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NBA PM: The Evolution of the Seven-Footer

Tommy Beer looks at the rise of the three-point shot and how it impacted the NBA’s big men.

Tommy Beer

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The Rise of the Three-pointer and Subsequent Evolution of Seven-Footers

The NBA introduced a potentially revolutionary rule change at the start of the 1979-80 season: shots made from a certain distance (ranging from 22 feet in the corners to 23.75 feet at the top of the key) would be worth three points.

The new rule didn’t have much of an impact initially and many fans and pundits didn’t think it would last.

In those early years, many teams essentially ignored the newly painted lines on the court and rarely attempted shots from downtown – other than the occasional half-court heave to close out a quarter.

For instance, the powerhouse Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA championship in 1981-82 and, over the course of the entire 82-game regular season, attempted a grand total of 94 three-pointers. They made just 13 of them attempts, or 13.8 percent. Magic Johnson led the team with six makes. They made just two more during their entire postseason run.

And it wasn’t as if the Lakers were an anomaly. Only one team in the entire league (the Indiana Pacers) made more than 100 three-pointers over the 82-game regular season in 1981-82.

Even a decade after its introduction, the three-point shot wasn’t a major difference-maker. Still, eventually, the shot started to catch on for certain teams and certain players. There were typically a few guards on each team that would be classified as ‘three-point specialists.’

Let’s fast-forward 25-plus years, shall we?

Simply put, the three-point shot has revolutionized the way today’s game is played. Consider the story of the 2016-17 Houston Rockets. At 22-8, they possess the fourth-best record in the entire league and have been one of the season’s most pleasant surprises. On a related note, they are on pace to shatter every team-related three-point record known to man.

At this time last month, no NBA team had ever attempted more than 49 threes in a single regular-season game. (The Dallas Mavericks launched 49 treys in a win over the New Jersey Nets back in March of 1996 and that record remained for more than 20 years).

Then, last month, on the day after Thanksgiving, the Rockets broke that long-standing record by attempting 50 three-pointers in a win over the Sacramento Kings. But the Rockets were just getting warmed up. Last Friday night, they broke their own newly-minted, all-time record by launching 61 three-point attempts against the New Orleans Pelicans. The next night in Minnesota, the Rockets attempted 51 triples.

Yes, in the nearly 40 years and over 45,000 games played since the NBA introduced the three-pointer, no team had ever attempted 50 treys in a single game. Then, here come the Rockets, who have now done it three times in less than a month.

It is important to note that the Rockets are not some abnormal outlier either. Many teams in today’s NBA are incredibly reliant on long-distance shooting, including many of the league’s elite contenders. The two teams that led the NBA in made three-pointers during the 2015-16 regular season were the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers – the two teams that ultimately ended up squaring off in the NBA Finals.

During that 1981-82 season discussed earlier, the league-leader in made three-pointers was a point guard named Mike Bratz. He made a total of 57 treys, tops in the NBA. Last season, 145 players made at least 60 three-pointers, including Steph Curry, who made 402.

It isn’t simply the attempts that have skyrocketed, it’s also the efficiency. In 1981-82, 21 of the 23 teams in the league shot less than 30 percent from behind-the-arc. The Pacers led the NBA in three-point percentage at 32.6 percent that season.

In 2016-17, all 30 teams are shooting above 30 percent from downtown and 29 of the 30 are shooting above 32.6 percent.

While the entire league is obviously more three-point happy than it has ever been, arguably the greatest surge can be seen in the evolution of the league’s big men.

For most of the last three decades, three-point territory remained a foreign and impenetrable land for NBA bigs. Lumbering centers and burly power forwards were instructed to run down low and camp out in the post. According to Basketball-Reference.com, over the first nine seasons of the NBA’s three-point era, from 1979-80 through 1987-88, no player listed at seven-feet or taller made more than three three-pointers in any season.

In 1988-89, Manute Bol made 20 three-pointers. Bol holds the record among seven-footers for most made three-balls in the 1980s with those 20 threes. Next on the list is Ralph Sampson, who made a grand total of eight.

Well, we now live in a different world.

The 2016-17 season is less than two months old and most teams have yet to play even 30 games; already, 10 different seven-footers have made at least 15 three-pointers at this early stage of the season.

Looking back, the evolution began in the mid-90s, as the European influences began to make their way overseas. The first seven-footer to make more than 20 three-pointers in a season was Vlade Divac of the Lakers in 1993. Then, in 1996, Portland’s Arvydas Sabonis set a new record with 49 triples.

