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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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Q&A With Cavaliers Rookie Cedi Osman

Basketball Insiders caught up with Cavaliers rookie Turkish swingman Cedi Osman to discuss a number of topics. 

Spencer Davies

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Monday afternoon, Basketball Insiders caught up with rookie Turkish swingman Cedi Osman to discuss a number of topics. 

Basketball Insiders: Your first experience in the NBA, making the transition from international play and Euroleague—has it been what you’ve expected?

Cedi Osman: I mean of course it’s different rules and stuff and a different type of basketball. In international, it’s like more slow, but here it’s like always up and down, a lot of fast breaks.

Actually that’s the kind of basketball that I like. When I was playing overseas, I was also running a lot, up and down. I was that guy who was bringing the energy, so it was not hard for me to adjust to this basketball.

BI: With Euros in this league, it’s a growing amount. What does that tell you about the talent pool over there?

Osman: There’s a lot of talented players overseas—like really, a lot. Like you said, when you look around the NBA there’s a lot of European players. Starting with Dirk Nowitzki, he’s a big legend. He was the one who chose to do Europe [to show] what he can do. I can give you the example of two Turkish basketball players—Hedo Turkoglu and Mehmet Okur, he won one championship. I mean, there’s a lot of European players.

BI: Definitely. So how well do you know Hedo and Mehmet?

Osman: With Mehmet Okur, I was talking a couple times. I saw him one time in summer league this year. I talk to Hedo also because he’s president of Turkish Basketball Federation, so I was talking to him also.

BI: You’ve gotten some crucial minutes with the bench in the last couple of games. The same thing can be said when you played in New York and against the Hawks, too. What’s allowed you and that group to click together?

Osman: I always try to think positive. When I’m getting there on the court with the second unit, I’m trying to bring the energy because I’m the youngest one with Big Z [Ante Zizic] together.

Whenever I get on the court I’m trying to bring the energy on both sides of the court—on defense and offense—and I’m trying to run the floor the fastest that I can. Trying to guard players that are really good. And that also just improves my basketball [skills] a lot. I’m really happy that I am a part of this team and it’s also really important for me that I’m getting these crucial minutes.

BI: In a recent interview, you said that you don’t have a reason to be scared. You’re “cold-blooded.” Why do you feel that way?

Osman: I was playing overseas professionally since I was 16 years old…actually, I started getting paid when I was 12. [I’ve been] playing professionally for a long time. I played with a lot of good players. I’ve played also [with] former NBA players like Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic who was on the same team.

I know, yeah this is the best league in the world, but I don’t have a reason why to be scared because I was working for this—to come here, to give my best and to be stable to stay for long, long years. That’s why I said I don’t have a reason to be scared, because I know that I can play here.

BI: When you’re on the floor, what do you expect out of yourself? You said you want to get up and down the floor and give it to both ends, but is there anything outside of that, maybe mentality wise?

Osman: Of course. Not just as a rookie, but every time I get on the court like I said, I want to be always that guy who brings the energy. Also like, when we’re going bad or when we have a bad game, I want to change the momentum of the game. That’s what I’m working for a lot. We have great players and I have a lot of things to learn from them.

That’s why I said I’m really happy to be a part of this team, because we’re one of the best teams in the world. I hope that we’re going to win a championship in my first year. That would be a big thing for me.

BI: What kind of things have the coaching staff tried to help you improve in practice?

Osman: There’s a couple defensive plays that’ll be different. There’s also defensive three seconds. That was a bit of adjusting for me because in Europe you can always stay in the paint no matter what. There’s no defensive three seconds. Here it’s different, so it was a little bit hard for me to adjust in the beginning, but now I don’t have any problems and coaches are really helping me a lot.

BI: This team isn’t fully healthy yet, obviously with Isaiah Thomas coming back, Tristan Thompson coming back and Iman Shumpert down the road. That might affect playing time for some. You’ve gone to the G-League and played with the Canton Charge once before. You had a lot of minutes in that one game and did a really good job there. Is that something that you’re prepared for? Would you mind playing there again if that’s the case for you?

Osman: I was the one who asked for Canton, to go there, because before Shump got injured I didn’t have a lot of playing time. I said that I want to play whenever we have an off day, whenever I can go to play there, to run a lot, to try to do my thing. See that I’m working here before practices. That’s why I asked to go there. I talked to [Cavaliers general manager] Koby [Altman] and he said he supported me about that and that would be good for me.

BI: You have your own hashtag—#TheFirstCedi—can you explain the inspiration behind that and what it means?

Osman: So I’m working with one agency in Turkey and they’re doing a really good job about myself, my profile, my brand (laughs). They’re doing a really good job. “The First Cedi” is because my first name is Cedi and a lot of people are calling me Jedi, so that’s from Star Wars. The First Cedi—because in Turkey, ‘C’ reads as a ‘J’ so Jedi. First Jedi, that’s why.

