Those 21 little inches, the difference between a 22-foot corner three and the 23'9" distance at every other spot on the arc, changed everything about the Spurs' offensive attack. And as has long been the case with NBA innovation, the rest of the league eventually caught on to what Popovich and San Antonio were doing.
Before long, just about every offense in the league—the good ones, anyway—were shooting more threes overall, especially from the short corners.
It's hard to know exactly when Popovich figured things out, but it's clear inspiration didn't strike immediately. After taking over head coaching duties 18 games into the 1996-97 season in San Antonio, Pop actually cut back on his team's triple attempts.
Over Popovich's first three full seasons as coach, the Spurs took fewer than 1,000 threes, per NBA.com, a downturn from the two preceding years. Something clicked in the 2000-01 season, though, and the Spurs' long-distance tries jumped back up to 1,094 on the year.
From that season on, the team's overall aggression from beyond the arc steadily increased. And those corner triples really started to fly.
In the chart below, you can see two key statistics side by side. On the left, you've got the league-average percentage of three-point shots taken from the corners. For example, in 2000-01, you can see that 23.9 percent of all attempted threes came from either the left or right corner.
The column on the far right shows the percentage of San Antonio's triples that came from the corners during each of those years. The difference between what the league was doing as a whole and what Popovich's Spurs were doing is flat-out staggering.
|Year||NBA Avg. Pct. of 3PA from Corners||Spurs Pct. of 3PA from Corners||Spurs Rank|
In terms of raw numbers, San Antonio didn't always lead the league in corner three-point tries, but counting triples that way allows the noise of pace to cloud the analysis. By viewing the data this way, we can see that the Spurs attempted a disproportionate rate of threes from the corner.
Put simply, they went all-in on a high-percentage shot the league hadn't yet learned the value of. In eight of the last 14 seasons, San Antonio took a higher percentage of its threes from the corner than anyone else. And it has ranked in the top three of that stat every year since 2000-01.
When ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh (subscription required) wrote this in 2013, it was viewed as cutting-edge thinking. And for the majority of NBA fans (and probably a few slow-on-the-uptake teams) it was:
Not buying the gospel of the corner 3? Believe it or not, a team's frequency of corner 3s is more closely linked to successful offenses than the frequency of shots in the restricted area, even though they boast similar payoffs (1.16 points per shot versus 1.19 points per shot, respectively). In fact, when we look at shot frequency from the five shot areas on the floor designated by NBA.com's StatsCube -- restricted-area, in the paint non-restricted-area, midrange, corner 3s and above-the-break 3s -- the strongest correlation with offensive efficiency over the past 17 seasons is the corner 3-pointer.
Whether he had the numbers handy or not, Popovich knew this years ago.
On balance, the NBA has embraced the value of the three-point shot in recent years. Since 2000-01, there has been a significant overall increase in the proportion of field-goal attempts that come from long range.
But while the league has merely adopted a greater appreciation of threes in general, the Spurs' interest has been specific; they prefer the corners. And five championship rings would seem to attest to the wisdom of that preference.
While Popovich deserves credit for taking the most aggressive approach from the corners, he was never the guy out there firing away. Certain players in recent years have been just as responsible for the growing popularity and importance of the shot.
Appropriately, one of the league's greatest marksmen, Reggie Miller, deserves notice for putting the corner three on the map. He attempted 102 shots from the left corner in the 1999-00 season, becoming the first player to break the century mark from one specific corner.
The following year, Denver Nuggets guard Voshon Lenard (remember him?) became the first player to ever attempt at least 100 threes from both corner positions. That kind of equal disbursement was something of an oddity as, for some reason, most players had a particular corner they favored.
As an example, some young upstart named Dirk Nowitzki attempted 102 shots from the right corner but just 16 from the left in 2000-01.
If you're looking for a specific player as the pioneer for corner specialization, look no further than Bruce Bowen. Miller may have poked a hole in the corner-three dam at the turn of the century, but the Spurs' gritty defensive forward opened the floodgates shortly thereafter.
Bowen shot 42.1 percent from the corners in 2001-02, then bumped that figure up to 47.3 percent the following year. While his accuracy rate stayed high in subsequent seasons (he hit 41.6 percent from the corners for his career), Bowen drastically streamlined his approach.
From 2003-04 until he retired after the 2008-09 season, virtually all of Bowen's offensive value came on shots from the corners. A peek at his 2005-06 season is particularly revealing. That year, Bowen attempted 536 shots, hitting 43.3 percent of them. Of those shots, 245 were threes, and 222 of those triples came from the corners.
Digest that for a second: Bowen attempted more than 90 percent of his three-point shots from the corners. As you'd expect, he was deadly from those spots, hitting 44.6 percent of them in that 2005-06 season.
There were other players during Bowen's reign who were occasionally as prolific. Donyell Marshall was a beast for a uniquely three-happy Toronto Raptors team in 2004-05, burying 46.4 percent of his 97 tries from the left corner and 45.3 percent of his 117 right-corner attempts on the year.
After Bowen's career drew to a close, Shane Battier stepped in as the NBA's preeminent corner assassin. And in an interesting (but wholly predictable) development, the Spurs also turned Richard Jefferson into a phenomenal corner shooter who did a heck of a Bowen impersonation in 2010-11. He hit 46.2 percent of his 190 attempts from the corners that season.
His 87 total makes led the league comfortably.
Cornering the Market
You've probably noticed that no matter how far we extend the search, or how narrowly we channel its focus toward specific players or seasons, we can't get very far away from Popovich's Spurs. After all, Bowen was on the verge of losing his NBA gig before Pop got his hands on him in San Antonio.
Credit the player for accepting a role, but don't forget about the guy who created it.
In a delightfully Popovichian twist to this whole story, it's hilarious to note that the Spurs coach doesn't even like the idea of the three-point shot.
"I hate it," Popovich told reporters (via USA Today) in June. "To me it's not basketball, but you got to use it. If you don't use it, you're in big trouble. But you sort of feel like it's cheating. You know, like two points, that's what you get when you make a basket. Now you get three, so you got to deal with it."
Leave it to Popovich, the ultimate basketball utilitarian, to revolutionize how good offense is played and then lament the necessity of his own innovation.
Never change, Pop.
Before wrapping up, it's worth noting that while the league saw a major jump in total three-point attempts last season (nearly 26 percent of all shots came from beyond the arc in 2013-14, the highest percentage ever), the frequency of corner attempts actually declined.
As a whole, only 24.8 percent of all three-point shots came from the corners last year, the lowest such percentage since 2001-02.
The corner three was no less strategically important last season, nor will it ever be. But it may have become more of a defensive focal point than ever before. Basically, NBA defenses are finding ways to stop what Popovich started—or at least slow it down.
Hey, it only took 15 years.
As defenders stay more tightly glued to their assignments in the corner, we could see the lane open up more often, leading to even more efficient offensive looks at the rim. It doesn't take Popovich's intellect to understand that point-blank attempts are even easier than 22-footers from the corner.
So if the Spurs' 2014-15 offense suddenly consists of only uncontested layups, we'll know why.
It's been years since Pop discovered the 21 inches that changed everything, and as opponents gradually catch on, rest assured the crafty Spurs coach will continue searching for his next edge.