The premium on shooting in the NBA has quietly become a bigger story over the past decade or so, but it reached a point at which it was no longer possible to ignore during this summer's free-agency period.
For posterity, we'll call that point "The Jodie Meeks Watershed."
The Detroit Pistons agreed to pay Meeks $18.8 million on a three-year contract at the outset of the July free-agency period, an eye-opening deal for a player who had collected just $5.3 million in his first five NBA seasons combined.
Meeks, career 37.6 three-point percentage and all, couldn't be worth that much. Could he?
Per Grantland's Zach Lowe, Meeks' perimeter prowess is part of an all-around package that isn't so pretty: "That shooting unfortunately comes with stark limitations, especially on defense. Meeks is undersized against just about every wing player, and he doesn’t have the versatility to defend small forwards in a pinch. He is chronically vulnerable to back-cuts."
Informed of Meeks' warts and in desperate need of spacing, Stan Van Gundy's Pistons went for it anyway.
Sure, Detroit needed somebody to pump up its 32.1 percent accuracy rate from downtown, a figure that ranked 29th in the league in 2013-14, per NBA.com. And yes, Meeks has demonstrated the ability to knock down threes—especially last year, when he connected on a career-best 40.1 percent with the Los Angeles Lakers.
But his is a (limited) skill set that for years had been almost totally fungible. What changed?
For starters, the entire structure of NBA offenses.
Teams across the league are shooting more triples than ever these days. There were always outliers like Don Nelson's Golden State Warriors and Mike D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns in the mid-2000s. And Van Gundy's Orlando Magic went with four perimeter players around Dwight Howard in a particularly three-happy approach from 2007-2012.
But the wholesale adoption of an offensive attack based largely on three-point shots has arrived. It's undeniable: The triple matters more than ever.
Knowing that, it shouldn't have been a surprise to see Anthony Morrow (arguably the best shooter on the market and owner of a career long-distance accuracy rate of 42.8 percent) get a three-year, $10 million deal from the Oklahoma City Thunder.
As great as Morrow is as a marksman, he can't really do anything else. Meeks is at least reasonably athletic and showed an improved off-the-dribble game last year. Morrow is strictly a catch-and-fire weapon. OKC was fine with tripling Morrow's 2013-14 salary anyway.
Naturally, Channing Frye got a hefty four-year, $32 million deal from the Orlando Magic, because if there's anything NBA offenses need more than shooters, it's shooters who play frontcourt positions.
So focused were the Magic on accumulating players who could make perimeter shots that they even agreed to drastically overpay one who virtually quit on his former team. Ben Gordon, a guy the Charlotte Hornets (nee Bobcats) were so fed up with last year that they deliberately waived him after the deadline by which he could have joined a playoff team, will collect an incomprehensible $9 million over the next two seasons.
The premium on shooting passed the point of no return when the Los Angeles Clippers inked Spencer Hawes to the full mid-level exception. The big man has developed into a darn good three-point threat, hitting 41.6 percent of his long-range tries last season. But Hawes plays defense like he's wearing a shock collar that fires up whenever he even thinks about trying.
Forget about rim protection, weak-side rotations or any semblance of effort from this stretch 5.
There was a time when teams would have shied away from paying good money for such a massive negative on defense (at a key position, no less), but Hawes will rake in $22.7 million over the next four years.
Clearly, that time is gone—replaced by a new one in which the NBA's overall understanding of offense is advancing by getting less complicated. As a whole, the league is embracing the concept that offense is best played with lots of space and as many efficient shots as possible.
Getting shooters who can make threes is great. The spacing those shooters create is even better. It allows for more unimpeded chances at the highest-percentage shots of all: those at the rim.
Part of the change is related to the increased use of analytics, but just as much is rooted in face-palming simplicity.
Of course teams should try to take as many high-yield attempts as possible!
And if the price for those attempts is weaker wing defense or a diminished interior presence on the other end, so be it.
Defenses will adjust, as they always do. If you've been paying attention, entire schemes have already been devised to deny the deadliest of all long-distance attempts. Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr explained as much to Russell Simon of CrabDribbles.com:
The biggest thing in the NBA over the past decade is everybody is trying to get corner three’s; every team is doing that now. I played for the Spurs and Gregg Popovich was probably the first coach in the league to try and do everything possible to deny the corner three. He was kind of a step ahead of everyone. Game plans are definitely designed now to run people off three-point lines, keep them away from the rim, and force them into tougher two-point shots. There’s no secret there.
Despite the best efforts of defensive schemers like Popovich, the NBA is only becoming more of a shooter's league.
Looking ahead, teams like the NBA D-League's Rio Grande Valley Vipers—who attempted an absolutely incredible 45.4 threes per game last season, per RealGM.com—may become the norm rather than the exception.
More immediately, expect the next crop of free-agent marksmen to cash in even bigger than this year's group. Klay Thompson, Marco Belinelli, Danny Green and Wesley Matthews are all slated to become free agents in 2015, and each one of them shot at least 39 percent from beyond the arc last year.
The age of shooters is upon us. So it may not be long before this offseason's seemingly overpaid free-agent crop looks like market-value signings. I'm not sure I'm ready to live in a world where $6 million per year for Meeks is a fair deal, but it sure looks like that's where we're headed.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to shoot 5,000 corner threes. I hear there's good money in it.
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