As we watch this year's loaded 3-point contest, you might be wondering: Are today's 3-point shooters better than ever?
That's a tricky question.
The NBA has evolved so drastically over the years that it makes raw 3-point percentages super difficult to compare across eras. Case in point: Larry Bird, who many consider one of the best shooters ever, doesn't even crack the top 100 in career 3-point percentage.
Comparing Bird's numbers to, say, Stephen Curry's feels like apples to oranges because Bird faced different defenses, different rules, different bodies and different philosophies than Curry. Those are important factors that muddy up the picture.
What we really need is an experiment that holds all those variables the same. Just Bird, Curry, a 3-point line and a basket.
Funny thing: We already have that, and it's called the 3-point contest. Every year, the best shooters undergo the same controlled environment on All-Star Saturday and try their best to hit every shot.
So we decided to break down the film of every 3-point contest since 1987 -- thanks to ESPN researcher extraordinaire Gus Elvin -- and cataloged over 8,000 shots to see if today's shooters are indeed better than yesterday's. (One note: We couldn't get our hands on the full reel of the inaugural 3-point contest in 1986, but we did crunch everything after that.)
What we found is that, yes, the best of the best have gotten better over time. Much better, in fact.
Back in 1987, Bird took home the second trophy of his 3-point three-peat, toppling a crew of Byron Scott, Craig Hodges, Dale Ellis, Danny Ainge, Detlef Schrempf, Kiki Vandeweghe and Michael Cooper. Collectively, they made 46 percent of their 3-point tries.
Fast forward to last year's contest at Barclays Center. With Curry leading the way, the 2015 contestants made a whopping 58.6 percent of their attempts. A huge difference.
And that's not an outlier hot performance. Over the past three decades, the best shooters have, on average, steadily gotten sharper in the contest over time.
A few things to point out in the chart above:
- Notice the spike from 1995 to 1997. That's when the 3-point line was moved in for three seasons.
- The peak of 1996 was buoyed by ESPN's own Tim Legler, who won it that year with 69.3 percent shooting. (The best performance of all time was by Jason Kapono in 2008, who drained 38 of his 50 attempts for 76 percent. For more trivia, take the quiz at the bottom of the page.)
- As you can see, once the line got longer in 1997, the percentages dropped.
- What the heck happened in 2005? Maybe the contest-low 43.1 percent conversion rate had something to do with Denver's high altitude coupled with the weekend festivities. Or maybe it's just random.
If you dive into the data further, you can find the trend over time rises upward from about 48 percent to 55 percent. So we can see that in this controlled environment with no defenses or schemes, 3-point shooting has improved over time in the contest.
You might be asking: Well, did the recent selected contestants have better 3-point percentages during the season than the early ones? Maybe the early contestants weren't the cream of the crop?
We checked that out, and that doesn't seem to be true. The contestants' 3-point percentages have stayed constant, right around 40 percent, throughout the 3-point contest, per ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton's research.
So what does this all tell us? The evidence is pretty clear that the NBA's elite shooters have gotten better over time even though their 3-point percentages in actual games have stayed relatively flat. Which makes sense. This lends credence to the notion that shooters have gotten better over time, but defenses and sheer volume have compensated to bring the overall 3-point percentage down.
It's also true that shooters in 1987 hadn't grown up with the line and hadn't practiced it nearly as much as today's players. Bird told ESPN last year that he didn't even practice 3s at all until the day of the 3-point contest. Practice makes perfect.
And you can see that in the data as well. In the study, the first ball on the rack went in only 43 percent of the time, but improved to 51 percent on the second ball and 56 percent on both the third and fourth balls. The moneyball? Interestingly enough, that dropped down to 52 percent, either because of rushing it at the buzzer or the pressure.
Thinking about it, it's surprising that the 3-point percentages during the contests aren't generally higher. After attending NBA practices over the past few years, we've seen sharpshooters regularly shoot anywhere from 60 to 90 percent on 3s in practice. Of course, those sessions aren't being televised around the world.
This might be as close as we can get to comparing Bird and Curry in their primes. Ultimately, once you control for defense and schemes, it's clear: The best shooters are better than they used to be. And if that's the case, Curry playing in 1987 would have been downright unfair.
JAHLIL OKAFOR SITS on a leather chair in the darkened media room of his Center City penthouse. In his black T-shirt and gray shorts, he looks drawn, tired. The Duke basketball game is playing on his oversized television on this Saturday afternoon in February, the sound cranked to a near-deafening level. A Styrofoam container, with remnants of an omelet, sits on a table. His 3-year-old niece pirouettes across an Oriental rug while his rottweiler, Natty, drops a bone on the floor. His agent's representative, a woman named Alyson Furch, gives him a to-do list for the coming week. For starters, Okafor needs to pick out what he's going to wear in Toronto, during the NBA's All-Star Weekend.
