Two weeks ago, Stephen Curry capped off an amazing season by hitting his 272nd 3-pointer of the year, breaking Ray Allen’s seven-year-old NBA record. His performance, combined with our hyperbolic here and now journalistic tendencies nearly caused a riot on the Internet.
Since it was not merely good enough to proclaim that Curry is a great shooter – or maybe even the best shooter in the NBA right now – many journalists, bloggers, and fans began announcing that he was one of, if not the greatest shooter in basketball history.
Bailey Deeter from Hoops Habit initially asked the question, “Is Stephen Curry the Greatest 3-Point Shooter of All Time?” In the article, he plainly points out that Curry’s shooting percentages from long distance are far better than anyone else in the conversation. That, combined with this year’s historic feat, clearly declares that Curry is, in fact, the best ever.
There are more than a few flaws in his piece though, chief among them the mistake that he failed to consider context in the overall equation.
For instance, Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas were always considered two of the best 3-point shooters of the 1980s. If you were to go back to 1987 and ask coaches the question, “Who terrifies you more than anyone else when he is standing behind the 3-point line?” one of their names would have undoubtedly come up. And yet, when you look at their statistics today, it’s almost laughable that they were at one time considered dead-eye shooters from long-range.
Larry Legend never made more than 100 threes in a single season and Isiah Thomas was a career 29 percent shooter from distance. The context matters tremendously. In the 2012-13 season alone, 10 NBA players made at least 170 threes. Only two players made that many from 1979 to 1994.
Because the 3-point shot has gradually become much more of a weapon as basketball has evolved, it’s simply unfair to compare players from the past with their peers from today while only looking at accumulated totals. Today’s guards make fewer mid-range jumpers than the NBA players of the past. Does that automatically mean they are worse shooters? Of course not. As the game changes, so does strategy.
It is similarly unfair to compare players based solely off of shooting percentages. For one, it’s much easier to shoot a higher percentage when you are shooting fewer shots – how do you think Steve Kerr was able to shoot better than 50 percent from long range four times in his career? But more importantly, shooting percentages really fail to take into account the type and quality of the shots a player takes.
Nobody on the planet would argue that Thabo Sefolosha is a better three-point shooter than Kevin Durant, even though Sefolosha shoots a slightly higher percentage. Nearly all of Sefolosha’s attempts are of the stand-still, wide-open variety from corners and wings – typically created off of a Durant or Russell Westbrook drive to the basket. Durant, on the other hand, hardly ever gets to take corner threes. Most of his jump shots are taken off of tough, one-on-one possessions, or set plays that involve of him sprinting and curling around picks.
Context matters. Shooting cannot simply be evaluated by looking at numbers.
So then, who is the greatest shooter ever? That question is complicated, so let’s first of all narrow down the list and then later, add a layer of clarity to question.
There have been hundreds of dead-eye 3-point shooters in NBA history, but we have to start somewhere. In order to make the cut on this list, a player either had to:
- make at least 150 threes in a season three times
- make at least 200 threes in one season
- shoot greater than 45 percent from deep at least twice
- or have met special circumstances that warrant inclusion (he either played before the 3-point line existed or played when it wasn’t as big a part of the game).
A few of the toughest cuts:
- Michael Jordan (never a great 3-point shooter, even though if you really needed one shot, he’s probably your guy)
- Kobe Bryant, Dana Barros, Ryan Anderson, and Mike Miller (only made more than 150 twice)
- Dirk Nowitzki (only made more than 150 once)
- Mark Price (injuries probably kept him off this list)
- Sam Perkins and Allan Houston (not quite as good as I remembered)
- Paul Pierce (always very very good but never great…only made more than 150 in a season once)
- Kevin Durant (has made at least 125 four straight seasons, and will probably break 150 eventually, but doesn’t yet meet any of the criteria).
After browsing NBA history, I came up with five groups of guys that met the previous criteria.
Group One – Wings that murdered you off the ball
- Reggie Miller – The greatest shooter coming off of two, three, or four screens in NBA history, he sometimes struggled to create his own shot.
