Itching for the next basketball superstar to dazzle the crowd with posterizing dunks, ankle-breaking handles and flashy passes after Michael Jordan retired, the NBA modified certain rules in an attempt to open up a variety of ways for perimeter players to score without as much physical resistance as before.
These rule changes help to explain why the NBA has become a guard’s league. However, defensive schemes have improved with the advancement of technology as well as the legalization of the zone defense, which help coerce players into taking long, contested jumpers. Fans delight in watching their favorite players knock down long-range bombs over the outstretched arms of the defense. The most focused players are undaunted by a hand in their face while shooting, which begs the question: who are the best tough-shot makers in the league?
I took a look at the top five perimeter scorers from last season — LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook and James Harden — to determine who’s best at converting shots under pressure. Big men were excluded due to their propensity to operate near the basket. The top five players will be ranked based on how efficient they were with their go-to moves. For some of the players, it’s the step-back jumper. For others, it’s the pull-up shot from mid-range/beyond the arc. Since dunks, layups and free throws are much easier to make than pull-up jumpers, the players who mostly drove to the hoop and shot free throws while shooting a low percentage from the perimeter were docked.
The most difficult and least efficient shot in the NBA is by far the pull-up jumper. Seth Partnow of NylonCalculus.com pointed out that these shots had an overall field goal percentage of 38.7 percent last season, and that an offense comprised solely of pull-up shots would be the worst in the league by a landslide. Consequently, players who excelled at creating their own shot from the perimeter were ranked higher on the list.
5. Russell Westbrook
Russell Westbrook used an ungodly amount of the Thunder’s possessions last season with a 38.4 usage percentage, which is the second-highest usage in history, and he won the scoring title as a result. A huge portion of his shots came via recklessly pursuing the basket, driving a lofty 10.1 times per game yet only converting on 43.4 percent of those opportunities. Westbrook also took an exorbitant amount of pull-up shots with nearly 11 per game, but he only managed to make 3.9 of those attempts.
The 6’3″ guard out of UCLA is entering his eighth season in the league, but he’s yet to cognize and methodically control his über athleticism. Westbrook is noted for being perhaps the most athletic point guard the NBA has ever seen. His strapping athleticism gives him a massive edge over his opponents, but he often times misuses his explosiveness by heedlessly darting to the hoop (which explains his underwhelming percentages on drives).
From all his barreling to the hoop, Westbrook has scored a large percentage of his points at the charity stripe, as his free throw rate reached 44.5 percent. Incredibly, Russ had himself sitting comfortably at No. 2 for most free throws attempted last season, with over 100 free throws separating him from the third player on the list despite missing 15 games.
Not only does Westbrook struggle to score efficiently with a defender nearby, he hit a measly 36.5 percent of shots that were taken outside of 10 feet from the basket and with a defender 4-6 feet away from him (which the NBA classifies as an “open shot”). Perhaps the only time Westbrook was efficient last year was when he was shooting free throws, which can’t be that difficult to make (depending on who you ask).
Westbrook’s extremely high usage and spasmodic game has come at the expense of both his efficiency numbers and teammates this past season. Thus Westbrook finds himself at the bottom of the rank. Similar to Westbrook, the next player on this list has been endowed with overpowering physicality and speed, though he’s certainly discovered a more purposeful way to harness his athleticism.
4. LeBron James
Like Westbrook, LeBron James loves to barge to the hoop. The average distance of his field goal attempts was 12.6 feet from the basket last season. To shed some context on the matter, Marc Gasol‘s average distance was 10.1 feet. However, LeBron has one-upped Westbrook due to his significantly higher efficiency numbers. Defenders didn’t seem to bother LeBron on his forays to the basket, shooting an astounding 55.1 percent on drives, and an even better 56.5 percent whenever the defender was in his face (or within 0-2 feet). Admittedly, that number plummeted to 38.5 percent when taking a shot outside of 10 feet from the basket with a defender within 0-2 feet. In fact, LeBron hardly ever dared to take those shots, as illustrated by his frequency of just 1 percent.
Though James is highly efficient, his numbers are skewed by the amount of shots he takes near the rim. When he isn’t shooting a layup or a close-range shot, his efficiency takes a huge dip. Excluding the paint, LeBron shot under 40 percent from every area on the floor this past season. The King, however, found more success than Westbrook on “open shots,” although not by much. LeBron isn’t a great shot-maker when he steps outside of the paint, and he depends heavily on his robust stature and quickness to get in the teeth of the defense for easier scoring opportunities.
James is aware of his capabilities on the floor, and he purposely takes fewer shot attempts from the perimeter (including step-back jumpers fadeaways, turnaround shots, etc.) than anyone on this list, thus resulting in higher shooting percentages. Unfortunately, his tendency to take the easier, higher-percentage shot hurt his chances of garnering a higher spot.
