How the NBA maximized shooting efficiency in an era of Stephen Curry’s 3-point revolution

Prior to the 2009-10 NBA season, when Kevin Durant first emerged as a generatively efficient scorer, only four players averaged 30 or more points per game on 60% true shooting or better: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Michael Jordan and Adrian Dantley, or the three most prolific scorers of the league’s first 67 years and a man so adept at making free throws that sprawl on the line became “The Dantley.”

During the first month of this season, eight players scored better than 30 points per game, and seven of them had a true shooting percentage of more than 60%. The one who didn’t, Giannis Antetokounmpo, has one career true shooting rate of 60%. A ninth player, Ja Morant, could join their club at short notice.

If the NBA hasn’t maximized shooting efficiency, the past three seasons have ended at a level we could never have imagined before the league’s 3-point blessing, and it will take another revolution to raise the bar again .

The Dallas Mavericks scored 116.7 points per 100 possessions during the 2019-20 campaign, setting the NBA benchmark, according to Basketball Reference. Seven teams eclipsed that figure in empty arenas the following season. Another matched last season, and three others are on track to match or eclipse it this season. Also on that list is the Boston Celtics, who currently score a record 119.5 points per 100 possessions.

Seven of the 12 teams on that list include either Durant, Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum or Donovan Mitchell – five of the eight players mentioned above have averaged more than 30 points per game this season:

  • Luka DoncicDallas Mavericks: 34.4 PPG (54.6 eFG%, 60.4 TS%)

  • Joel EmbidPhiladelphia 76ers: 32.3 PPG (56.0 eFG%, 63.9 TS%)

  • Jason TatumBoston Celtics: 31.9 PPG (57.5 eFG%, 64.1 TS%)

  • Donovan MitchellCleveland Cavaliers: 31.6 PPG (60.8 eFG%, 64.9 TS%)

  • Stephen CurryGolden State Warriors: 31.5 PPG (64.7 eFG%, 69.2 TS%)

  • Shai Gilgeous-AlexanderOklahoma City Thunder: 31.5 PPG (56.4 eFG%, 63.3 TS%)

  • Giannis AntetokounmpoMilwaukee Bucks: 31.3 PPG (54.5 eFG%, 58.4 TS%)

  • Kevin DurantBrooklyn Nets: 30.3 PPG (56.6 eFG%, 65.1 TS%)

If Curry kept these numbers, his season would be the most efficient high volume scoring season ever, two ticks better than his unanimous MVP campaign. Mitchell’s season would rank third, and together this group would account for six of the 16 most efficient peak seasons in history.

Stephen Curry's ascent has also raised the ceiling for NBA offenses.  (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Stephen Curry’s ascent has also raised the ceiling for NBA offenses. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

It’s no coincidence that Antetokounmpo, Embiid, Doncic, Durant and Tatum make up the top five free throw attempts this season, each averaging at least nine per game (more than Jordan did at any point in the 1990s).

Antetokounmpo, Doncic, and Gilgeous-Alexander rank in the top seven field goal attempts per game on the rim, where they each shoot better than 70% (about the equivalent of an excellent Shaquille O’Neal season).

Curry, Mitchell, and Tatum are in the top nine for attempts per game from 3-point range, where Curry and Mitchell both shoot 43% (and all three make more triples per game than Ray Allen ever did).

They’ve almost perfected the game’s most efficient shots and turned their volume up to 11 from each location – quite literally. Curry’s 11.5 tries per game from a 3-point range lead the league for the third straight season. (Only James Harden, who hit 30 points per game and 60% true shooting thresholds three times from 2017-20, averages more in a season.) Antetokounmpo averages 11.6 tries on rim per game, the second highest ( following Zion Williamson’s 13.4 in 2020-21) since the NBA began keeping records in 1996. Doncic, Embiid and Antetokounmpo could become the first trio to each average at least 11 free throw attempts in the same season since Wilt Chamberlain , Jerry West and Oscar Robertson in 1965-66.

It’s not just that they take the right shots. The accuracy with which they convert them creates scope to make difficult shots easier. Teams strain themselves to defend the rim and perimeter, so the midrange opens up enough to make those attempts manageable. Kobe Bryant recorded an industry-leading 12.2 mid-range shots per game (nearly half his nightly total) during his 2005–06 campaign. That’s a lot of work to get 10 points per game.

