2016: The Year the NBA Played Like Steph Curry

Despite Stephen Curry’s recent downturn that cost his team the NBA finals, he remains the most prolific 3pt shooter of our day. With 482 three-pointers made in the most recent season, he eclipses both second (teammate Klay Thompson at 374) and third place (Damian Lillard at 271). This makes the Golden State Warriors a pain in the neck to defend – they score from further out than any other team in the league. So how does everybody else stay competitive? They play like Steph Curry.

Curry’s League Influence

A new paper, titled “Tacit NBA Strategy,” analyzes the 2014-15 season (plus the first few months of 2015-16) and concludes that NBA players tacitly changed their behavior over the past few years, especially as the Golden State Warriors surged toward a championship victory in 2015. The paper takes the position that the increase in 3pt field-goals is neither a statistical anomaly nor randomly distributed strategy, but that a team’s relative competitiveness can be accurately determined based on its willingness to shoot lots of three-point shots.

Let’s first take a look at the trendline for 3pt field-goals presented in the paper:

This trendline shows the NBA average for 3pt field-goals attempted and made per game.
This trendline shows the NBA average for 3pt field-goals attempted and made per game.

Given that Curry’s career started in 2009-10, the swift rise in this graph seems to go beyond random chance. Although the paper is hesitant to conclude the sudden spike in 3pt field-goals was the result of Steph Curry’s influence, it does nicely explain how his contributions could have affected NBA playing style.

The psychology of playing against an athlete like Curry cannot be understated. Defenses cannot keep up with his uncanny ability to sink shots from distant locations. For as unbeatable as a team may be in the paint, Curry is redefining the boundaries of the defensive zone. This may be prompting many coaches to play as though they had a Stephen Curry on their team, adopting the same quick and jagged 3FG strategy as the Golden State Warriors. This may very well explain why (1) the 3FGA rose so much more quickly than the 3FGM in 2014 and (2) why only the very best teams seem to be affected. [Noting the jump in some of the best NBA teams’ 3FG shooting]…the rise in 3FGAs and 3FGMs for both the Cavaliers and Hawks eventually max out at approximately the same place as the Golden State Warriors started.

What happened in 2016?

There are a few important things to point out about the 2015-16 season:

  1. Nobody else is even close to the accuracy of Golden State on their 3pt shots – they’ve got a 10% lead on the next best team (source).
  2. Despite the overall dominance of Curry and Klay Thompson, there is always some element of chance in shooting. This is evidenced well by the Warriors missing their last nine shots of the season despite having one of the most accurate records to date (the odds of missing those nine shots was less than 1% based on the finals records of each player).
  3. The Warriors got crushed in 2-pointers and rebounds during the championship series, only achieving about 70-85% what the Cavaliers did (source).

Of course, only the last series you play matters in an elimination-style tournament, and despite dominating the entire rest of the season, from points per game to overall shot conversion, the Warriors had a bad finals series.

Influence of Star Players

Out of curiosity now that the 2016 season is over, I decided to extend the dataset for 3pt field-goals to see how the current spike might look against data going back to 1980 (the furthest back that 3pt data is available).

Notice that the rise since 2011 seems much less substantial by comparison to the 1995-1998 spike.
Notice that the rise since 2011 seems much less substantial by comparison to the 1995-1998 spike.

Note that 1996 was the year that Michael Jordan hit nearly 43% of his 3pt’s and Steve Kerr made an unbelievable 51.5% (source).

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