The National Basketball Association (NBA) is a superstar league, or at least a star league. The fact is that if your team does not have at least one All Star on your roster (you really probably need two), your team is highly unlikely to win a championship. So with this in mind, every team should be doing everything they can to acquire and keep All Star level players. The way teams are preparing cap space for one, sometimes two, max level contracts suggests that teams are doing exactly that. The fact of the matter is though, there are only so many All Stars to go around. With players increasingly desiring to pair with one another in the traditional big market locations such as Los Angeles and New York, the question remains what can small-mid market teams do to compete.
One possible answer (and I think the best answer) is to draft well and build an All-Star from the ground up. Almost every small market team recognizes this and yet, they still fail to do so. Ideally, your All-Star would be some sort of guard or wing. While post players can still dominate the game, the fact is that they have to rely on other players to get them the ball. As a guard though, one can control the game on an entirely different level. So how does a team build an All Star guard?
While most NBA players have incredible athleticism, few have the once in a generation athleticism like Russell Westbrook. So while Westbrook is certainly an All Star level guard, we will not include him in our analysis simply because a team can not “create” Westbrook. Almost every other All Star guard though has one thing in common-the ability to shoot the three and create for themselves. With the revolution of the three-point shot, this seems obvious and every team seeks guards who can do this. There are many players who come out of college basketball with the ability to shoot the three and create for themselves. So why do some of these players become stars and others do not?
Let’s look at the development of some All Star guards to see if we can find a trend. First, we’ll look at James Harden and Steph Curry. Harden has always shot a significant amount of three pointers, but his numbers in the past three years (since he has really broken out), are staggering. His signature step-back three is well documented and in the past three seasons, 51.5% of his shots have come from behind the arc. In his first seven seasons, “just” 41.7% of his shots came from three. One reason behind this jump in % of FGA that are 3P FGA is a steady decline in his midrange shots. His average % of FGA that are midrange (10ft-3pt line) FGA in his first 7 seasons was 18.1%. The past three seasons-10.1% (with an astonishing 6.3% this season).
Curry’s numbers reflect a similar pattern. In his first five seasons, Curry averaged 37.2% of his FGA from the midrange. In the past five seasons (since Steve Kerr has taken over as head coach), that average has dropped to 17.5%. His % of shots from three taken rose from 38.8% (first five seasons), to 55.1% (last five seasons) with Curry shooting a mind blowing 59.2% of his FGA from deep this season.
These numbers do not only follow Curry and Harden either. Other All-Star guards such as Kyrie Irving, Paul George, Damian Lillard, and Kemba Walker show similar trends. Breakout seasons by Gordon Hayward (pre-injury) and Isaiah Thomas (pre-injury) follow the same trend-a sharp decline in midrange shots attempted along with a rise in three pointers attempted. Mike Conley’s increase from 15 points per game (PPG) to 20 PPG? Look no further than in increase in % of shots attempted from 3 from to 27.1% (first 9 seasons) to 41.8% (last 3 seasons). The trend has begun to reach younger players as well, with rising stars such as Luka Doncic shooting just 15.7% of his shots from the midrange. De’Aaron Fox has seen his midrange FGA % decline from 34.7%-27.2% between his rookie and sophomore seasons.
What makes Harden and Curry special besides their all time shooting ability is their ability to get and make high percentage shots in the paint. They (and other All Stars) have begun to acknowledge that the worst shot in basketball is the mid-range (more in upcoming article). By this idea, any shot between 0-10 feet and behind the three point line is a good shot. Harden’s “good shot” percentage the past three years-89.8%. Curry’s over the past four years-84%. Just as players experienced an increase in % of FGA from 3 in breakout seasons, they likewise experienced an increase in “good shot percentage”. Taking the seasons of the All Stars listed in the previous paragraph (along with Harden and Curry) in which they averaged at least 23 points (post breaking out), there was a 73.3% (r=.733) correlation (across 25 sample seasons) between “good shot” percentage and points scored, a fairly strong correlation.
It should be noted that for the All Stars mentioned above, it was not until they were developed in their careers that they made such a drastic jump in shot selection. While Doncic’s current percentages are an outlier for young players, it would be expected that in 3-4 years, players such as Devin Booker, Buddy Hield, Jamal Murray, and Trae Young make a similar jump to the one that current All-Stars have made.
Outside of superior athleticism (Westbrook) or freakish body type (Ben Simmons), the model for building a star NBA guard seems to be following this model. Build up players’ confidence through midrange shots while gradually moving back their shooting distance. Then take the jump and have players hunt almost exclusively “good shots”, leading to them becoming a star guard.
All stats courtesy of Basketball Reference as of February 15, 2019