The game continued to expand at the dawn of this century. Wang Zhizhi, by way of China, made 48 threes for the Mavs in 2003. Yi Jianlian also made 48 for the Lakers in 2009. Andrea Bargnani of Italy knocked down 100 three-pointers as a rookie in Toronto in 2007. Per Basketball-Reference, Spencer Hawes became the first American-born seven-footer to make 40 three-pointers in a single season as a Sacramento King in 2009.

Still, the true game-changer was Germany’s Dirk Nowitzki, who forever revolutionized the way we view the league’s taller players. Dirk, the sixth-leading scorer in NBA history, has made 1,707 threes in his storied career, which is by far the most among all seven-footers (Bargnani is currently second with 627).

The Next Step in the Evolution

Nowitzki has averaged 95 made three-pointers per season over his 19-year career and has made more triples than any player seven feet or taller each season this decade. However, that streak will be snapped this year. Nowitzki is dealing with a nagging Achilles injury that has limited him to just five games this season.

The current leader in made three-pointers among bigs is actually a player who measures in at 7’3.

New York’s Kristaps Porzingis has knocked down 60 three-pointers this season. Memphis’ Marc Gasol ranks second (46) and Brooklyn’s Brook Lopez is third (44).

Porzingis and his contemporaries, such as Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid, represent the most recent stages of the ever-evolving big man in the NBA. They are giant sharp-shooters who are athletic and nimble enough to put the ball on the floor and create scoring opportunities for themselves and others, yet long and strong enough to guard the rim and protect the paint on the defensive end of the floor.

Porzingis played his 100th career game on Tuesday night, a victory over the Pacers at MSG. The NBA has been around for 70 years now, but we have never quite seen a player start their career the way Porzingis has. His all-around versatility separates him from the pack.

Prior to Porzingis, no player in NBA history had ever made more than 120 three-pointers and blocked more than 110 shots over the first 100 games of his career. Well, KP has obliterated that record, having already knocked down 141 three-pointers and blocked 185 shots.

Porzingis is up to 60 made three-pointers this season, which means he has more threes than noted marksmen such as Kevin Durant, Kyle Korver and his own teammate Carmelo Anthony.

He also has more blocks (51) than DeAndre Jordan, DeMarcus Cousins and Dwight Howard.

Per NBA.com, Porzingis’ DFG% (what opponents are shooting at the rim when being defended by him) currently stands at 40.6 percent, which ranks first in the league among qualified players – ahead of such defensive monsters as Rudy Gobert (41.7 percent) and Hassan Whiteside (45.8).

Porzingis is averaging over two made three-pointers per game and is shooting over 39 percent from downtown. That’s a higher three-pointer percentage than James Harden, Klay Thompson and Damian Lillard.

Porzingis has grabbed 213 rebounds this season, which is more boards than LeBron James, Robin Lopez and Marc Gasol.

You get the idea.

Oh, by the way, Porzingis doesn’t turn 22 years old until next August.

The New CBA Will Help Teams Re-sign Talented Bigs

Let’s continue to use Porzingis as an example. New Yorkers are obviously hopeful that they will be able to continue watching Porzingis grow and develop in as a member of the Knicks. Earlier this month, they got encouraging news.

The NBA’s new, soon-to-be ratified collective bargaining agreement is great news for Porzingis and other up-and-coming stars because it will make him a whole lot of money. But it’s also good for the Knicks, and their KP-loving fanbase, because it greatly increases the likelihood of Porzingis spending the vast majority of his career in New York.

The first impact Porzingis will see is an immediate raise, which kicks in next season. As part of the new CBA, current rookie-scale contracts get significant increases. For KP, his initial contract was set to pay him $4.5 million in 2017-18 and $5.6 million in 2018-19. Instead, he will now likely make north of $5 million next season and $7.2 million in 2018-19.

Also, Porzingis is now in line to sign a massive extension. In the summer of 2019, once he has completed four years of NBA service, he will be eligible to sign a huge extension that may be worth close to $200 million.

Star players staying with the team that drafted them through the first two contracts of their career is fairly common today, even under the current CBA, due to the financial benefits of doing so. However, what will change under the new CBA is that elite, superstar players will be highly incentivized to stay with their current team on their third contracts as well.

After seeing top-tier players such as LeBron James, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and, most recently, Kevin Durant switch teams in the heart of their respective primes, the league and the players’ union set out to create a major “home-court advantage” that would entice superstars to stay put. Thus, under the new CBA, teams looking to re-sign a player will be able to offer significantly more money (not only contracts longer in length, but also a far greater percentage of the salary cap starting the very first season) than competing franchises.

