In the Age of Curry and Smarter Stats, Players Still Hate the Desperation Heave

Ryan JonesContributor IFebruary 26, 2018

CHICAGO, IL - MARCH 2:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors shoots a half court shot against the Chicago Bulls on March 2, 2017 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)
B/R (via Gary Dineen/Getty Images)

The numbers don't lie: Last season, Stephen Curry was one of the worst long-range shooters in the NBA.

Well, sort of.

During the 2016-17 season, Curry shot an abysmal .067 in a specific category: shots taken from half court or beyond in the final seconds of the first, second or third quarter. Per Basketball Reference, Curry attempted nearly twice as many such "heaves" (15) as any other player. He made just one, a running 50-footer against the Clippers that just beat the halftime buzzer. It was also the second straight season in which he led the NBA in such attempts.

So, yes, it's probably slightly misleading to say that the consensus best shooter in the game was among the worst in any such category—misleading, but also strangely appropriate. Weird things happen when you start shining a light into one of the game's least explored statistical corners.

What started as a pet peeve for this particular writer eventually morphed into a modest quest: To figure out why some players refuse to shoot the ball in the closing seconds of a quarter or half. To that question, the seemingly obvious answer—they're protecting their shooting percentage, duh—proved to be the correct one. But it also led to more questions, like: Why do some players seem to love hoisting these types of shots? Is this something coaches talk about, or even consider? And how is it, at a time when analytics have made everyone infinitely smarter about what stats actually measure, that a player would turn down a risk-free opportunity to throw the ball toward the hoop?

The answers, based on a sampling of players around the league, are at once crystal clear and (sort of) complicated. But at least part of it has to do with the fact that coaches are hardly thinking about it.

"I've never been coached on that," Washington point guard Tim Frazier said.

"Coaches don't really say anything about it," Mavericks forward Doug McDermott said.

Damian Lillard is considered one of a handful of players willing to shoot from anywhere on the court in the closing seconds of a quarter.
Damian Lillard is considered one of a handful of players willing to shoot from anywhere on the court in the closing seconds of a quarter.Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

"Every staff I've ever been a part of, you go over all the different situations in the course of a season," Grizzlies assistant Bob Bender said. "That's one that's probably never been a priority."

A member on Indiana's 1976 national championship team, former Duke assistant under Mike Krzyzewski and ex-head coach at Illinois State and Washington, Bender has worked as an assistant for five NBA teams over the past 16 years. He says that from the coaches' perspective, the rarity of such possessions—just one per game in college, and three per game in the pros—and the slim chance of making any shot from beyond half court means such scenarios are hardly worth spending valuable prep time on.

"You try to cover everything," Bender said with a laugh, "but you don't cover everything."

A coach might make an exception, Bender added, if a player passed up an obvious chance to get a shot off at a potential turning point in a game. Take the following scenario Bender laid out: "End of the third quarter, other team's on a run, they miss, and you get the rebound—but you don't shoot it. At that point it might be something you'd highlight after the game, to say, 'Next time, just put it up. That might be a little bit of momentum. You never know.'"

It's hardly an untested hypothesis. Two years ago in Memphis, the Grizzlies were facing an eight-point deficit going into the fourth quarter against Minnesota. At least, they were until Vince Carter helped force a driving Tyus Jones into a turnover, corralled the ball near his own baseline and looked to the game clock at the opposite end of the court. Judging that he had enough time, Carter dribbled once, gathered the ball and shot in stride.

The 73-foot heave was perfect, cutting the lead to five and sparking a 12-3 Memphis run. Talking to reporters after his team's come-from-behind 109-104 win, Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley said, "We call that the game-changer."

Carter has hit a few such heaves in his career. So has the Pistons' Andre Drummond (albeit on far fewer attempts from outside the paint). Detroit's All-Star big man told Bleacher Reporter that his most memorable heave came against Boston in December 2015. Pulling down a defensive rebound with a shade over four seconds left in the half, Drummond turned, took four confident dribbles and pulled up just behind half court—right over the head of Isaiah Thomas. Swish.

Drummond says he savors the memory because "I did it so casually, like I kind of just walked up and shot a jump shot." But he remembers its impact, too: The shot gave Detroit a three-point halftime lead. The Pistons went on to win 119-116.

In five-and-a-half NBA seasons, Drummond has made just five three-pointers, hitting them at a 20 percent clip. For a 6'11", 280-pounder who does most of his damage on dunks, putbacks and short hooks, that's hardly surprising. But in another example of what odd statistical territory this is, three of his five career threes have been from half court or beyond. And all three fit the same bill: heaves at the end of a quarter, but not the fourth quarter.

Drummond has long practiced such shots, a habit that not long ago might have been greeted with disapproval: Why is a 6'11" guy wasting his time practicing desperation shots that he'll rarely have a chance to take and which will probably never go in? And while his own handful of makes from beyond half court are too small a sample size to draw any big conclusions, they might also fairly be viewed as indicative of the game's evolution. At a time when a 19-foot jump shot is, for many players, considered "worse" than an open 30-footer, all shots have the potential to be a good shot.

"I think Steph has changed all that," Frazier said of Curry. "He's been shooting it from so deep that it feels normal now." A former Trail Blazer, Frazier cites his ex-teammates Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum as other guys unafraid to "pull up right as they come across half court," but Curry is clearly the player most responsible for the expansion of acceptable range. (And not just at the NBA level; check LaMelo Ball's high school highlight reel if you need a reminder of how far down Curry's impact has already trickled.)

