Saturday night in Dallas six of the top shooters in the NBA will compete in the one aspect of All-Star Weekend that is settled without judges, playing time, dependence on teammates or fan voting. No, the winner of the 24th NBA Three-Point Shootout will have to earn the title by himself.
Each shooter will get 60 seconds to find his rhythm, get hot and sustain it in order to move on to the next round. There is a lot of pressure and very little margin for error.
In 1996, I was leading the league in 3-point shooting at the break and I was red-hot heading into All-Star Weekend in San Antonio. I felt that I had a great chance to win the event because I took a lot of pride in my shooting ability and I always felt that there wasn't anyone on the planet who could beat me in a head-to-head shooting competition. I was focused and this was a chance at validation. Oh, and winning $20,000 and a really cool trophy didn't hurt either.
The first element I had to deal with was learning how to shoot with a brand-new ball. These balls were right out of the box so they were very slick and hard. I was concerned about the ball sliding off my hand and not being able to make sure the ball came off with the proper rotation. But as I warmed up, I got more comfortable and found a nice rhythm. Any doubt I had disappeared and I was ready to roll.
I picked the No. 1 in a random draw a day prior to the event, which meant I got to shoot first in the competition. The benefit was that I had just warmed up for 15 minutes and I wasn't going to have to go sit and watch other shooters put up numbers that would have to be chased. Out of the gate I put up a score of 23 and followed it up with a round of 22. In the final round I scored 20 points to top Dennis Scott, and earn a record score of 65 total points and the title of the NBA's 3-point champion. For a shooter, it was a great feeling to take on the world's best shooters and come out on top.
All six shooters competing in the 3-point contest bring different strengths and weaknesses to the table. With that in mind, let's break down each shooter's chances to become the 16th winner in shootout history.
Paul Pierce, Boston Celtics:
Despite the fact that Pierce has hit more than 1,400 3-pointers in his career and has been a solid 37 percent 3-point shooter throughout his career, this isn't a competition that I expect him to do particularly well in. He has a slower, more deliberate stroke that takes time to get off. In this competition you don't have time to load up, release and watch the ball get to the rim. Right after you release the ball, you need to reach down for the next ball so you can establish a pace that will allow you to get to all five racks comfortably. On the plus side, Pierce will not be fazed by the pressure. Keep in mind that Pierce was named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team, so he won't have a problem with the level of competition in this group. He will be loose, but he doesn't have the short, compact stroke needed to win the competition.
Channing Frye, Phoenix Suns:
It has been a breakout season for Frye in Phoenix. He has found a system that suits his game perfectly and he has made 119 of his career total of 139 3-pointers this season playing with Steve Nash. Frye is capable of running off some long streaks and he can be a long shot to win it all, but I don't expect him to win. For the first time Frye will be in the competition and sometimes that can be a hindrance. He also appears to be more of a catch-and-shoot guy in rhythm. Unfortunately, Nash won't be delivering the basketballs in this one. He will have to shoot, look down, grab the ball and quickly readjust his vision and depth perception for the next shot. It's not easy if you have never done it and Frye may be a year away from being a favorite.
Daequan Cook, Miami Heat:
Cook won the title last year in Phoenix after surviving an overtime shootout with Rashard Lewis. The history will give Cook confidence that he can do it again without question. What won't help is the fact that he hasn't really been a factor at all for the Heat from beyond the arc this season. He has made only 27 3s all season and has shot a paltry 30 percent from deep. I thought his win last year was an upset, but if he goes back-to-back I will be utterly shocked. His stroke is quick and decisive and he can get hot -- so anything is possible.
That brings me to the three guys who have the best chance to join an illustrious list of former champions.
Chauncey Billups, Denver Nuggets:
He has a compact shooting motion with very little air under his sneakers when he launches his set shot. His strength, both upper and lower body, will bode well for Billups as he can conserve energy and still maintain consistency. He has made more than 1,500 3s in his career and has always been known as a guy who thrives under pressure so he won't get rattled if he has a slow start. Finally, like Pierce, he has a bigger moment coming the next day as he plays in the All-Star Game for the West.
Danilo Gallinari, New York Knicks:
Mike D'Antoni proclaimed before the season that Gallinari is "the best shooter I've ever seen." Well, I might not go that far, but there is no doubt that Gallinari has the sort of smooth, effortless release that makes you think he will have a great chance to grab the trophy. He leads the league with 126 made 3s and he has a lightning-quick release that will get him through all of the racks in good shape. He has the arrogant attitude about his shooting that all great shooters need when they have to put up or shut up. Not a lot of people know about him because he essentially missed his rookie season with a back injury and this season he is buried with a 19-win Knicks team. A moment like this could thrust him into the company of the game's truly great pure shooters.
Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors:
The rookie has a ridiculously good stroke and easy range that belie his adolescent looks and thin frame. As the season has progressed, Curry has gotten better and better. He will enter the break playing the best basketball he's played all season, so he should be confident and easily find his rhythm. He has the highest percentage (42.6 percent) of the field and has mechanics that don't allow for prolonged cold spells or inconsistent results. He is young, but he has been waiting for this opportunity his whole life. He has to be considered one of the top two or three favorites.