Ranking the NBA's Greatest Shooting Bigs of All Time

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJuly 5, 2020

Ranking the NBA's Greatest Shooting Bigs of All Time

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    The role of a big man in the NBA has changed dramatically over the last 20 years.

    From the start of the league through the 1990s, power forwards and centers were generally the biggest, brawniest players in the lineup. They were the bruisers. They controlled the paint and the boards. And they did most of their offensive damage within a few feet of the rim, often with back-to-the-basket post moves.

    Today, bigs are expected to do much more. Nikola Jokic is one of the best passers in the world and has popularized playmaking from the big. Bam Adebayo can switch defensive assignments all over the floor. And perhaps most importantly, most teams now carry 5s who can stretch the floor with threes.

    It's that last evolution that is today's focus. Who are the best shooting bigs of all time? Let's look to some data to answer that question.

Methodology and Close Calls

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    The methodology on this one is far simpler than some of our other recent historic deep dives.

    First, we narrowed league history down to a sample group of players who are 6'9" and up, played at least 60 percent of their career possessions as a power forward or center and launched at least 500 three-point attempts.

    From there, we calculated the points over average from the field (subtract the player's effective field-goal percentage from the league average for the time and then multiply by the number of field-goal attempts) and the points over average from three (subtract the player's three-point percentage from the league average for the time and then multiply by the number of three-point attempts) for each member of that group.

    Finally, we sorted each player in the group by the average of his rank in those two metrics.

    Some of the names in the top 10 may surprise you, but the way the list skews toward more modern history should not. Threes from bigs are far more prevalent than they used to be. And even though these numbers adjust for league averages during the years each player played, the sheer volume of outside shooting from today's power forwards and centers is tough for those from earlier eras to overcome.

    Still, there are a couple of names from previous decades who show up in spots 11 through 20, which reads as follows: Kelly Olynyk, Matt Bullard, Al Horford, Serge Ibaka, Raef LaFrentz, Meyers Leonard, Nemanja Bjelica, Bill Laimbeer, Terry Mills and Mehmet Okur.

    Now, with the housekeeping out of the way, let's get into the top 10.

10-6

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    10. Pat Garrity

    Notre Dame product Pat Garrity spent most of his career as a power forward for the Orlando Magic.

    Over the course of his career, he attempted 1,587 threes and shot 39.8 percent from deep. If you sort the nine players who matched or exceeded both marks during that stretch, Garrity's height (6'9") trailed only 6'10" Peja Stojakovic, who played almost exclusively at the 3.

         

    9. Danny Ferry

    Another power forward, 6'10" Danny Ferry averaged 1.5 threes per 75 possessions and shot 39.3 percent from downtown.

    Over the course of his career, 17 players matched or exceeded both those numbers and played at least 10,000 minutes. Ferry is the only big man on that list.

             

    8. Vladimir Radmanovic

    Vladimir Radmanovic was one of the earlier examples of a big who was also a volume three-point shooter.

    During his 12 NBA seasons, 49.6 percent of Radmanovic's shot attempts came from three, a mark that trailed only one player his height or taller.

    Combining volume with efficiency (his 37.8 three-point percentage was over two points higher than the league average of the time) made Radmanovic a distinct plus for much of the 2000s.

                

    7. Davis Bertans

    Davis Bertans' cracking the top 10 in just his fourth NBA season is partly due to how much the game has changed recently, but it shouldn't detract from what a remarkable start he's off to.

    His first three seasons with the San Antonio Spurs were solid. He averaged 6.2 points and shot 40.4 percent from three there. But his 2019-20 with the Washington Wizards has been absurd.

    His 3.7 threes per game rank as the 10th-best mark in league history (and the best for a big). But that's not all. When you limit the sample to those who had at least as high a three-point percentage as Bertans' 42.4, the big man's 2019-20 average trails only two Stephen Curry seasons.

              

    6. Channing Frye

    Over Channing Frye's first four seasons with the New York Knicks and Portland Trail Blazers, he was 20-of-70 (28.6 percent) from three. Then Mike D'Antoni and the Phoenix Suns got ahold of him.

    During his five years in Phoenix, Frye was 15th in the league (and second among bigs) in total threes. And that run included the 2012-13 campaign, which Frye missed entirely with an enlarged heart.

    By the time he retired, Frye had hit 1,049 threes while shooting 38.8 percent from deep. He's second all time in threes made by a 7-footer.

5. Ryan Anderson

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    Dirk Nowitzki, the seven-seconds-or-less Suns and Mike D'Antoni often and rightfully get the lion's share of the credit for revolutionizing what it means to be a big man in the NBA.

    Stan Van Gundy and the Orlando Magic of the late 2000s and early 2010s deserve to be mentioned in this conversation as well.

    The philosophy of surrounding paint-bound Dwight Howard with three-point shooting made Orlando a uniquely challenging offense to face. And Ryan Anderson fit in perfectly there.

    During his three seasons with the Magic, the team was plus-13.8 points per 100 possessions when Howard and Anderson were on the floor, compared to plus-5.3 when Howard played without Anderson.

    The latter's shooting ability forced opposing 4s to stay home on the outside, giving Howard precious extra space on post-ups and rolls to the rim.

