A blog about nothing in particular, with puns, drawings, and charts because I'm too lazy to write a lot.
All originial content by @DuckSauceGeoff

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Who is the Greatest 3-Point Specialist in NBA History?

Now that we've watched Kyrie Irving win the 2013 NBA 3-Point Contest, it seems like an appropriate time to answer a question I've wondered about for years: Who is the greatest 3-point specialist of all time? I've done the research, analyzed the stats, and compiled a comprehensive list of the best sharpshooters in history. Now, I'm ready to share the results and name the greatest of all time.

Ever since I was a kid, launching bombs with Steve Kerr and Dan Majerle in NBA Jam, I've been fascinated by 3-point shooters. But more specifically, I've always had an affinity for the true 3-point specialists. These guys have one purpose when they step on the court. It's no secret that they aren't getting anywhere near the basket - they're just going to hang out behind the arc and wait for a chance to launch a three. They don't have to be tall, or fast, or overly athletic, and they certainly aren't well-rounded. Still, these players have honed this one skill to a point where they are capable of making as much of an impact on a game as any superstar. 

There have been a lot of great long-range specialists, but it's hard to say who's the best. Depending on who you ask, you might get a different answer every time. So, I looked to the numbers to settle the debate once and for all.

Leveraging the resources at Basketball-Reference.com, I compiled a database containing the career statistics of every player who has ended a season in the top 20 of either 3-point field goal percentage or 3-point field goal attempts since the introduction of the 3-point line in 1979 (346 players). Obviously, familiar names appeared on the list, but I had to dig deeper. Steve Kerr is the all-time leader in 3P%, but only 38% of his shot attempts were 3s. He was a great 3-point shooter, but he was also a good mid-range shooter. Plus, his career 3P% was lifted by three percentage points when the NBA moved up the 3-point line from 94-95 to 96-97. Then there are guys like Reggie Miller and Stephen Curry, who are great 3-point shooters, but they're also starters who lead their teams in scoring. They're sharpshooters, but they're too well-rounded to be called 3-point specialists. So I kept looking, and I noticed these rare occurrences when a player would actually have a higher field goal percentage from behind the 3-point line than from inside it. This seemed like the perfect measure of specialization - what says "3-point specialist" better than a player who is more accurate from beyond the arc than anywhere else closer to the basket?

One might argue this is as much a measure of ineptitude (i.e. poor 2-pt shooting) as it is an indicator of strong performance. Sure, but that's essentially the point. First off, we're looking for specialists - guys who are great at just one thing. The goal isn't to find good all-around scorers who also happen to shoot 3s well. These are guys who only really contribute from long-range. Take the 3 away, and they don't have much to give. Secondly, it's not like a player can achieve this feat without being at least a very good 3-pt shooter - no one is shooting 25-30% from inside the arc in the NBA. Regardless, that's why I limited the search to the top 3-pt shooters from each season. Only the best and most prolific sharpshooters are included in the analysis.

Plus, this isn't the only data point I used. In analyzing all of their career stats, an elite group of 5 snipers emerged from the pack by meeting four key criteria. These players:
     1. Started fewer than 25% of the games in which they played
     2. Shot at least 40% from 3-pt range
     3. Launched at least 50% of their total field goal attempts from behind the 3-pt line
     4. Had a career 3-pt field goal percentage that was no more than 10% lower than their 2-pt
         field goal percentage (90 index)     

Basically, these five bombers have come off the bench, made a high percentage of their 3-pt attempts, predominantly shot 3-pointers instead of 2s, and made 3s at about the same rate of accuracy they made 2-pointers. These are the best 3-point specialists of all-time.

But first, some Honorable Mentions. You'll notice a lot of familiar names on this list. Ok, you'll notice all but one familiar name (see: Eldridge Recasner):

And now, the top five 3-point specialists of all-time:

Ok, so he technically didn't meet the four criteria I listed above - I had to round his 3P% up - but a "top four list" doesn't sound all that great. Plus, I would hate to diminish Mr. Les' accomplishments. The former Bradley coach (and current coach of UC Davis) ended his playing career with the highest 3/2 Index in history, and was one of the first to end a career having heaved more than 50% of his shots from behind the line. And if you remove his first two seasons (during which he only shot 15 3s), he actually shot over 40% from 3-pt land, while taking over 60% of his shots from deep. He also led the league in 3P% in '90-'91, and lost by a point in the final round of the 3-Point Contest in 1992.
One could make a strong argument for putting Steve Novak at #1. He has shot almost 44% from beyond the arc, and he shoots over three quarters of his total shots from long-range. Of the 346 players in the analysis, he ranks 4th and 1st in those categories, respectively. He has taken the idea of specialization to a new level by (almost literally) never doing anything but shooting 3s. Last season's 3P% champ, he has taken over 80% of his shots from beyond the arc over the last year and a half, as he tirelessly works to make the most ridiculous shot charts in the NBA. His problem, if you could call it one, is that he's a good enough shooter to make most of the rare mid-range jumpers he actually takes. But that's changing - this year, he's shooting just a shade under 45% from 3, while putting up an unreal 137 3/2 Index.
It's hard to believe Kyle Korver is halfway through his tenth year in the league. And though that doesn't seem possible, he has gotten better with age. After being asked to pick up a large share of the scoring load for a couple seasons in Philadelphia (ending the '06-'07 season as the team's #2 scorer), he has been able to slip into a comfortable groove as a long-range specialist ever since. Korver has shot just under 45% from 3-pt land over the past three and a half years, while setting the single-season record for 3P% in '09-'10 (53.6%). Through the first half of '12-'13, he again leads the league in long-range accuracy, and he shows no sign of slowing down.
Few players have flown under the radar for as long as James Jones. The long, lean, launcher from Miami is even one of the few players without a Twitter handle (Jim Les has one, for heaven's sake), but he has quietly put together a solid career full of long-range bombs. One of only two players in NBA history to have a career 3/2 Index over 100, Jones has ended seven of his nine seasons with a 3P% that exceeds his 2P%. And he's doing it again this year. In fact, he has almost completely abandoned the 2-pointer at this stage in his career. Sure, he isn't getting many minutes this year, but he didn't take his first 2-pt field goal attempt until after Christmas. Since, he has taken just two more.
One of the nicest guys in basketball, Daniel Gibson is also one of the deadliest from downtown. And with a career 3/2 Index of 104.1, he is far and away the best 3-pt specialist in NBA history. In an age when long-range shooters are getting taller and taller, this 6'2" guard is a welcome exception. He lurks at the 3-pt line, just waiting for a kick-out pass so he can drop a bomb on opponents from "deep in the Q". And when he gets hot (like when he hit 11 3s in the 2008 Rookie-Sophomore Game), it's as entertaining as specialization will allow. Gibson is on pace for his fifth year with a 100+ 3/2 Index in only his seventh season, while taking a career-high 68% of his shots from 3-pt range. And while he has had a hard time getting back on the floor since returning from injury this month, there's no doubt he'll continue to thrive when given his next chance.
I'm sure that wasn't the answer most were expecting. Have any thoughts/comments/objections/words of praise? Put them in the box below.