NBA Early Season Three-Point Shooting— After Two Weeks

It’s January 4th and the NBA season is now two weeks old. Most teams have played 6 or 7 games — still a tiny sample, on the heels of a shortened pre-season…but just enough games to make a few observations.

Let’s start with three-point shooting. Most are familiar with the fact that three-point attempts have been climbing steadily over the last eight years or so. By 2016, threes made up 30% of all shots, in both the regular season and playoffs. In the Orlando bubble, that number eclipsed 40% for the first time — at 43% after the first two rounds.

As teams regularly shoot 40 threes per game, a difference of 5% can mean 5 points per game. Most NBA teams can shoot well for a quarter or a half — and that can tilt any game, bot all threes are created equal. Contested non-corner 3s are the toughest to make. Corner 3s are the easiest. With teams playing back-to-backs or 3-in-4 nights…shooting percentages drop.

Teams with the right personnel (mobile yet very tall and switchable defenders) have started copying the Milwaukee Bucks, focusing on paint denial and avoiding corner 3s, while happily allowing teams to launch from deep. Essentially — take away the highest value shots.

The New Orleans Pelicans, with Stan Van Gundy at the helm and Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe now on the roster, are allowing an NBA-leading 44 threes per game, but are keeping opponents to the 8th-lowest rate (34%). As a result, they’ve allowed the 3rd-fewest points per game. The New York Knicks, with defensive guru Tom Thibodeau now coaching, have allowed 40 threes per game, but are leading the league in opponent 3-pt % (29%). The Knicks surprised Milwaukee already, blowing out the Bucks by 20 a week ago.

After an abbreviated offseason and shortened preseason, with massive roster fluctuation and new coaching situations, these first 6 games have shown how wildly inconsistent shooting often is. Things will likely normalize to some extent over the next month or two, but the frequency of 3s is the new normal. This means 15 point-leads evaporating in a quarter. It means while watching, a game is not safely in the win column until a team holds a double-digit lead with less than 3 minutes remaining.

I’ll look at what happens over the next few weeks and see what three-point shooting patterns continue to emerge.

Tiny Sample Leaders

These players are destined for a reality-check:

Meanwhile, these are the legit shooters, who will continue to see the best looks, due to their team’s offense:

Encouraging news for Celtics fans: Jaylen Brown is currently at 43% on 40 3PA. Without Kemba Walker, Jaylen’s usage is way up and he’s excelling, with a scorching three-game streak against Memphis and two against Detroit. Jaylen went 15 of 21 (7 of 10 deep), 12 of 20, and 13 of 16 (5 of 8 deep) from the field. As the games pile up, it’s worth watching to see if Jaylen keeps launching at such a high rate.

Bubble Three-Point Shooting — Jazz-Nuggets series

As The Ringer highlighted in the bubble playoffs — playoff 3-point % usually drops off by about 2%, but through the first two rounds of the Orlando playoffs, 3-point % actually increased.

The theories laid out in The Ringer’s shooting analysis:

Here are just a few, any of which might mean nothing on its own but could explain all or part of this phenomenon:

  • The long layoff may have counteracted the fatigue of a long season, with players having just a dozen recent games on their odometers now, instead of 80-plus.
  • Playing in the same gyms game after game might help, the same way a familiar home court does in the regular season.
  • Without fans crowding the court, extra room on the baselines and sidelines might make players feel more comfortable beyond the arc; accuracy on corner 3s in particular is up inside the bubble.
  • Defenses might be out of sync without much recent practice time.
  • Players are drawing more fouls on jump shots, so closely contested misses won’t actually count toward shooting percentages.
  • Players might benefit from a lack of cross-country travel.

Thinking especially about the Utah-Denver First Round series and the incredible shooting, Four of the bubble performers who exceeded their 3-point makes versus expectation belong to that that enthralling Jazz-Nuggets 7-game series:

*Jamal Murray made 39 over the first two rounds — 11 more than expected based on his career 3-pt %.

*Donovan Mitchell made 33 over 7 games — 10 more than expected based on career 3-pt %.

*Nikola Jokic made 29 over the first two rounds — 9 more than expected.

After missing the first two games of the series, Mike Conley made a ridiculous 17 of 28 (61%) in Games 3–6, before struggling in Game 7.

So…what gave Utah and Denver an advantage after the long hiatus and the two weeks of seeding games in August?

Both teams play at high elevation. Denver is 5,280 feet above sea level. Salt Lake City is 4,228 feet above sea level. Like marathoners training in mountains, the Nuggets and Jazz players were in better shape than the rest of the NBA. The Miami Heat, whose training and conditioning program is legendary (or militaristic) also performed incredibly well in the bubble.

Great conditioning leads to fresher legs, which leads to better shooting. With no travel needed and the great shooting backdrop of the bubble (no fans near court, fewer distractions, piped-in fake noise), the shooting performances were mind-boggling.

Those first 6 games of the Denver-Utah series highlighted Jamal Murray and Donovan Mitchell both soaring to unprecedented heights.

Playing every other day, like all playoff series in the bubble, by Game 7 of the series, both teams were running on fumes.

Game 1: Denver 135, Utah 125

Murray 6 of 9, Mitchell 6 of 15, Jokic 4 of 7

Game 2: Utah 124, Denver 105

Mitchell 6 of 7, Porter 6 of 9

Game 3: Utah 124, Denver 87

Conley 7 of 8

Game 4: Utah 129, Denver 127

Murray 9 of 15, Mitchell 4 of 7

Game 5: Denver 117, Utah 107

Jokic 7 of 11, Clarkson 4 of 7, Murray 4 of 8, Mitchell 4 of 8

Game 6: Denver 119, Utah 107

Murray 9 of 12, Mitchell 9 of 13, Conley 4 of 6, Grant 4 of 7

Game 7: Denver 80, Utah 78

Both teams shot horribly from deep. Probably a combination of exhaustion and nerves.

Denver 8 of 31, Utah 8 of 34.

***

Murray went on to have a few more fiery stretches in Denver’s 2nd round upset of the Clippers, especially in Games 5 and 7 and played well in the West Finals against the Lakers…but by then, the exhaustion of the playoffs, the Lakers defense, and the load he had been carrying became evident. The Lakers forced the ball out of Murray’s hands more often.

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