- Ray Allen – Allen may have barely finished behind Reggie in terms of coming off screens, but he was also a much better creator for himself.
- Peja Stojakovic – Stojakovic was slower than both Miller and Allen, but his height and quick release made him equally deadly.
- Glen Rice – Rice was not quite as prolific as any of these guys overall, but he was probably scarier than all of them if he got hot.
Group Two – Wings that could create their own shot
- Ben Gordon – The former UConn standout has averaged almost two threes per game for his entire career, while shooting better than 40 percent, even though he has only started just a third of his games.
- Mitch Richmond – Richmond was a thicker, west-coast version of Reggie Miller. But, unfortunately, he rarely played on great teams.
- Dale Ellis – You know Ellis as the long-time NBA leader in three-pointers made.
Group Three – Point Guards
- Steve Kerr – Kerr shot better than 50 percent from deep four times and 90 percent from the free throw line six times.
- Jason Terry – The Jet is actually fourth all-time in three point shooting and has also made a living off of being “Mr. Clutch” for several teams.
- Chauncey Billups – Billups was a consistently great shooter for 11 years until injuring his Achilles tendon last season.
- Dell Curry – Stephen’s dad shot at least 40 percent from deep for eight-straight seasons.
- Steve Nash – Nash is one of the few guys in history to shoot 50/40/90 for a season…and he did it in five straight seasons.
- Stephen Curry – He’s only just entered the league, but this season alone should earn him a spot on the list.
- Tim Hardaway – The “creator of the crossover” was also one of the best shooters in the NBA from 1994-98.
Group Four – “Bigs”
- Steve Novak – The career 43 percent shooter has actually shot better than 47 percent from deep in three separate seasons.
- Rashard Lewis – Lewis sits eighth on the all-time list, and his seven-year stretch from 2003-10 is one of the best shooting performances in history.
Group Five – Legends that are hard to quantify but must be included
- Pete Maravich – The Pistol played most of his career before the 3-point line, but studies show that he would have averaged upwards of ten threes a game in his college years if there had been a line…so he has to be included.
- Jerry West – The Logo is a legendary shooter in NBA circles.
- Larry Bird – As mentioned before, Larry Legend went to work before the 3-point line became popular, but his resume speaks for itself.
- Rick Barry – Barry was one of the best 3-point shooters in ABA history, and actually carried his success over to the NBA unlike other ABA bombers.
All 20 guys on this list could be considered fantastic shooters. But who is the best? There are just too many variables. If we want a guy that can stand in the corner all day without moving and never miss, Larry Bird, Steve Novak, and Dell Curry are probably near the top of the list. If you need a guy to create something for you, Ben Gordon is much higher than you would ever guess.
So for fun, let’s answer a specific question:
“If your team was down by three points with 10 seconds left, and you had to draw up one play for one guy in history to take the shot, which player would you choose?”
This player would need to be:
- a dead-eye three-point shooter. (Obviously)
- able to shoot well in any circumstance. (Off dribble isolation, off dribble pick and roll, curling off a screen, or standing still in the corner)
- able to get his shot off over good defense.
Immediately, our list is pared considerably.
Steve Novak, Ryan Anderson, Steve Kerr, and Dell Curry wouldn’t be able to create a shot for themselves or anyone else. Fantastic shooters as they may have been, the defense can figure out how to defend these four stand-still shooters.
Dale Ellis, Jason Terry, Glen Rice, Ben Gordon, and Mitch Richmond all just barely made our list in the first place, so let’s throw them out as well.
Tim Hardaway was fantastic, but he never shot 40 percent for an entire year so he’s off too. That leaves us with the following 10 guys on this list:
- Reggie Miller
- Ray Allen
- Peja Stojakovic
- Steve Nash
- Stephen Curry
- Rashard Lewis
- Pete Maravich
- Larry Bird
- Jerry West
- Rick Barry
In order to do this as objectively as possible, let’s break them down category by category, rating each on a scale of one to 10 in each category. At the end, we will count up each player’s point total and wind up with a definitive answer for who you would draw up that game-clinching play for. Of course, you might point out that the rating I will give them will be subjective to me. That may be true, but you can suggest your methods in the comments.
