[Note: This is Kevin Draper's first post at HoopSpeak, and it's a dandy. Draper's work has also appeared at Wages of Wins and you can regularly find his work on The Diss. Follow him on Twitter here. -- Ed.]
The two words you’ll hear associated with any good NBA offense are spacing and efficiency. As in: an offense that builds effective spacing can dictate which defensive mismatch they attack, creating efficient shot attempt. Many smart teams attempt to create better spacing and efficiency by shooting tons of corner 3-pointers. Some teams utilize a stretch four—players like Ryan Anderson and Kevin Love—to pull defenders out of their natural defensive position in the paint, while others have slashing players attack the rim (think Russell Westbrook or James Harden) forcing the defense to collapse upon them.
The Golden State Warriors do none of these things.
Though the Golden State Warriors have an above average offense, it isn’t immediately apparent why. They take an average amount of 3-pointers but a below average amount from the corners. While David Lee and Carl Landry have good jumpers, they’re not the stretchiest fours. The Warriors have no slasher that is particularly adept at breaking down defenses. They even have the longest average distance from the rim on their two-point jumpers in the league (per NBAwowy.com)!
Furthermore, the Warriors don’t execute their key offensive concepts with noteworthy precision. They turn the ball over more than almost any other team, they don’t get to the free throw line frequently and are a slightly below average offensive rebounding team. Their two centers don’t have a single useful offensive skill between them, three rookies are among their top eight players in minutes played and Andrew Bogut and Brandon Rush have combined to play fewer than 100 minutes this season.
But there is one thing the Warriors do on offense better than any other team in the NBA, a thing that creates that treasured spacing and efficiency. That thing is routinely taking — and making — one of the very worst shots in basketball.
The above chart shows the relationship between assisted 3-pointers and 3-point FG%. The entirely unsurprising takeaway is that teams that assist more 3-pointers generally make them at a higher percentage. It is much easier for players to set their bodies and take a quality 3-pointer from a pass than off the dribble, and assisted shots are more likely to be uncontested. Off the dribble 3-pointers, on the other hand, are frequently heat checks, taken at the end of the shot clock as the result of a broken play, or just plain bad decision-making (see Jennings, Brandon).
The exception to the rule, the team that has the second lowest made 3-point assist percentage but the second best 3-point FG%, is the Golden State Warriors.
The best, most prolific 3-point shooters in the game may shoot more threes than the rest of the NBA, but they shoot them in roughly the same pattern. Across the league, 81.4% of all made 3-pointers are assisted, whereas among the top 30 players in attempted 3-pointers that number is 79.6%, a small difference.
However, there is a wide variance across these frequent 3-point shooters. Some, like Kyle Korver (95.1%) only make 3-pointers off of passes and others, like James Harden (43.8%), more frequently make 3-pointers off the dribble.
The trend among individual players with respect to 3-point shooting is the same as the trend among teams. The catch-and-shoot players like Kyle Korver, Steve Novak and Ryan Anderson take few off the dribble 3-pointers and shoot very well. The inefficient chuckers like Damian Lillard, Kobe Bryant and Louis Williams take many off the dribble 3-pointers and shoot poorly. In fact, the Accuracy vs Passing chart looks virtually the same for players as it does for teams.
The Golden State Warriors have two players on the above chart, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry. Together, the Super Splash Brothers account for 73% of all the Warriors’ made 3-pointers. But whereas Klay Thompson’s point on the graph looks pretty standard, Stephen Curry is a clear outlier. Stephen Curry, at least in respect to 3-pointers, is the rarest of NBA breeds: an efficient, off the dribble chucker.
To recap: The only team that is clearly an outlier is the Warriors. The only player that is clearly an outlier is Stephen Curry. These two facts are related.
When Stephen Curry has the ball, his defender is forced to crowd him way above the 3-point arc because Curry won’t hesitate to shoot, and make, from 26 feet. This threat is what creates the necessary spacing that all good offenses need to thrive. When screened, rather than offer a pullup 3, Curry’s defender almost exclusively goes over the top of the screen. Some teams have tried blitzing Curry, but as Ethan Sherwood Strauss noted in designating Curry a “space guard”, trapping and blitzing Curry simply gives the offense even more space to work with.
The near certainty that the defender will go over the screen allows the screener (usually David Lee) the option of slipping the screen and rolling to the hoop, or forces Lee’s defender to follow Curry to the hoop, opening up a pick-and-pop shot. Curry is a great (albeit occasionally rash) passer, and once in the lane he has the vision and skill to shoot, hit a teammate cutting to the basket or find an open 3-point shooter.
In contrast, when players guard Jrue Holiday (or any inefficient, chucking point guard), most sag below the 3-point arc. This is partially because Holiday is so damn quick, but also because defenders aren’t too worried about him shooting an off the dribble three. When the alternatives are Holiday getting into the lane or passing to an open Thaddeus Young, an off the dribble three counts as a victory for the defense.
The Golden State Warriors starting lineup consists of what any traditionalist would recognize as a center, power forward, small forward, shooting guard and point guard. But that center is a non-entity on offense, that power forward — though talented — doesn’t stretch the floor with 3-pointers, that small forward is a rookie still struggling to consistently contribute, and that shooting guard is in the midst of a sophomore slump. But that point guard is Stephen Curry, and the threat of Curry uncorking a three, more than anything else, is the reason Golden State has an above average offense despite major limitations.
Wednesday night the Warriors got killed by the Miami Heat. While there were problems all around, the defense did a decent job in limiting Miami to 92 points on 40% shooting (though the Heat’s big guns sat the fourth quarter). The real problem was on offense, where the Warriors scored a season low and made the second fewest 3-pointers in a game all season. Not coincidentally, the Warriors worst offensive performance of the season came in a game that Stephen Curry sat out injured.
Despite its improbable success, the Warriors offense doesn’t herald the proliferation of the off the dribble three. Structuring an offense around this concept is probably a terrible idea. It only works for Golden State because Stephen Curry is a singular talent, the best 3-point shooter the game has ever seen. When you have an all-time great at this specific facet of the game you can build a strategy around it. Everybody else should stick to the corner three.