BI: That’s pretty funny. Are you a Star Wars fan?

Osman: Yeah. I watch. But because it’s like old movies and that kind of stuff, but now new movies are better.

BI: It’s a locker room full of veterans here in Cleveland. Do you feel comfortable with everyone?

Osman: Definitely. I feel really comfortable. We have—I don’t want to say veteran players—but they are so good and they are big, big professionals. I have a lot of fun with them—locker room, when we go on the road, team dinners and that kind of stuff. It’s pretty cool.

The thing is, like it’s my first appearance. Overseas I’m coming to America and I was thinking the adjustment would be a little bit hard for me, but it was actually the opposite. From the first day that I met those guys, they helped me a lot.

BI: Is there anyone that you’ve gotten especially close to? You mentioned Big Z earlier.

Osman: Me and Z are pretty close. We’re speaking the same language. We played in the same league in Turkey. But like, I’m close with everybody. With Channing [Frye], we are always talking about the games and that stuff.

BI: Playing with LeBron—can you put that into words?

Osman: Look, it’s…(pauses), it’s something crazy. Because I was playing a game—obviously 2K—before when I was younger, I was playing with him and that stuff. Of course, it was my dream to be an NBA player, to play in the NBA. But when you’re playing on the same team with [Derrick] Rose, LeBron James, [Dwyane] Wade, Kevin Love, [Isaiah Thomas], it’s crazy.

I didn’t imagine that I would play with those players. And then, I just realize when I’m playing with them, the only thing that I can do is just work a lot and learn from them.

BI: When you hear these guys talk about you in a good light and coach Lue gives you praise, how does that make you feel?

Osman: That’s something really incredible. I mean… from the first day, from the media day when LeBron was in a press conference, he talked about everybody. But he talked also about me and he knew about Euroleague and that kind of stuff, so I was really happy. I was really proud and I was really happy about it. From the first day, he was so close to me. Not just him, but everybody.

BI: What do you think people need to know about your personality? Is there anything that hasn’t been said?

Osman: Actually, nothing special (laughs). I’m the guy who always smiles and with a lot of energy, always being positive talking to everybody, making a lot of jokes, trying to be friendly with everyone and the most important—I’m trying to be a good character.

BI: Last one—based off of this conversation alone, you’ve picked up the English language so easily. Who’s helped you on that side of things?

Osman: I actually had a lot of American players overseas on my previous team—it was Jordan Farmar, Jamon Gordon, Derrick Brown, he also played here, there was Bryant Dunston, Jayson Granger. I played a lot with Dario Saric, too, Furkan Korkmaz. Those were guys that were always talking English.

Just talking to them all the time. When they talked, I would just listen to them. I wasn’t listening to what they talked [about], but just for what kind of words they were using and what kind of sentences, the way they were talking. That’s how I learned English.

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James Johnson: The Latest Product of Miami’s Culture

James Johnson speaks to Michael Scotto about his success within Miami’s culture.

Michael Scotto

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James Johnson went from an NBA nomad to financially set for life.

Over the summer, Johnson signed a four-year, $60 million deal with Miami, as first reported by Basketball Insiders. The deal included a fourth-year player option.

“It really meant everything to me,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “To be in a situation in my life to overcome so much, and to finally get something like that where it’s long-term, where it’s somewhere I really want to be too, it was just all-in-all the best scenario.”

Johnson was drafted No. 16 overall in 2009 and spent time with four different teams, including two stints in Toronto, before his career year in Miami last season. During that span, Johnson also spent time in the G-League for the Iowa Energy (2011) and the Rio Grande Valley Vipers (2013).

Despite being nomadic through the first eight years of his career, Johnson never doubted his talent nor the hope that he’d find the right organizational fit.

“No, I never doubted myself,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “I never doubted the Lord neither. I’m a big firm believer of that. Every team I was on I always enjoyed my teammate’s success. I always was a real part of practice players and being a scout guy. My whole journey is just to figure out and experience all the other aspects of this game that we play. It says a lot where I can start helping other guys out like the rookies now and guys that are not getting any minutes right now, things like that. I’m a big testament to just staying ready, so you don’t have to get ready.”

After playing for the Chicago Bulls, Toronto Raptors, Sacramento Kings, and Memphis Grizzlies, what set Miami’s culture apart?

“Just their want-to, they’re no excuses, act like a champion on and off the court, and just that mental stability of always teaching you, not just drills, not just coaching just because they’re called coaches,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “They really inspire, they really help out, and it makes you want to be in that work environment.”

Johnson credits his relationship with President Pat Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra for helping him fulfill his potential.