The qualifications for this new designated player exception are extremely difficult to reach. As reported by our Eric Pincus, to qualify a player must be entering their eighth or ninth season and have remained with the team that drafted them. They also need to be named to any of the three All-NBA teams or as Defensive Player of the Year in either the season preceding the extension or two of the three prior seasons. It will also apply to the league’s Most Valuable Player in any of the three seasons before the extension.

This means that superstars will have every incentive to stay with their original team through their third contract and avoid testing free agency at any point in their prime.

Obviously, we are looking very far down the road, but if Porzingis does develop into the kind of All-NBA caliber player that Phil Jackson and the Knicks believe he is destined to be, the odds are now greatly increased that he will stay in New York through 2030.

Teams can now watch their seven-footers evolve and dominate in new ways without constantly worrying that their talented big man will leave as soon as free agency comes around.

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.

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NBA Daily: Rookie Contributors Lifting Playoff Teams

This year’s impressive rookie class has translated their regular season performances to the playoff stage.

Dennis Chambers

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This past NBA season had the luxury of an incredibly entertaining and high-powered rookie class. Every other day it seemed like the feats of either Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen, Dennis Smith Jr., Kyle Kuzma, or Ben Simmons were dominating the discussion about how advanced the league’s crop of newbies appeared to be.

As a result, the 2017-18 Rookie of the Year race was a much more heated discussion than the year before.

With the impressive campaign these NBA freshmen put together, it should come as no surprise that on the on bright stage of playoff basketball, three of the aforementioned crop are helping lead their team’s in tight first-round battles.

Donovan Mitchell has been the leading scorer for the Utah Jazz through two games in their series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Jayson Tatum is stepping up for the Boston Celtics to help fill in the void of Kyrie Irving as they take on the Milwaukee Bucks. Ben Simmons is nearly averaging a triple-double through three games for the Philadelphia 76ers in their matchup with the Miami HEAT.

Lottery pick talents are expected in today’s NBA to come in and have some level of impact for their clubs. Usually, they play the role as a foundational building block that shows flashes of promise with an expected up-and-down first season. While these three playoff contributors haven’t been perfect all year long, under the pressure of the postseason, they’ve stepped up their play and appear to be avoiding the learning curve.

With that, let’s highlight further what Mitchell, Tatum, and Simmons have been able to do thus far in the postseason.

Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

All season long Mitchell threw the entire scoring load of Salt Lake City on his back for the Jazz and helped carry them to a 5-seed in the Western Conference when early season projections suggested they should head towards in the wake of Rudy Gobert’s injury.

However, the 13th pick out of Louisville had no intentions of missing out on the postseason. And from the looks of his production so far, who can blame him?

Through the first two games of the Jazz-Thunder series, Mitchell yet again placed his name in the same breath as Michael Jordan. Mitchell’s 55 points in his first two playoff games broke Jordan’s record of 53 for most points scored by a rookie guard in that scenario.

Mitchell’s 27 points in Game 1 and 28 points in Game 2 led the Jazz to even the series and steal home court advantage from the Thunder. While he hasn’t been responsible for setting up the team’s offense, tallying just five assists through those two games, Mitchell is fulfilling the role of Gordon Hayward as the team’s primary scorer.

In a series against a team that features the likes of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony, Utah needs Mitchell to go out there and get as many buckets as he possibly can.

So far, he appears to be welcoming the challenge.

Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

When it was announced that Kyrie Irving would be lost for the entire postseason due to injury, the Boston Celtics’ hold on the 2-seed seemed a lot less intimidating than it once was in the Eastern Conference.

However, three games into the first round series against the Bucks, the Celtics hold a 2-1 lead. A lot part of that has to do with the role Tatum has been able to step in and play right away with the Celtics down their main scorer and playmaker.

Throughout the first three games of the series, Tatum 12.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 2.3 steals. The third overall pick in the 2017 draft started the series off with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and three steals to help Boston start off the matchup with a 1-0 lead.

At just 20 years old, Tatum is matching his age number with his usage percentage thus far against Milwaukee. For some perspective, Jaylen Brown managed just 12 minutes a night for the Celtics last season as a rookie when the playoffs rolled around.

Granted, injuries and missing players are helping in Tatum being on the court as much as he has, but the rookie is earning his time out there on the court.

Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

The perceived frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, Ben Simmons has taken control in his first ever playoff series.

For starters, Simmons is averaging nearly a triple double over his first three games against the HEAT; 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 9.7 assists.