He notices none of it.
"Hey!" Furch says.
Okafor gives a slight jolt, like he has been awakened from a trance.
"Huh?" he asks. "What'd you say?"
Last night's nine-point, four-rebound, five-foul game is behind him. A Philadelphia 76ers loss to the Washington Wizards. Two nights earlier, it was a 38-point blowout to the Atlanta Hawks. Okafor's team is riding a four-game losing streak, which is spectacular in itself. It's Feb. 6, which means the 76ers have finally won a game. Seven, actually, leading into Saturday against the 13-win Brooklyn Nets. It will be another chance for Okafor to redeem himself. If not on the court, then with the fans, with the City of Brotherly Love, which hasn't always been so lovely to him. Some of that is his own doing; some of it is life as a professional athlete in a city that expects so much, that is desperate for a winner.
Okafor is averaging 17 points and seven rebounds per game this season. Leading into Saturday, he has racked up 18 20-or-more-point games -- the most of any rookie -- and will play in the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge on Friday as part of the NBA's All-Star festivities. But despite these successes, there's a sense this has hardly been a season of dreams for the Sixers' rookie. Forget the seven wins. Forget the 43 losses. His first year in the NBA has been about doubt and adjustment. He is 20 now, two years out of high school. He has had to grow up since going No. 3 overall to Philly in June. It hasn't been an easy transition.
In early October, there was the argument outside a Philadelphia nightclub where a gun was pulled and the cops showed up. There was the ticket for speeding 108 miles per hour across the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. And there were the fights outside a Boston nightclub in November, moments captured on video and posted online for everyone to see.
Okafor tried to keep the episodes quiet, off newspaper pages and Twitter feeds. It worked until it didn't. A two-game suspension. A hurried apology. A flood of bad PR for a young man who'd wanted nothing more than to call himself an NBA player. As a kid growing up in Chicago, he thought about it almost every day. Now here he was. Jahlil Okafor, NBA player, appearing intoxicated, brawling on a darkened Boston street, a fool for everyone to see. Still a kid. And now he was being called other things: immature, selfish, a punk.
If the rest of the world seems like a battlefield, this penthouse is his bunker. But now, for the first time, he has agreed to talk about this season, on the court and off. Still, he looks uncomfortable.
"It's not right," he finally begins. "That's not who I am."
On the TrueHoop Podcast, we discuss the Kobe-LeBron trade talks from 2007, whether there's any defense that can stop the Warriors, deadline deals, and what lies ahead for the Knicks.
TO THE UNTRAINED EYE, Kristaps Porzingis looked fresh and rested as he walked into the Quicken Loans Arena for a late-December game in Cleveland. And for the first three quarters, he played that way.
But even if the 20-year-old rookie phenom looked good on the outside, on the inside his body was surely a mess. For the past three months, it had been systematically trashed by the NBA's silent killer: its grueling 82-game schedule. New York had just come off a three-games-in-four-nights stretch, which had come on the heels of a three-games-in-four-nights swing through Utah, Sacramento and Portland. Not surprisingly, Carmelo Anthony had rolled his ankle late in a game two nights earlier and was now out.
Sure enough, by the fourth quarter, the hormonal, mental and physical aftershock of the Knicks' schedule emerged into full view. With a minute left, Porzingis, who had scored 23 points in the first three quarters, had yet to score in the fourth and was visibly dragging. The Knicks trailed by four and needed a stop. And with the entire arena on its feet, LeBron James -- coming off a luxurious, if rare, two days of rest -- made his move. From the left corner, LeBron darted toward Porzingis before rising up for a sky-high one-handed slam. Instead of challenging James at the rim, Porzingis ducked away, like a matador. The Cavs would win by seven, with the Knicks mustering just 12 points in the fourth, tying their then-season low.
For the NBA, LeBron's slam was the stuff of dreams: A superstar soaring for a game-clinching dunk is the very thing that sells tickets, spikes ratings and launches Vines. But here's the thing: It almost never happens, and for reasons most people don't realize.
As it turns out, the fourth-quarter dunk is a rare phenomenon. From the 2005-06 season through 2014-15, there were nearly 5,000 fewer dunks in the fourth quarter compared with the first, a decline of 20 percent. In fact, dunks become rarer with each passing quarter: from an average of 1.98 in the first to 1.59 in the fourth. More fascinating: The overall frequency falls 24 percent when teams play on zero days' rest versus one day off, dropping from 5.5 dunks per game to 4.2. The upshot: It took a dog-tired Knicks team on the road against a fresh Cavs squad to produce that James highlight.
It's merely one of a hundred signals that NBA players are exhausted and sleep-deprived. In this case it was to the benefit of the highlight makers. But the evidence suggests that, over the course of a season, all players -- and fans -- end up losing.