All of which is not to imply that the relative tolerance for sharpshooting guards extending their range by five (or 10 or 15…) feet is the same as thinking big men should dedicate substantial practice time to chucking it from 65 or 70. It's only to say that maybe it's not a bad idea to practice it a little—and if nothing else, to make sure you shoot them when you have the chance.

And that, of course, is the root issue. Some professional basketball players, faced with this specific set of circumstances, simply refuse to shoot the ball. At what other point in an NBA game will an offensive player, conscious that the game or shot clock is about to expire, not make a genuine effort to throw the ball in the direction of the hoop? And as acknowledged above, there's only one "good" reason for it.

"In most players' minds," Bender said, "they've got the stats down. They know."

It might be the NBA's worst-kept secret, but yes, players are mindful of their shooting statistics. In such moments, many opt to protect that number at the expense of a low-percentage three that might or might not have an impact on the outcome of a game. Some players are reluctant to reveal the guilty for fear of violating an unspoken honor code. But for others, the secret is out.

After a comfortable January win over Sacramento, Lakers coach Luke Walton good-naturedly sold out Kyle Kuzma, telling reporters that the promising rookie wanted it known that one of his turnovers came on a shot-clock violation in the game's meaningless closing seconds. When Walton told Kuzma he should've shot the ball, Kuzma admitted he didn't want to hurt his percentage.

Others are more subtle in how they go about avoiding a low-percentage heave. Some will go out of their way not to receive a pass in the closing seconds. Some will happily shoot it—but only a half-second after the red light has been lit. To all but the most intense observers, it looks like they made the effort. "That's the patented one," Frazier said, "where they shoot after the buzzer, on purpose. I've actually done that a couple of times, when I knew I wasn't going to get a good shot off."

And so statistical self-protection trumps all, a conundrum that's at once understandable and, in 2018, absurd. In addition to creating all sorts of statistical measures to better gauge on-court efficiency, basketball's analytics revolution has brought clarity to many existing stats. Field-goal percentage is prominent among those, and if we can quickly and easily deduce a player's effectiveness from various spots on the floor, against certain defenders, and at certain times in a game, how hard can it be to exclude certain shots from his "regular" percentage?

Shane Battier was careful to often try his long-distance heaves seconds after the buzzer in order to not drive his shooting percentage down.
Shane Battier was careful to often try his long-distance heaves seconds after the buzzer in order to not drive his shooting percentage down.Matt Slocum/Associated Press

The answer: It's not hard at all. But that doesn't mean everyone's doing it.

For clarity, we asked Ben Falk, formerly vice president of basketball strategy with the 76ers and analytics manager with the Blazers, who now runs the site Cleaning the Glass. Admitting his opinion was "conjecture," Falk told Bleacher Report that NBA teams are "getting better at filtering out" last-second heaves from the rest of a player's field-goal attempts. But he added: "I think we're still a long way from that being the conventional wisdom. If a player were to heave enough to drag his three-point percentage down a few points (which doesn't take too many heaves), I think it would still largely affect perception of that player's shooting."

On this one, maybe analytics superstar, and Rockets general manager, Daryl Morey was right. Quoted by Michael Lewis in his 2009 New York Times Magazine piece, "The No-Stats All-Star," Morey talked about how then-Rocket Shane Battier was guilty of those half-a-second-late shots that wouldn't count against his percentages. "I tell him we don't count heaves in our stats," Morey told Lewis, "but Shane's smart enough to know that his next team might not be smart enough to take the heaves out."

Nearly a decade later, that appears (still) to be the case. Despite all the progress on making stats smarter, and despite the extended shooting range of so many NBA players, this one small, quirky category will be ruled by the apathy of coaches and the paranoia of players. But maybe that's not such a bad thing; for all the guys who won't shoot these shots, a relative handful are happy to take as many as they can get.

Ivan Johnson was a member of the Hawks when Bender was on Atlanta's staff. Bender remembers how the bruising forward would regularly practice shots from three-quarter court. "And he was so strong," Bender said, "it really wasn't a 'heave.' If he got a defensive rebound, and there were any ticks on the clock, he was going."

McDermott said that as a rule, "big guys don't care" about the impact of an occasional heave on their shooting stats and cited his former teammate Taj Gibson as a big who "dreamed of those situations. He would practice them in shootaround, and he'd make them—from full court! He lived for those."

In a 10-month span last year, Gibson got to display both extremes of his carefree approach to heaves. In March, just a week after being traded to Oklahoma City, Gibson intercepted an attempted full-court pass at the end of the half and fired a high, perfect lob back from the top of his own key that found nothing but net. Then came this past December, when Gibson (by then in Minnesota), grabbed a defensive rebound in the closing seconds of the half and heaved again, this time from practically under his own basket.

The result was the basketball equivalent of a Hail Mary landing at the 10-yard line. TV cameras memorably caught Gibson's teammate, Jimmy Butler, asking "What the f--k was that?" Gibson could be seen smiling and laughing as he jogged to the locker room for halftime.

So let most of the league's best shooters avoid the heave (Steph Curry notably excepted). Let characters like Johnson and Gibson shoot them conscience-free, and let All-Stars like Drummond take his chances on the rare moments he has a reason to shoot from beyond 12 feet. "I just do it for fun," Drummond said. "It's just believing in myself and putting it up."

Drummond still remembers his first heave—not the specific opponent, but a game early in his high school career, the shot coming from about half court. "I was really young," he says. "It felt like the greatest moment of my life."

        

Ryan Jones is a writer living in Pennsylvania. He's the former editor-in-chief of Slam magazine and has written about sports and culture for XXL, Spin, Vibe and Esquire.com. Reach him on Twitter, @thefarmerjones.

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