On top of his triple double ways, Simmons has upped arguably his biggest weakness so far in the playoffs, shooting 75 percent from the charity stripe. During the regular season, Simmons struggled from the line, hitting only 56 percent of his attempts.

With the offensive prowess of Simmons obvious, it’s the job he’s doing on the defensive end of the court against an aggressive and tough Miami squad that’s elevating his play to the next level.

Simmons’ ability to switch all over the defensive end of the court has placed his responsibilities from Goran Dragic to Justise Winslow to James Johnson, and seemingly everywhere in between.

Now with Joel Embiid back in the fold for the Sixers and Simmons, the rookie point guard has his defensive partner on the floor to help ease the workload on that end. A two-way performance each night will be imperative for Simmons in helping lead the young Sixers past the experienced HEAT team.

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Pelicans Role Players are Key to Success

The supporting cast in New Orleans is a big part of their playoff surge, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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The New Orleans Pelicans have taken a commanding 3-0 lead in their first-round playoff series again the Portland Trail Blazers. While surprising to some, the Pelicans only finished one game behind the Blazers in the standings. The Pelicans have the best player in the series in Anthony Davis and the defensive duo of Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday have stifled Portland’s backcourt.

The truth is, the Pelicans have been a good team all season long. A lot of attention and recognition has been given to Davis, Rondo and Holiday this season and playoffs, and rightfully so. But New Orleans wouldn’t be where they are without the important contributions of some of their role players.

Take E’Twaun Moore, for example. Moore bounced around the NBA early in his career, with stops in Boston, Orlando and Chicago before finding long-term stability contract wise with the Pelicans. He’s primarily been a bench player with them before this season, his second in New Orleans, his first as a full-time starter.

He’s given the Pelicans a huge boost, especially from the three-point line. He’s put up 12.5 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting from the field, both career-highs. He’s shooting 42.5 percent from three-point range.

“I think it’s just our style of play,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “We play fast and open. Coach [Gentry] gives us a lot of freedom, a lot of confidence. That’s why my game is up, my shooting is up.”

It’s not just offensively though. Moore has always been one of the more underrated defensive guards in the league. Paired up alongside Rondo and Holiday, the trio form a solid wing defensive unit. They’re a big reason for Portland’s offensive struggles.

Moore is the type of role player that every playoff contender needs to succeed. He knows that his role may change from game to game. Some nights he may be asked to score a little more. Other nights his defense is going to be called upon. Whatever it may be, he’s always ready to do what’s asked of him.

“I bring the energy. I bring a spark,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “It’s knocking down shots, playing defense, getting out in transition. Just trying to be a spark.”

The Pelicans bench has also been a huge factor all season long. Their depth took a major hit early in the season with the injury to Solomon Hill. Hill has since returned to the lineup, but his absence paved the way for other players such as Darius Miller to step up.

This is Miller’s second stint with the Pelicans after spending two years overseas. Drafted 46th overall in 2012, he didn’t play much his first three years in the NBA. In 2014, he was cut by the Pelicans only about a month into the season. This year was different, he was thrown into the rotation from the get-go.

“This is a huge opportunity,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I just come in and try to work every day, try to get better every day. My teammates have done a great job of putting me in situations where I can be successful.”

Miller has given the Pelicans a capable stretch four in the second unit who can slide over to small forward if need be. He’s averaging a career-best 7.8 points per game, the most out of any of New Orleans’ reserves. He’s their best three-point shooter off the bench, connecting on 41.1 percent of his long-range attempts.

While he acknowledges that he’s enjoying his best season yet as an NBA player, he’s quick to praise his teammates for allowing him to flourish.

“I just try to bring a spark off the bench. I come in and try to knock some shots down,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “My teammates do a great job of finding me when I’m open, I just try and knock down shots and compete.”

Sometimes time away from the NBA helps players grow and mature. The NBA game is fast paced and it can take awhile to get used to it. While some players have begun to use the G-League as a means of preparing for the league, Miller took an alternate route of heading to Germany.

For him, it’s a big reason why he’s been able to make an easier transition back to the NBA. His contract for next season is non-guaranteed, but he’s probably done enough to warrant the Pelicans keeping him around. He’s a much different and much-improved player. If not, he’s sure to draw interest from other teams.

“It was a lot to learn for me personally,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I had to learn a lot of different things like how to take care of my body, how to manage my time, a whole bunch of stuff like that. The time overseas really helped me to mature and grow up and learn a few things.”