- 10 – Steve Nash, Larry Bird, and Peja Stojakovic
- 9 – Ray Allen, and Reggie Miller
- 8 – Stephen Curry and Rick Barry*
- 7 – Jerry West and Pete Maravich
- 6 – Rashard Lewis
Basically, which guy would be the best shooter on wide open, undefended jump shots?
I looked at two things for this – performance in 3-point shoot outs and free throw shooting. Those are really the only two, definitive and objective pieces of evidence we can use to grade this category.
The top five guys all finished in the top 10 all-time in free throw shooting. Currently, Steve Nash is still the greatest free throw shooter ever, earning him a 10 rating. Bird famously won the first three 3-point shootouts, including his famous “who here is coming second” moment. Anyone that argues against him earning a 10 should stop reading about basketball.
The guy that surprised me the most was Stojakovic. eja, of course, won back-to-back 3-point shootouts in the early 2000s, making him one of four guys in history to do so. He is also the fourth greatest free throw shooter of all-time according to basketball-reference.com. I find it interesting that the two 6’9″ forwards with nearly identical strokes finished tied for the lead. Maybe we should stop teaching kids how to shoot like Ray Allen and start imitating Larry Legend.
Curry would have earned higher than an eight, but he only shot 80 percent last year from the free throw line. Of course, 2012 was an injury-plagued season for him, but still, none of the six guys ahead of him ever shot so poorly for a season. West, Maravich, and Lewis all shot below 85 percent for their careers. Shooting 81 percent is nothing to be ashamed of, but they all clearly fall a little bit behind the top six in this category.
*Even though Rick Barry goes down as the fourth-best free throw shooter ever, he was penalized for obvious reasons. If you don’t understand, ask your grandma.
Shooting with a man in his face
- 10 – Pete Maravich, Larry Bird
- 9 – Jerry West
- 8 – Reggie Miller, Ray Allen, Stephen Curry
- 7 – Peja Stojakovic, Steve Nash
- 6 – Rick Barry
- 5 – Rashard Lewis
Of course, the rest of the categories are more subjective than the first, and this one is no exception. In fact, the mere title of the category is confusing. Should “making hard shots” really be a valued skill? Wouldn’t it be better if you were so good offensively, you never had to take difficult shots?
That’s why I phrased it the way I did – shooting with a man in your face. Defensive players always tried to crowd Larry Bird and take away his space, but he was seemingly always able to create a sliver of space for himself and hardly ever get blocked. Jerry West was the original master of this art, and of course, Pete Maravich probably perfected it. It was Maravich that often faced double and triple teams all over the court, yet he was still able to score at will against almost every opponent he faced.
Miller, Allen , and Curry are all tied with eights, even if they accomplished those ratings differently. Curry has one of the quickest releases in NBA history, enabling him to create space in almost no time and hoist up a good look. Miller and Allen, meanwhile, were better than anyone else at sprinting in one direction before catching the ball, planting, and turning to shoot in one seemingly effortless motion. It didn’t really matter who was guarding either guy – the success of the shot typically had to do with whether or not each player executed his form correctly.
Nash, Stojakovic, and Barry were above-average in this department, but definitely not on the level of the top six.
Catch and shoot
- 10 – Reggie Miller and Ray Allen
- 9 – Larry Bird and Peja Stojakovic
- 8 – Stephen Curry and Rashard Lewis
- 7 – Pete Maravich
- 6 – Jerry West, Steve Nash, and Rick Barry
It’s not a coincidence that the more recent players seemed to be far better catch and shooter guys than some of the older players. As the 90s and 2000s progressed, being able to catch the ball and shoot it quickly – as long, fast, and athletic defenses rotated at lightning speed – became much more of a priority. Of course, nobody in history approach Miller and Allen in this department. Both guys would often spend 20 seconds literally running loops and circles around their bigs before sprinting to the wing and firing a quick three.