“It’s great, its nothing like I’ve ever experienced before,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a little new still, but the freedom to be able to go into their office and just talk about normal things, you know, is one of the big reasons why I never want to leave this place.”

While playing on a one-year, $4 million deal, Johnson averaged a career-high 12.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 3.6 assists in 27.4 minutes per game. Johnson also shot a career-high 34 percent from beyond the arc.

Looking ahead, can Johnson continue to improve at age 30 and beyond coming off his best year as a pro?

“I got paid, so there’s no pressure of playing for the money,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “It’s really playing for the wins, playing for your teammates, and playing with a pure heart, not going out there with any agendas, not going out there looking to live up to something that everybody else wants you to live up to. For me, it’s just gelling with our team and making sure our locker room is great like I was mentioning. Go out there and compete and trust each other.”

Johnson has put up nearly identical numbers through the first quarter of this season, averaging 11.3 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 4.1 assists in 27.6 minutes per game. Johnson is also shooting a career-high 36 percent from beyond the arc.

“It’s my ninth year, and I’m just happy to be able to be part of the NBA for that long,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders.

Looking ahead, Johnson hopes to maximize years 10-12 in Miami during the rest of his contract and the remaining prime of his career.

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NBA Daily: Quincy Pondexter Has Grown With New Orleans

Quincy Pondexter did two stints with New Orleans four years apart, both of which changed his life forever.

Joel Brigham

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By the time the New Orleans Hornets traded for the draft rights to Quincy Pondexter in the summer of 2010, the city was just starting to see some real progress in the reconstruction efforts that followed the half decade after Hurricane Katrina.

In February of that year, the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl, a victory that the city badly needed, and Pondexter found himself dropped into the sports culture of the league’s most unique city.

Now with the Chicago Bulls, Pondexter would only play in New Orleans for his rookie year before getting dealt to Memphis and signing a multi-year extension, but in late 2014 he was traded back to New Orleans, who had rechristened themselves the Pelicans by that point. He couldn’t believe how much had changed in just four short years.

“You stopped seeing the spray paint on the houses, and the prices start going up on real estate. It was definitely a lot different coming back,” Pondexter told Basketball Insiders. “I remember I had a house there, when I first got there as a rookie, and it was very, very cheap. But when I came back, I had a place probably twice as small for almost double the price. The city had just grown and developed a lot more, especially the downtown areas where you could start seeing buildings being built. You’d start to see the city come back to form, come back to life, and I really, really got to enjoy it my second time.”

That sort of progress was slow to come by 2010, however. Despite five years having passed since the initial devastation of Katrina, New Orleans was finding slow progress toward physical and emotional healing. The team had just moved back to the city full-time a couple of seasons prior after having played a good number of games in Oklahoma City during Louisiana’s recovery, but Pondexter remembers the Hornets giving the people of the city something to root for, too.

“The Saints, when you win a championship, when you’ve been there for years, of course you’re going to be the favorite, but, when the Hornets were part of that, too,” he said. “When you win games, and I had the chance to go to the playoffs with two different stints with them, I think it’s embracing how much the city comes together once you make an achievement like that, and whether you’re at the grocery store, gas station, whatever, people are always going to talk to you about the game of basketball. They don’t talk to you like a fan in New Orleans; they talk to you like a family member. It was really cool to be in a city like that.”

He also admitted that it was exciting to play even a small role in helping New Orleans continue to heal.

“It was a unique experience because the city was rebuilding, and being able to be a part of helping put it back together, it was really special,” he said. “We had an unbelievable star in Chris Paul, and you just don’t realize how much people lean on sports to get through tough times. We bridged that gap, and it was a real unique community to help refurbish the city of New Orleans.”

Coming back four years later, Pondexter had grown up a lot, and while a lot of his next few years with the Pelicans would be plagued by a torrent of medical problems ranging from knee issues to a staph infection, he did get to spend a lot more time in the city after having been there for only a year as a rookie in 2010-2011. That’s when he really fell in love with New Orleans.

“The culture, the melting pot culture, the rich history, it’s so much different from anywhere else in the country,” he said. “I grew up in Fresno, California, went to school at the University of Washington, and New Orleans is just something unique, and I could always say I learned so much from a city like that, about our country, about life, about so many things. About music, about food, about everything in that city, you just really learn so much. It’s a city where you get to put your hair down, and just enjoy being alive.”

Time passes quickly in any NBA career, but playing two times for one team several years apart can’t help but give a person some perspective, which is what it has done for Quincy Pondexter.

“You grow up, you learn the game of basketball, you learn a lot about yourself, and you see what you want in life more,” he said. “I think that was a really big pivotal moment in my life, one I’ll never ever forget.”

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