Few statistics do less to elucidate what actually happens on the court than 3-point percentage. Shooting, in itself, is viewed as a "yes or no" question, and its numbers reflect that. It takes mere seconds to figure out how often a player puts the ball through the hoop, and those who do so frequently enough are lumped together as great shooters with little consideration given to where those shots actually come from.
In most cases, the answers vary wildly. There is no single track to the top of the NBA's shooting leaderboard, and the cream of the 2019-20 crop reflects that. In the interest of tracking those stylistic nuances, let's look at some of this season's best shooters, how they found their shots, and what those play types mean within the greater context of the league.
Duncan Robinson's dribble handoff
It is the most deceptively simple play in all of basketball. A big man holds the ball. A shooter runs up to him. The big man hands the shooter the ball. The shooter shoots it. It doesn't get much easier than this:
If that looks effortless, take solace in the fact that the numbers reflect that. The Miami Heat score 1.347 points per 100 possessions on Duncan Robinson handoffs, almost exclusively coming from Bam Adebayo. That places him ninth in the entire NBA, per Synergy Sports. Here's the kicker: he's scored 209 points off handoffs. The eight players ahead of him on handoff efficiency scored 291 combined. Bradley Beal is second in the NBA in total handoff points, and he trails Robinson by 40.
Miami's preferred version of the action starts with Robinson in the left corner. A screen is then set by one of their shooting big men, usually Meyers Leonard or Kelly Olynyk. This provides a measure of insurance against a defense containing Robinson, as that screener can then pop back behind the line to get open himself. More often, it springs Robinson free and forces his defender to either frantically attempt to catch up or call a messy switch. That switch then gets decimated by Adebayo's excellent screening, and Robinson gets a clean look from behind the arc:
The Heat run their basic handoff frequently, but have also built a number of variations into other sets. Using Robinson as a screener in traffic to cause confusion has proven almost impossible to defend:
And when the action is contained? Robinson just runs right back around and tries it again:
Robinson's shooting makes the play possible, but Adebayo's versatility is what makes it lethal. When his defender tries to anticipate the handoff and so much as angles himself toward Robinson, Bam turns that handoff into the NBA equivalent of a play-action fake. What on Earth is a defense supposed to do against this?
The two have developed such strong chemistry that they're even running the handoff in transition. Adebayo, being the rare big man that can go coast-to-coast, draws so much attention when he takes the ball up that Robinson can fairly easily duck behind him for an easy look:
If Robinson were an ordinary catch-and-shoot player, spacing the floor for pick-and-roll and waiting on opportunities, he would still be an excellent option. That he has become so active a participant in his own shot creation is what makes him one of the best in the NBA. JJ Redick has been the NBA's handoff king for several years now, but if this season was any indication, he has finally been dethroned.
Davis Bertans in transition
Mike D'Antoni's "Seven Seconds or Less" offense is a very literal principle. D'Antoni believes that it takes a defense seven seconds to get set, and playing fast enough to get shots up before then drastically increases the quality of those shots. Davis Bertans has taken that speed to a new level. Forget about defense, he plays so fast that even television cameras often miss his shots:
The incredible thing about this is that the camera is only lingering on those opposing players because they just made shots. Running after makes is rare because making a shot gives a defense precious seconds to recover and get set. But Bertans doesn't care. He's the NBA's honey badger. He takes whatever shots he wants. He doesn't even need to ask for the ball. Scott Brooks has given him a neon green light to take the ball up on his own rebounds (and sometimes others') and hoist shots essentially once he crosses halfcourt:
There is a legitimate argument to be made that Davis Bertans, a player the Spurs traded away for nothing but cap space less than a year ago, was the best non-Zion Williamson transition scorer in the NBA this season. By scoring 1.364 points per 100 possessions in transition, he is in the 97th percentile league-wide. Nobody that topped him in efficiency matched his volume. How many 6-10 forwards do you know run the floor this well?
That dedication puts him in position to shoot on nearly every fast break, and even when the defense is prepared, it hardly matters because of how quick his release is:
His range basically falls anywhere within the solar system:
Bertans has mastered the nuances of running the fast break from basically any position. Watch him use the chaos of transition to stealthily slide over into a better shooting position, essentially treating his running teammate as an incidental screener to rid him of his own defender:
That kind of relocation is the sort of trick one would typically expect out of a guard, yet just as comfortably, Bertans can fill the lane like a traditional forward, playing the layup or putback before sensing the opportunity to race into the corner:
And when all else fails, he can pull out the traditional shooting center move: trailing the fast break, allowing the defense to forget how lethal he is, and then walking into an easy open jumper:
Bertans' numbers, on the whole, are preposterous. Only Robinson makes more 3-pointers per 100 possessions, but Bertans is a power forward. He is on track to become only the seventh player in NBA history to make 42.4 percent of his 3s on at least 13.9 attempts per 100 possessions, and the two seasons directly ahead of him both belong to Stephen Curry. There is no more qualifying him as a great shooting big. Bertans might be the NBA's best non-Warriors shooter, period.