No one is attempting more than nine mid-range shots per game this season. Only two players take more than seven, and both convert better than 50% of them. Only 13 players make more than four mid-range shots per game this season, and 11 of them make more than 45% of those attempts.

This speaks to the level of skill and discipline throughout the competition. It’s not just the stars. In recent seasons, there have been a few Specialists shooting over 45% with at least three 3-point attempts per game. You can probably memorize half the list of 35 players who have ever done it for more than half a season. JJ Redick, Steve Nash, Kyle Korver, Joe Harris, Dale Ellis, Hubert Davis, Stephen Curry, Seth Curry and Brent Barry are the only ones who have done it multiple times. Behind them, a Brandon Rush, Eric Piatkowski, Steve Novak, Troy Murphy or Anthony Morrow could catch fire for a year.

This season, 18 players are on track to join that club, albeit early in the season. The Celtics have three: Grant Williams, Al Horford and Sam Hauser, who together shoot 46% on a dozen 3-point attempts per game. The Celtics have armed the roster around Tatum. Defend their gunners and Tatum will attack the rim. Get closer to Tatum and he’ll pick his poison around the bow. (No NBA duo scores more points per possession than the 1.34 the Celtics score when Tatum and Hauser share the court.) Try to defend both and Jaylen Brown steps into midfield, where he shoots 60.5% this season.

Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum reacts after hitting a 3-pointer against the Atlanta Hawks at the State Farm Arena in Atlanta on Nov. 16, 2022. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum reacts after hitting a 3-pointer against the Atlanta Hawks on Nov. 16, 2022. He averages 31.9 ppg on 64.1% firing. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

How far can players and teams go with this math? There is only so much pace and space to generate.

The past three seasons have seen the highest average offensive ratings in NBA history, peaking at 112.3 early this year. That’s four points better than the heyday of the 1980s, when the league last played at an average pace of 100 possessions per game. Ruled scores reach the 120s and 130s nightly, and the Sacramento Kings scored 153 points against the Brooklyn Nets in four quarters on Tuesday, while their pre-game pace (109 possessions) would have set a record as the average over a full season.

It is clear that the increase in 3-point attempts has had a major impact on this efficiency. A team’s average tries per game didn’t reach double digits until 1995 and only surpassed 20 in 2013. That number rose steadily each year until 2020, when it stalled at around 34 per game, the same where we stand this season. The average league conversion rate on 3-pointers has remained around 35%-36% over the last 25 years.

The last time the average number of 3-point attempts in the league held steady was from 2007-2012, when teams shot 18 per game. Around that time, then Houston Rockets executive Daryl Morey escalated the brand of basketball we see so often today. His teams achieved a record 45 tries per game from 2018-2020. The Rockets peaked at 114.9 points per 100 possessions when they shot 35.6% from distance in 2018-19, and their offense rating dropped to 112.5 as their 3-point shooting percentage as a team fell to 34.5%.

There is evidence of diminishing returns on open and wide-open 3-pointers as the Rockets increased their attempts from 26.6 in 2013-14 to 45.4 in 2018-19. Defense got hip in Houston’s plan and Harden had to work even harder as the heliocentric core of the offense. There’s only so far you can push the limit, and it shouldn’t surprise us that the league average has settled on the median of Houston’s escalating attempts.

There is similar evidence that speed has its limit before taking a toll on efficiency. No team has ever maintained a pace of more than 103 possessions per game, shot at least 36% from distance, and scored better than 1.13 points per possession (an offense that would rank outside the top 10 this season). Turn the pace back a handful of possession per game and 33 teams have achieved those points – 30 of them since the Warriors’ 73 wins in 2015/16. A record eight teams are on track to surpass these numbers this season.

We may have reached the ceiling for the pace-and-space era and resulted in a record 30 scorers and the highest offensive rating in NBA history. Or maybe players will become even more skilled than they already are. That’s essentially asking someone to become an amalgam of Antetokounmpo and Curry – those 11 shots apiece on the rim, 3-point line and free throw line on 70/45/90 splits, which would translate to the first 40 points of the game. per-game scorer since Chamberlain.

Whether that’s possible or not, NBA offenses – and the stars who control them – have never been better.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Do you have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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