3. James Harden
Outside of Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals against the Warriors, James Harden came up huge in the clutch this past season. Harden shot an incredible 53.8 percent from the field, including an amazing 66.7 percent from beyond the arc in games where the point differential was three points or less with 30 seconds remaining on the game clock. During the regular season, he scored a total of 30 points in the aforementioned situations, which was the second-highest total in the league behind Monta Ellis. Most of Harden’s clutch shots came via step-back jumpers (an incredibly tough shot to make), and he connected on an absurd 47.6% of his step-back jumpers throughout the regular season, including a mind-blowing 55.4 percent on step-back three-pointers.
Harden’s ability to hit tough shots made him very difficult to defend, but so did his knack for driving to the hoop and manipulating the referees into blowing the whistle by entangling himself with defenders and snapping his head back. Whether these shots are actually fouls or not, the fact that 32.3 percent of Harden’s points came from the free throw line stains his credibility as a tough-shot maker. He had the most free throw attempts in the league by a colossal margin with 824. With the refs bailing Harden out on a huge portion of his shot attempts, it’s tough to say that his efficiency from the field would hold up if his free throw rate was as low as the next two players on the list.
2. Kyrie Irving
Much like LeBron and Russ, Kyrie Irving has a penchant for driving to the hoop. But unlike explosive Westbrook and physical James, Kyrie is lacking in the athleticism department, making his finishing ability all the more impressive. Irving is adept at slithering through the lane with his crafty ball-handling skills and elusive finishing ability, using ingenuity and video-game-like creativity to score over taller opponents. Irving shot a highly efficient 60 percent on layups this past season and 63.3 percent on finger rolls. Watch some of Kyrie’s best finishes of the season in the video below:
Of course, Irving is capable of doing much more on the basketball court than simply getting viewers out of their seats with dazzling acrobatic layups. He had the fourth-highest effective field goal percentage on pull-up shots at 48.8 percent (minimum 2.5 attempts). He hardly even noticed when defenders were breathing down his neck on shot attempts that were taken more than 10 feet from the basket, shooting 42 percent when a defender was within two feet. Hence, Kyrie is capable of hitting consecutive fadeaway three-pointers in the game’s waning moments. His buzzer-beating three over the enveloping claws of the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year, Kawhi Leonard, en-route to 57 points can attest to that.
Irving has an uncanny ability to finish plays through traffic and scathing circumstances, and he comes as a very close second to the No.1 player on the list.
1. Stephen Curry
It’s only appropriate to crown the greatest shooter of all time as the king of making tough shots. Beware of those who say that Stephen Curry is nothing more than a shooter, for in addition to his facilitating ability, Curry has become a clever finisher around the basket. He used to struggle to score near the rim, but Curry shot a surprising 53.4 percent on his drives to the basket last season, which was the fifth-best mark in the league (minimum of 5.5 shots attempted). Like Irving, Curry plays under the basket, and he uses his fancy ball-handling skills to skate through the crevices in the defense.
Furthermore, no player has ever made more three-pointers after six seasons in the NBA than Steph Curry, despite the fact that he’s missed a plethora of games earlier in his career due to injuries. Today’s Fastbreak’s very own Kelly Scaletta wrote that in this stage of his career, Curry’s lead in three-point shots made is so large, that if he didn’t hit a three for the next 128 games, he could still maintain that lead. The insane amount of threes that Curry’s made in such a short amount of time is a testament to his unique ability to combine volume and efficiency. Not only does the 6’3″ sharpshooter out of Davidson knock down bombs from deep at a historically high rate, he creates a ton of those shots himself, without the need for aid from his teammates.
Curry shattered Ray Allen‘s record for most threes made in a season (again) by hitting 286 shots from beyond the arc last season, and unlike Allen, a ton of them came off the dribble. Curry attempted more pull-up three-pointers than anyone in the NBA last season with 4.4 per game, yet he still maintained the highest eFG% on pull-up shots at 56.2 percent (minimum 2.5 shots attempted). Curry is also dangerous playing off the ball, as he had an astronomical eFG% of 66.4 percent on catch-and-shoot opportunities, which was the third-best percentage in the league last season (minimum 1.5 shot attempts). It’s that unprecedented combination of efficiency, volume, and versatility with the number of ways in which he can get his shot off that separates Curry from every other NBA shooter to ever launch three-pointers.
In fact, the degree of difficulty on the type of shots Curry makes is so incredibly high, that defenses aren’t used to needing to defend it. Historically, defenses have gladly ceded three-pointers that were created off the dribble, until Curry stepped foot on the NBA’s hardwood. As a result, Curry demands the attention of the defense the moment he steps across the half-court line.
If there was a Most Intriguing Players list, little earth-bound competitors like Curry and Irving would surely be at the top because players like them have to work the hardest to master the technicalities of the game to excel against the huge, superhuman athletes who comprise most of today’s league. Needless to say, it’s a wonder that these two highly-skilled guards have established themselves as the two best scorers under such adverse conditions.
All stats from Basketball-Reference.com or NBA.com unless otherwise noted.