fucking LOVE Derrick Rose and I don’t really understand why.
Tier 4 – Wings Who Were Decent Shooters:
Julius Erving: 0.1 3PA, 29.8% 3P%, 77.7% FT%
You might think that Erving playing in the ABA from 1971 to 1976 would have given him a head start when the NBA introduced the 3-point line in 1979. It did not. He didn’t shoot 3s in the ABA, and he didn’t shoot them in the NBA either. Dr. J was also a sub-80% FT shooter, which is not great for an MVP wing. As the wing on this list who spent the most time playing before 3-pointers were anything other than a gimmick, it makes a lot of sense he’s at the bottom of this tier.
Magic Johnson: 1.2 3PA, 30.3% 3PT%, 84.8% FT%
As much as I appreciate Magic turning himself into a shockingly good free throw shooter (Magic came into the league as an 81% shooter from the line, shot 76% in his second and third years, and was consistently shooting at or near 90% before his first retirement), the jump/set shot really wasn’t a big part of his game.
LeBron James: 4.3 3PA, 34.4% 3PT%, 73.4% FT%
I’ll limit myself here, as I’ve thought about LeBron James’ jumper more than pretty much any other single thing in the last 16 years.
- LeBron ditched long 2s for 3s before it was really en vogue to do so, and he’s continued to do so now that it is
- 34.4% isn’t a fantastic 3-point percentage, but when you consider that only 35% of his 3-pointers have been assisted, it isn’t half-bad
- Regarding the above, it is frustrating that LeBron has not added a catch-and-shoot 3 into his game – I try and justify this to myself with the observation that he almost always catches the ball attempting to go downhill where a lot of players would fire the immediate 3, and really only uses the 3 to punish defenders for sitting on his drive too hard
- Never had much interest in the mid-range game, for a few reasons I think are smart (taking the extra dribble into the paint and passing out or trying a contested shot around the rim are better options for him than they are for most people) and some that just aren’t (he doesn’t have elite balance and has never gotten the footwork down for a pull-up going right)
- The fucking free throws. I was really ready to put a MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banner on LeBron as a shooter after Game 7 in 2014, even though he was only a solid free throw shooter then, but lord almighty it’s gotten tough to watch since then. I will never defend LeBron’s 2011 Finals performance or his free throws. It’s a goddamn miracle he hasn’t choked a big playoff game from the line yet, knock on wood.
- I’m not sure if his ability to take and make extremely deep 3s is actually something he needs, since almost every defense will willingly concede a normal-distance 3 to him, but it is pretty cool.
Kobe’s 3-point shooting percentage will age poorly, as it’s just under the Mendoza line (33.0%) for his career. It’s important to remember he came up before the pace-and-space era, and was really the first wing on this list to shoot 3s in volume. With Kobe, the somewhat deficient shooting from distance balances with his ability to get very, very hot from the field, one of the great mid-range games in NBA history, and an incredibly reliable free-throw stroke.
As much as I’d love to make a cute argument for LeBron over Kobe, can you really say that someone who shoots free throws like LeBron is a better shooter than Kobe, who casually bet Gerald Wallace $500,000 dollars he’d make a clutch free throw? I believe you cannot.
Tier 3: The Polar Opposites
James Harden: 7.7 3PA, 36.3% 3PT%, 85.8% FT%
It’s our first 85% free throw shooter on this list of MVPs! Free throws: harder than you think. Remember how back in the Giannis section it was August 31st? It’s now 1:38 on September 2nd. This project may have been a bad idea. In any case, Harden completely revolutionized the notion of when a player can shoot a 3-pointer with a chance of going in, and in a lot of ways is the next step in the Iverson evolutionary pattern – instead of being able to drag an offensively deficient bunch to the league average, Harden is an efficient offense in a can. This season, Harden shot 22.3 field goals per game, with the majority of those attempts coming from deep, averaged 34.3 points per game, had a TS% of 62.6% compared to the league average of 56.5%, and was assisted on 13.9% of his 2-point attempts and 17.1% of his 3-point attempts. That’s mind-bending. Also, this piece that tries to expose step-back 3s as being inefficient by saying “In other words, if NBA players (save for Harden) took step-back 3s all game, their teams would score about five points fewer per game,” is perhaps not as compelling as it thinks it is. I don’t know who exactly was saying it would be a good idea for a team to only shoot step-back 3s, but that guy sure made him look like a dick.