Damian Lillard using high pick-and-roll
The degree to which Jrue Holiday humiliated Damian Lillard in front of national audience two years ago cannot be overstated. In their entire 2018 first-round series, Holiday not only managed to hold Lillard to only 44 pick-and-roll possessions, but forced turnovers on a staggering 25 percent of them. The Pelicans completely neutralized an All-NBA player simply by blitzing him off screens. Holiday's ball pressure poked a glaring hole in Lillard's otherwise immaculate offensive game.
The Blazers have since developed a somewhat novel solution: just push the pick-and-roll back.
It's a common-sense solution that Lillard's rare range facilitates. Doubling a typical pick-and-roll is a high-risk, high-reward proposition that is made manageable only when the court is properly condensed. Defenders need to be able to split the difference between multiple shooters, or at least rotate quickly enough to prevent easy looks. When Lillard uses his screen just beyond halfcourt, though, that simply isn't possible. Look at how easy this is for Hassan Whiteside:
Whiteside, statistically speaking, is one of the worst passers in NBA history. This is the first season of his career in which he's averaged more than one assist per game. With this much space, the reads are so simple that even he makes them easily:
Literally every Blazer except for Whiteside and Lillard is wide open on that play. Defenses have no choice but to play drop coverage against that pick-and-roll. Lillard's gravity was already formidable, and he's dialed it up to 11 this season. Just consider his 3-point shot attempts by distance last season compared to this season, per Basketball-Reference.
|Lillard 3-Point Shot Attempts||2018-19||2019-20|
Keep in mind that Lillard played 80 games last season and has suited up only 58 times so far this season. In 22 fewer games, he has taken the same amount of shots from between 27-29 feet as he did last season while taking 65 more shots from at least 30 feet out.
Taking those longer shots has led to Lillard tying his career-best 3-point percentage at 39.4 while also leading to a new career-high 28.9 points per game. He ranks in the 96th percentile in terms of pick-and-roll efficiency by scoring 1.138 points per possession despite his absurd volume, and it's not hard to see why. For only the second time since the data has been tracked, Lillard is shooting a higher percentage on pull-up 3s (40.1 percent) than catch-and-shoot attempts (38.2), per NBA.com. The extra space he now has allows him to comfortably step into those pull-up attempts:
Extending one's range has a multitude of benefits. Such shots are likelier to be open. They create more space for teammates. There is even evidence to suggest that more of such shots turn into offensive rebounds. Portland's offensive rebound rate drops from 26.8 percent to 25.2 when Lillard sits.
He and Trae Young have basically lapped the field in terms of long shot attempts this season. Curry will be back in the mix next season. But despite their massive overall growth in recent years, shooting from that far behind the arc remains something of an inefficiency. Lillard maximized it this season.
Paul George navigating screens
In 2017, Paul George was the best player on a middling team. Then he was the secondary ball-handler on a slightly better one. Now he plays for the team with arguably the NBA's best isolation scorer in Kawhi Leonard and pick-and-roll tandem in Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell. Needless to say, he was not going to have the same scoring opportunities as a Clipper that he had as a Pacer. He was going to have to find efficient ways to get his points off of the ball.
This season, that has meant mastering the art of cutting. George, shooting just a shade below 40 percent on 7.9 3-point attempts per game as a whole, has put up 1.125 points per possession coming off screens. That puts him in the 84th percentile league-wide, but as was the case with Bertans in transition, no player that has scored more efficiently on such plays has done so at his volume. Some of these plays should look familiar, like Ivica Zubac's pin down screens.
The basic structure of these plays looks eerily similar to the handoff plays Miami runs for Robinson. Just as he frequently comes out of the left corner, so too does George:
They use similar decoy action as well. George will frequently move in to set screens only to curl back around for open shots:
The difference lies in the delivery. Handoffs create more effective screens, but they limit spacing to an extent. Running a handoff in the corner, for instance, is a logistical nightmare. But with the ball coming from a third-party passer as opposed to the screener himself, a number of possibilities open up. A favorite of George's involves faking a back screen before jetting back outside with his screener cutting off the defender once he's bitten on the ploy:
Some of these are scripted plays, but George has an extraordinarily deep bag of tricks that he can pull out improvisationally. Watch him direct Moe Harkless into a screen to facilitate a rare (by 2020 standards) Allen Iverson cut:
The danger in the screener's defender overplaying George's shot is the same plight Adebayo's defenders face: If he sees an opening, he is just going to attack basket. What makes these plays so lethal is that, unlike the Bam-Robinson combo, George serves as both the shooting and driving threat:
There are different degrees of superstar cohesion. Sometimes they just don't mesh. Sometimes they simply learn to coexist. But George moving this well off the ball actually serves to enhance what Leonard does on it. They don't just fit together, they actively make one another better.