Following Game 2 of the NBA’s Western Conference Finals, Kevin Durant — superstar scorer of the Oklahoma City Thunder, who lost 91-118 to the Golden State Warriors — decided to levy some critiques at two-time MVP and reigning champion of the “oh no he didn’t, oh yes he did” basket, Stephen Curry.
“He makes bad shots,” Durant told reporters after the game, later adding that his own game could have benefited from a similar decision-making process: “I was trying to make the right pass, [m]aybe I’ve just got to shoot over three people.”
If you feel like you’ve heard this before, it’s because you have: Former Golden State head coach and current commentator Mark Jackson echoed this sentiment back in December when he said that Curry’s shooting was “hurting the game” with his prolific three-pointers.
It should be pointed out that in his playing days, Jackson’s preferred method of scoring was to back his man down for 15-plus seconds toward the basket — something you can’t do anymore because it’s boring as hell to watch. It’s a style that was arguably just as damaging to the youth of the ’90s as raining threes is today; that is to say, not at all.
(There’s also the fact that Golden State’s record and playoff success improved dramatically after they sent Jackson packing and brought in a head coach who, we can safely assume, is a much bigger fan of the deep ball than Action Jackson, but we’re not here to be petty.)
Going back to Durant’s comments on Curry’s shooting, and for the record Steph scored 29 points on 15 shots in Game 2, nothing springs to mind more than the old pop culture koan: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Or, in this case: If Curry is making bad shots, are they really bad shots at all? Let’s examine.
First thing’s first: Whenever people — players, coaches, fans, pundits, despots, ghosts of basketball’s past, doesn’t matter — say that Curry is taking (and making) bad shots, what they’re really saying is that he’s taking what would be considered bad shots for anyone in the league not named Stephen Curry.
This is a vitally important distinction, and one that gets lost in the shuffle, because Curry’s shooting is so good that he takes a nominally terrible shot and turns it into a good one. Don’t believe us? The general rule of thumb is that shooting 33% from deep is as good as shooting 50% from within the three-point line, because the three is worth three points, go figure, and everything else is worth two.
If you make a pair of threes, you’ve scored the same number of points as if you’d made three two-point shots, and because basketball is a game where the object is to score as many points as possible (or at least more than the other team), making a pair of threes is just as valuable as dunking the ball three times. Simply put: if you can average 33% from outside, you’re taking good shots.
For the 2016 playoffs, Curry is averaging nearly 43% from three-point land, well above the league average of 35%. As anyone who has taken even a cursory glance at a Golden State game this season can confirm, these are not uncontested shots. Not only is Curry leading the league in postseason usage rate, but he’s been a focal point of every team’s defense — it’s not as if his scoring acumen is a surprise at this point, and it’s equally safe to say that a bad game from the MVP is the goal of whatever team is tasked with stopping him.
The problem, of course, is that nothing’s worked, at least not reliably. But what about KD? He’s no slouch in the scoring department, obviously (and if we’re talking aesthetics, can we sidetrack for a minute to talk about how his one-time signature, the rip-through, is the lamest way to draw a shooting foul ever? No? OK.) So, how is the Slim Reaper fairing this postseason?
If you’re going to cast the first stone, we’re going to take a look into your glass house. Up there are the shot charts for Durant and Curry, and while they’re overlaid at first, you can click on each player’s name to see their individual performances. Looking at KD, it’s clear that if either of the two should be taking harder shots, rather than making the right basketball play, it’s the forward for the Thunder.
Durant is shooting a paltry 20 of 70 from beyond the arc in the playoffs so far. In fact, he’s only really dominating with his shot near the hoop and to the left wing. While OKC is, in Durant’s words, sending three guys at Curry on defense, he doesn’t seem to be particularly effected, which can lead to frustration, and quotes that lead us toward discussions like these.
Of course, the idea that Durant should shoot less is, frankly, a little asinine. His scoring ability is one of Oklahoma City’s biggest assets, and he doesn’t possess the same sort of game that his other major contemporary, LeBron James — who is 0-3 from deep against Atlanta and it hasn’t mattered one iota– can rely on when his shot isn’t falling.
The same logic can be applied to Curry’s shooting, with one key difference: Curry is still raining threes with no regard for human life. Durant’s point rings close to the NCAA, in fact, when they banned dunking on account of Kareem, then Lew Alcindor. That ruling was foolish, and this idea of “making the right play” as a substitute for hitting shots no one else can compete with is equally dumb.