"It makes no sense to me," says Dr. Charles Czeisler, director of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School. "These guys are so extraordinarily talented, and it's a shame that they're being impaired. It'd be like the NBA saying, 'OK, let's see how they do if we starve the players. OK, let's see how they do if we make them all drunk before they play, so everybody has to do six shots before they do the game.' Would anyone in their right minds consider that?"
STEPHEN CURRY DIDN'T know if he'd wake up owning a dead man's tendons.
It was April 25, 2012, and inside the Southern California Orthopedic Institute in Van Nuys, a renowned surgeon hovered over a baby-faced, decreasingly conscious Curry. In the vast majority of the ankles operated on by Dr. Richard Ferkel, who's cut thousands of holes into hundreds of NBA players since 1983, he knew precisely what he'd find well before the anesthesia started pumping -- structural damage, scar tissue, etc. But here in this fourth-floor operating room, something wasn't adding up with his 185-pound patient. As the clock ticked and the Curry family prayed just down the hall, Steph went to sleep a mystery.
Before the drugs hit, Ferkel had explained a range of potential outcomes. Less than a year before, in Curry's hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, a specialist had already sliced open that same right ankle and rebuilt two ligaments that had stretched apart like a rotting sweater. The worst-case scenario now? Total re-reconstruction, meaning that everything rebuilt in Curry's first surgery would be reattempted. If that proved necessary, they'd use better parts -- specifically, tendons from a cadaver -- and the projected recovery time would be at least six months. But such an operation would also be extreme enough that no one would be sure how the new hinge would hold up on the court. One near certainty: With Curry's rookie deal expiring in six months, on Nov. 1, 2012, his future with Golden State would be that much hazier. His agent would likely need to negotiate an extension before the undead ankle could appear in a game.
Understand: The four doctors and two nurses in the operating room didn't know they were endeavoring to save the future of the NBA. Nobody, anywhere, considered that a 24-year-old who was still getting carded at California Pizza Kitchen was the impending nightmare of both LeBron James and Kevin Durant. At this point, Curry's trajectory was just depressing: In his first NBA season after the original procedure, he suffered five ankle sprains while playing in a mere 26 games.
"He was turning his ankle in completely nontraditional, crazy ways," Warriors general manager Bob Myers says. One time, Curry turned it while hopping into a passing lane during a preseason game against the Lakers. Another time, he was dribbling upcourt against the Spurs, with no one around, only to have his right foot fishtail like an old tire on black ice. "It was scary," Myers says. "I'd never seen someone sprain his ankle like that prior to Steph. And I haven't seen it since."
The league had once envisioned Curry as a sharpshooter with a close-up magician's gift of misdirection. But now, as the Warriors guard rested atop Ferkel's operating table, his career resembled a crossover in reverse: a case of ankles breaking a man. "People started saying, 'Steph's got glass ankles. Steph's Grant Hill 2.0,'" recalls Bryant Barr, Curry's best friend and college teammate at Davidson. "He didn't hide his emotions, his frustration, for anyone." In college, somehow, Curry had no history of right ankle trouble. As a pro? The sight of the guy chucking his mouth guard, punching a padded chair or slapping the floor in existential agony became more memorable than any highlight.
When Curry eventually blacked out on the operating table, however, a rather remarkable thing happened. A recent battery of strength tests, nerve tests, X-rays, MRIs and CAT scans had all failed to resolve why his ankle kept buckling. But a set of stress X-rays conducted midsleep, when pain can't impact motion, formally ruled out any structural damage to the ligaments. A 1-ounce HD camera snaked into Curry's subtalar and ankle joints produced images of thick, sticky bands of scar tissue -- "like crab meat," Ferkel says -- as well as inflamed tissue, bone spurs and chips of cartilage. To anyone else, orthopedic seafood might be revolting. To Curry, "it was good news," he says. "The least intrusive outcome." A motorized device called a shaver scraped and vacuumed all of it away in less than 90 minutes. No zombie tendons necessary. Projected recovery time: three to four months.
Easier said than done, of course. Three months later, in July 2012, Curry was rehabbing with his personal trainer, Brandon Payne, when he made a startling confession: "I feel like I've been doing nothing but rehabbing for two years," Curry quietly told him. "I feel like I'm never going to be able to play again."
He looked exceptionally miserable. And everyone could see it.
"Steph was sick and tired of it," Myers recalls. "He said, 'This ankle thing is not gonna be my life.'"
Kobe Bryant and LeBron James play each other Wednesday night, Bryant's final game in Cleveland.
Their matchup over the years has been one of cross-conference shadow boxing; injury and circumstance have prevented them from having an epic playoff showdown. One or the other played in every NBA Finals from 2007 to 2015, but never against each other.
There is another piece of history the two share, one mostly hidden until now. According to multiple sources with direct knowledge of the event, the Lakers once contacted the Cavs to investigate whether Cleveland would make James available in a possible Bryant trade.