Michael Jordan: 1.7 3PA, 32.7% 3PT%, 83.5% FT%
As our good buddy Ethan Strauss pointed out, those 3-point numbers actually look better than they should because MJ was only any good at threes during that brief period of time when the NBA moved the 3-point line in. Remember back in the Kareem section when I said we’d be looking at another player with a completely unique shooting profile? This would be him. As Kirk Goldsberry, a pretend Harvard professor who revolutionized APBRmetrics through his mastery of dots, pointed out, MJ, at least post-baseball MJ, was completely unique in both the frequency and efficiency with which he shot mid-range jumpers.
Even looking at all the tape where MJ rose up and popped in those jumpers like he was tossing change into a toll basket, I always figured MJ must have been overrated as a jump shooter: He never shot 3s well, his career FG% is 49.7%, and he must have taken a lot of shots at the rim and converted a ton of them, so his mid-range shooting percentage must have been well under 50%, right?. No, it turns out that MJ was strangely bad at layups and an absolute mid-range savant. Seriously, there is no “lost art of the mid-range game” thing happening here – MJ was on another level from every human being at mid-range shooting. Saying the kids today just don’t work on getting a good midrange jumper like MJ had is like going to the Sistine Chapel and lamenting that artists today just don’t work on ceiling brushstroke fundamentals enough.
Re-watching old MJ film through the lens of his mid-range prowess, it does stand out how willing MJ is to “settle” for those turnarounds and pull-ups – as soon as he gets to one of his spots, it’s going up immediately, even when another dribble or two might get him all the way to the rim. Remember how I mentioned the tug-of-war between efficiency and deception earlier? If you have Kareem’s skyhook or MJ’s mid-range jumper, you don’t really need to worry about it. There are pitchers who dominate with pure stuff fired into the strike zone, pitchers who use changes of speed and location to fool hitters, and then every now and again you get a guy with Mariano Rivera’s cutter.
Ultimately, I’m putting MJ ahead of Harden as a shooter, as well as everyone else that’s come before him on this list, because MJ was mainly a jump shooter, and MJ was the best scorer of all time. When you put those statements together, MJ has a hell of a case.
Tier 2: The Legitimately Elite Shooters
Steve Nash: 3.2 3PA, 42.8% 3PT%, 90.4% FT%
I don’t have much to say about Steve Nash. It seems weird in today’s climate that Nash was such a reluctant shooter, but the offenses he helmed in Dallas and Phoenix were consistently the best ones in the league, so it’s hard to hold that against him. It does feel like Nash was a precursor to Curry – brilliant shooter, genius ballhandler, swashbuckling passer, incredible finisher around the rim for his size – but was used in essentially the exact opposite way, which is a little bit interesting.
Dirk Nowitzki: 3.4 3PA, 38% 3PT%, 87.9% FT%
Given the nuanced and unique nature Dirk’s game, which mainly relied on funky mid-post and face-up moves, it is truly bizarre how long Dirk’s reputation was “the tall white guy who can shoot 3s.” None of the players who were supposed to be “the next Dirk Nowitzki” played remotely like Dirk Nowitzki, but that didn’t stop teams from falling in love with them. If Steve Novak had been playing in the Bosnia league, he probably would have been a top-5 pick. The closest thing we have to a Dirk descendant playing now is probably Jokic – there’s a lot more Dirk in him than there is in Danilo Gallinari.