Peja and Larry were almost their equals though. While neither guy was blessed with the above’s quickness, as mentioned before, both guys took advantage of their lightning fast releases in order to get their shots off over more athletic defenders. Rashard Lewis was just as proficient all those years in Seattle and Orlando as he calmly sat in the corner waiting for his stars to create openings for him.
Curry may be better than an eight, but he doesn’t necessarily showcase that trait as much, considering he often has the ball in his hands. West, Maravich, Nash, and Barry were all more comfortable creating their own shots.
Shooting off a pick
- 10 – Steve Nash
- 9 – Ray Allen and Pete Maravich
- 8 – Stephen Curry
- 7 – Larry Bird, Jerry West, and Rick Barry
- 5 – Reggie Miller
- 4 – Peja Stojakovich and Rashard Lewis
Nash is the clear winner here. The perfecter of shooting off the pick and roll on the Seven Seconds or Less Suns practically has his own YouTube channel on running it to perfection. Nash’s lasting image will probably that of curling around Amare Stoudemire and popping a three in the 0.4 seconds of time that he was open. Part of his effectiveness had to do with his sensational passing ability – if the defense didn’t respect the passing lanes, Nash would pick it apart. Still, shooting off of a screen is a legitimate skill, and it’s completely fair that Nash’s passing ability boosted his shooting in this respect.
Allen and Maravich were also incredibly effective using screens to create open looks. This is an area that Curry is improving at every year, and could even rise up to Nash-esque status eventually. It’s not a coincidence that so many people have encouraged Curry to use Nash as his prototype for improvement.
Stojakovic, Lewis, and Miller ranked pretty low here, mainly because none of the three were ever fantastic ball-handlers. Bird, West, and Barry weren’t fantastic dribblers, but their passing ability elevated them in a similar fashion as Nash.
Shooting off isolation
- 10 – Pete Maravich
- 8 – Steve Nash, Jerry West, and Rick Barry
- 7 – Stephen Curry
- 6 – Ray Allen, Reggie Miller, and Larry Bird
- 4 – Rashard Lewis
- 3 – Peja Stojakovich
Once again, Maravich is in a league of his own. No other player had his combination of intelligence, ball-handling, moves, and shooting all in one. “The Pistol” created moves that we had never seen before – and have seldom seen since. It didn’t matter how many guys you threw at him, he was always going to beat his man and get the look he wanted.
Nash, West, and Barry were all equally effective in breaking down defenders off the dribble. Ironically, three of the four best players in this category were from the older times – poking holes in the theory that the NBA relies much more on one-on-one and isolation style offenses today.
Curry is better than the rest, but is not quite as effective as Nash because of his slight build and inability to handle much physicality at this point in his career.
Miller, Allen, and Bird all went one-on-one more than people remember, but it definitely wasn’t their strength.
Ability in the Clutch
- 10 – Larry Bird and Jerry West
- 9 – Reggie Miller
- 8 – Ray Allen and Pete Maravich
- 6 – Rick Barry
- 5 – Steve Nash and Stephen Curry
- 4 – Rashard Lewis
- 2 – Peja Stojakovic
Feel free to argue with these, but I don’t think anyone can really make that strong of a case. Maybe Allen is as clutch as Miller. Maybe Nash deserves to be a six instead of a five. Still, Bird and West are in a class by themselves here.
So how did the rankings end up?
- Larry Bird – 52
- Pete Maravich – 51
- Ray Allen – 50
- Jerry West – 48
- Reggie Miller – 47
- Steve Nash – 47
- Stephen Curry – 45
- Rick Barry – 42
- Peja Stojakovich – 35
- Rashard Lewis – 31
Of course, different circumstances would determine which player you would choose. If you had a great big man to run the screen and roll, you might just pick Nash – a guy that finished tied for fifth with Miller to take the shot. If you wanted to clear everyone out and trust your star, the Pistol would no doubt be the guy you wanted. If you had several great bigs to set picks, nobody would be better than Ray Allen.
But I’m pretty satisfied with the champion. If I only had one shot, and wasn’t sure what was going to happen on that final possession, I couldn’t go wrong with Larry Legend.