    In 2011-12 alone, Anderson led all NBA players, regardless of size, in both threes (166) and three-point attempts. And his volume went up from there. He had seasons with 200-plus threes for the New Orleans Pelicans and Houston Rockets.

    Rashard Lewis and Peja Stojakovic, both of whom spent more time at the 3 than the 4, are the only other 6'9"-plus players with multiple 200-three seasons.

4. Karl-Anthony Towns

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    Karl-Anthony Towns has only been in the league for one more season than Davis Bertans. For a formula that heavily incorporates volume to already have him in the top five is a testament to his stellar shooting.

    Over the course of his career, Towns has averaged 1.4 threes and shot 39.6 percent from deep. But in this abbreviated season alone, his attempts have taken off. He averaged 3.3 makes on 7.9 shots from downtown per game in 2019-20.

    But as you'll see is the case with our No. 1 on this list, Towns' shooting goes beyond his prowess from three. Of his 5,741 career field-goal attempts, 43.8 percent have been two-pointers in the range of three feet from the rim out to the three-point line. He's converted 46.2 percent of those attempts.

    He significantly reduced his volume from the mid-range this season, but there's no question he remains one of the game's true three-level scorers.

3. Steve Novak

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    "Shooter" may be a more apt description of Steve Novak than "big," but Basketball Reference pegs 66 percent of his career possessions at power and center, qualifying him for this list.

    And once he was in, there was little doubt he'd finish high. Shooting, particularly from three, was the beginning, middle and end of Novak's game.

    "That's what I do," Novak said of casting off from deep in 2012. "I shoot perimeter shots. When it's there, I shoot it. When it's not, I don't."

    And when he did, it often went in.

    Novak's career three-point percentage of 43.0 ranks fifth all time among players with at least 1,000 attempts. And the fact that 77.9 percent of all his shots came from three vaults him even higher up the leaderboard if you sort by effective field-goal percentage.

    In fact, Novak's 60.5 effective field-goal percentage ranks first all time among that same group of players.

2. Matt Bonner

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    Much like Steve Novak, Matt Bonner's game was largely predicated on the ability to shoot. He may not have been quite as efficient as Novak, but he was still scoring significantly more points on his attempts than the average shooter.

    And he leveraged his efficiency in a bigger role than Novak, finishing his career with 7,699 more minutes and 586 more three-point attempts.

    Spurs coach Gregg Popovich trusted Bonner, particularly in the late 2000s and early 2010s. From the 2008-09 season to 2011-12, Bonner played 21.1 minutes per game, made 1.5 threes and shot 42.7 percent from three.

    In the same stretch, San Antonio was plus-9.3 points per 100 possessions with Bonner on the floor and plus-3.2 with him off. When he shared the floor with both Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, the team was plus-13.4 points per 100 possessions.

    Supplementing Duncan's post play and Ginobili's slashing and playmaking with elite floor spacing like that provided by Bonner gave the Spurs an offensive dynamism that wasn't quite there otherwise.

    When those three were on the floor, San Antonio scored 119.1 points per 100 possessions, compared to 112.5 when Duncan and Ginobili played without Bonner.

1. Dirk Nowitzki

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    Big shocker, right?

    Regardless of the methodology used to compile this list, Dirk Nowitzki was likely to finish in the top spot. He leads the group sampled in career points over average from the field, points over average from three and total threes made.

    He's 15th in the group in three-point percentage, but every player ahead of him there attempted significantly fewer triples. Nowitzki's 5,210 career three-point attempts isn't just first among 7-footers—it nearly doubles second-place Channing Frye's 2,706. It's more than second place and third place combined.

    And all those jumpers from the legendary power forward helped put him on the short list of players who truly changed basketball.

    From 1979-80 (the first NBA season with a three-point line) to 1997-98 (the last pre-Dirk season), all 7-footers averaged 0.1 three-point attempts per 36 minutes and shot 22.2 percent from three. From 1998-99 to now, 7-footers have averaged 1.0 three-point attempts per 36 minutes and shot 34.9 percent from deep. And even if you take Dirk's numbers out of the mix, that bunch still averaged 0.8 attempts per 36 and shot 34.1 percent.

    Beyond the threes, Dirk was also one of the game's best mid-range shooters for two decades. He was the league leader in two-pointers from 10 feet and out in nine different seasons, and he shot 47.2 percent on those attempts over the course of his career. For context's sake, DeMar DeRozan is working on a single-season career-high percentage from that range of 43.9.

    The prolific shooting didn't just lead to individual accolades and great numbers, either. Over the course of Nowitzki's career, the Dallas Mavericks were second in the NBA in winning percentage, first in points per 100 possessions and tied for third in effective field-goal percentage.

    Dirk was revolutionary. He showed the world that certain basketball skills aren't reserved for players of a certain build. He wasn't a power forward or center as much as he was a basketball player. When the league saw how helpful shooting from a big is, it set out trying to find the next Dirk. The result was much more shooting from centers and power forwards. From there, playmaking was added to the equation. And the new desire is having a big who can switch onto anyone on defense.

    Basketball has thrown plenty of unforeseen evolutions at us over the years. The trend could change. But right now, it looks like we're headed toward relatively positionless basketball. And when you watch bigs like Jokic, Adebayo, Towns and others displaying traditional guard skills, don't forget that it all traces back to Dirk.