Kevin Durant: 4.9 3PA, 38.1% 3PT%, 88.3% FT%
Here’s the argument for Kevin Durant being the best offensive player of all time, and I think it’s a fairly decent one: is there one team, from the Mikan Lakers to now, who would not get instantly better offensively by adding Kevin Durant to their starting lineup? With LeBron, you need to space the floor with shooters and come up with ways to get him either downhill making plays or getting touches near the basket. MJ had his completely unique mid-range game that he needs the ball to employ. Same thing with Kobe. You need to install all kinds of off-ball actions to get anywhere near the maximum value out of Steph. Any of the great post players hurts your spacing at least a little bit. KD, though? Pop him in 1964 and he’s bullying everybody in the post. He’d look very good spacing the floor for Magic and Worthy. Put him with AI on the 2001 76ers and you probably have a better version of the Westbrook/Durant Thunder. Put him in the Ron Harper spot on the MJ/Scottie/Rodman Bulls and watch the destruction. (I feel like this would have the worst chance of working, since Jerry Krause would have never shut up about him and MJ may have subsequently started putting cesium in his food, or Phil might have insisted he only play 15 minutes a game for vague triangle reasons.) Heck, the Warriors he ran through the league with might have been the worst team for maximizing his skills, because the one knock on him is that he’s not all that enthusiastic about moving without the ball, which is the staple of the Warriors offense.
On the fast break, he’s a monster. He can destroy you off the dribble. He can post up anyone. He can knock down any catch-and-shoot 3. Give him the ball in space going towards the basket and you’re dead. Anyways, it’s fascinating to me that even though KD is 7 feet tall and pretty much unstoppable once he gets a stride away from the basket, his shot is dangerous enough so that almost everything he does is off the threat of it – every touch he gets, the first thing he looks for is whether he has the space for an open 3, and he forces every defender to close out hard on him despite how screwed they’ll be if he gets past them.
Players on this list who forced rule changes:
- Kevin Durant got the “rip move” banned, or at least specifically limited
- Harden caused the rules to tighten up on 3-shot fouls – you have to be in your shooting motion before contact to get free throws now
- Iverson caused a crackdown on palming
- Barkley (along with Mark Jackson) caused the implementation of the 5-second post-up rule
- Derrick Rose – the “Derrick Rose Rule” in the CBA
- Shaq – because of him, every NBA team is required to have a replacement backboard immediately available (I do not believe the zone defense was instituted as an anti-Shaq measure)
- KG, along with Shaq, had to have his contract grandfathered into a CBA
- Kareem – dunks banned in the NCAA
Even though I fully believe that Kevin Durant is “objectively” a better shooter than Bird, I’m putting Bird ahead of him for this reason: he was the absolute undisputed best outside shooter in the NBA when he played. In Korea, every so often there comes a competitive gamer who is so clearly the best in the world he gets called a “bonjwa.” (Yes, I’m running out of competitive endeavors to mine metaphors from.) It happens extremely rarely, because there’s almost always a solid argument for one player or another being the best, so it’s special when it does happen. Larry Bird was a shooting Bonjwa. He led the league in 3-pointers made while shooting better than 40% from deep twice. The NBA average 3-point percentage during his career was 29.7%. He won the first 3 3-point contests. He shot nearly 90% from the line. Larry Bird was the first truly great 3-point shooter, and he was great at shooting from everywhere else too.
Tier 1: Steph By God Curry
Steph Curry: 8.2 3PA, 43.5% 3P%, 90.6% FT%
Considering how putting a ball into a basket was the original basketball skill, it’s a little bit absurd how much better at shooting a basketball Steph Curry is than every other human to have ever lived. He’s the best spot-up shooter. He’s the best shooter off the dribble. He’s the best shooter at screens. He’s the best player at using (and setting) screens to get himself open. He’s the best from deep range. (Damian Lillard can be argued for this one.) He has the best free throw percentage of all time. In a time where absolutely everyone is shooting, Steph is an unquestioned shooting Bonjwa. Of course, we learned all the wrong lessons from Steph’s 3-point revolution, but that’s a story for another time.
“Steph is really good at shooting” isn’t news, so here’s a fun fact: No superstar has sacrificed more of their 3-point percentage in pursuit of buzzer-beaters than Steph. He is 4-77 on “heaves” in his career: if he had never attempted one, his career 3-point percentage would be an even 44.0% and he would jump from 6th to 4th on the all-time 3PT% list. For comparison, LeBron has “heaved” the ball 34 times in his career. Durant, 9. Kobe, 21. Dame, 17. You get the picture.
Okay, that should wrap it up. If you actually finished this, my sincere thanks.