These Pelicans have most certainly turned quite a few heads since the playoffs began. We shouldn’t deal too much with hypotheticals, but it’s interesting to wonder what this team’s ceiling would’ve been had DeMarcus Cousins not been lost for the season due to injury.

This is a confident bunch, however. They’ve beaten both the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets during the regular season. They’ve already shattered a lot of expert predictions with their performance in the first-round. The Pelicans feel like they can hang with anyone out West.

“As far as we want to go,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I feel like we’ve competed with all the best teams in the league this whole season. We just got to come out, stay focused and do what we do.”

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Is LeBron Enough For Cavs To Get Through The East?

Cleveland’s offense has struggled through the first two games of the playoffs. Can the four-time MVP consistently bail them out? Spencer Davies writes.

Spencer Davies

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After a less-than-encouraging series opener versus the Indiana Pacers, LeBron James responded emphatically and led the Cleveland Cavaliers to a bounce back 100-97 victory to even things up at one game apiece.

Scoring the first 13 points of the game itself, The King was a one-man wrecking crew out of the gate and carried that momentum throughout all four quarters of Game 2. His 46 points were James’ second-highest scoring mark between the regular season and the playoffs. In addition, he shot above 70 percent from the field for the sixth time this year.

The four-time MVP pulled down 12 rebounds total, and but all but one of those boards were defensive—the most he’s had since Saint Patrick’s Day in Chicago a month ago.

What James did was another classic instance where LeBron reminds us that through all the injuries, drama, and on-court issues, whatever team he’s on always has a chance to go all the way. But having said all of that—can the Cavaliers realistically depend on that kind of spectacular effort for the rest of the postseason? It’s a fair question.

Kevin Love is a solid secondary go-to guy, but he’s struggled to find his rhythm in the first two games. He’s done a solid job defensively between both, but he’s getting banged up and is dealing with knocked knees and a reported torn thumb ligament in the same hand he broke earlier in the season.

Love has admitted that he’d like more post touches instead of strictly hanging out on the perimeter, but it’s on him to demand the ball more and he knows it. But finding that flow can be challenging when James has it going and is in all-out attack mode.

Kyle Korver came to the rescue for Cleveland as the only shooter that consistently converted on open looks. Outside of those three, and maybe J.R. Smith, really, there hasn’t been a tangible threat that’s a part of the offense during this series.

We all pondered whether or not the “new guys” would be able to step up when their respective numbers were called. So far, that hasn’t been the case for the most part.

Jordan Clarkson looks rushed with tunnel vision. Rodney Hood has had good body language out there, but seems reluctant to shoot off dribble hand-offs and is second-guessing what he wants to do. The hustle and effort from Larry Nance Jr. is obvious, but he’s also a good bet to get into foul trouble. Plus, he’s had some struggles on an island against Pacer guards.

As for George Hill, the good news is the impact on the floor just based on his mere presence on both ends (game-high +16 on Wednesday), but he hasn’t really done any scoring and fouled out of Game 2.

Maybe these things change on the road, who knows. But those four, the rest of the rotation, absolutely have to step up in order for the Cavaliers to win this series and fend off this hungry Indiana group, which brings us to another point.

Let’s not forget, the offensive issues aren’t simply because of themselves. After all, the Cavs were a team that had little trouble scoring the basketball in the regular season, so give a ton of credit to the Pacers’ scheme and McMillan’s teachings to play hard-nosed.

Unlike many teams in the league, the strategy for them is to pressure the ball and avoid switches as much as possible on screens. The more they go over the pick and stick on their assignments, the better chance they have of forcing a bad shot or a turnover. That’s what happened in Game 1 and in the majority of the second half of Game 2.

Cleveland has also somewhat surprisingly brought the fight on defense as well. In the first two contests of the series, they’ve allowed under 100 points. Lue’s said multiple times that they’re willing to give up the interior buckets in order to secure the outside, and it’s worked. It doesn’t seem smart when there’s a yellow-colored layup line going on at times, but it certainly paid off by only allowing 34 percent of Indiana’s threes to go down.

Still, looking ahead to what the Cavaliers can do in the playoffs as a whole, it doesn’t bode well. They’re not only locked in a tug-of-war with Indiana, but if they get past them, they could have a Toronto Raptors group chomping at the bit for revenge.

If they’re having this much trouble in the first round, what should make us believe they can barrel through the Eastern Conference as they’ve done in the past?

It’s not quite as obvious or as bad as Cleveland’s 2007 version of James and the rest, but it feels eerily similar for as much as he’s put the team on his back so far. The organization better hope improvement comes fast from his supporting cast, or else it could be a longer summer than they’d hoped for.

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