A Bear Ration

Posted by Ian Levy on February 10, 2011 under Commentary | 11 Comments to Read

Screen shot 2011-02-10 at 1.46.37 AM

Ian Levy is the author of Hickory High, a contributor to Indy Cornrows, and is now a part of The Two Man Game family. He’ll be bringing his intelligent brand of — mostly quantitative — analysis here on a weekly basis.

Have you ever had an afternoon, or even an entire day, where everything went totally smoothly?  With every normal disaster avoided? The girl at Starbucks doesn’t notice your fly is down as she hands you your coffee. The important meeting for which you’re completely unprepared is canceled at the last minute for a bizarre and unexpected reason. You turn on the fake tears and the state trooper lets you off with a warning.

Well, DeShawn Stevenson has had about 90 of those days in a row.

Stevenson is shooting 41.3% on three pointers this season, well above his career average of 34.7%. This fact becomes even more impressive when you consider that he shot 21.8% and 27.8% his last two NBA seasons. If he was a cyclist and made that sort of single season improvement in one area, hundreds of technicians would be poring over vials of his urine in laboratories around the world.

If we look at Stevenson’s three point percentages for each season, we’ll see this is actually not the only towering peak:

Stevenson 3PT%

He also shot 40.4% on 183 attempts in 2007 and 38.3% on 413 attempts in 2008. What Stevenson is doing this season is not unprecedented for him personally, but it does put a spotlight on an amazing pattern of inconsistency. As I mentioned above, between this season and the 2007 and 2008 campaigns, Stevenson shot 21.8% and 27.8% on a total of 216 attempts. Before the 2007 and 2008 seasons he had made 52 of 202 three pointers for his career, a 26.2% clip. Still, the jump this season over his career average is his greatest increase yet.

Thus far this season, Stevenson is shooting 6.6 percentage points higher than his career average.  In the past 20 years there have been 291 instances of a player shooting better than 40.0% on three pointers for a season with a minimum of 200 attempts, two marks Stevenson should easily surpass barring injury or a gigantic slump. Of those 291 instances I could only find 22 cases where a player shot over 40.0% on three pointers and it represented an increase of 6.6 percentage points or more over their career average. Ray Allen’s jump this season from a career mark of 39.8% to 46.2% just barely misses our cut.

PlayerTeamSeason3PTA3PT%3PT% Career3PT% Change
Tim LeglerWAS1995-199624552.2%43.1%+9.1%
Al HarringtonIND/GSW2006-200729343.3%35.8%+7.5%
Brent BarrySEA2000-200122947.6%40.5%+7.1%
Brent PriceWAS1995-199630146.2%38.7%+7.5%
Donyell MarshallTOR2004-200536341.6%35.0%+6.6%
Earl WatsonDEN/SEA2005-200627240.4%33.0%+7.4%
Glen RiceCHH1996-199744047.0%40.0%+7.0%
Jason KaponoMIA2006-200721051.4%43.9%+7.5%
Jason KiddDAL2009-201041442.5%34.9%+7.6%
Joe JohnsonPHO2004-200537047.8%36.9%+10.9%
Jon BarryDET2001-200225846.9%39.2%+7.7%
Kevin JohnsonPHO1996-199720244.1%30.5%+13.6%
Keyon DoolingNJN2008-200923542.1%34.8%+7.3%
Lindsey HunterDET1999-200038943.2%36.0%+7.2%
Mark JacksonIND1999-200022140.3%33.2%+7.1%
Mehmet OkurUTA2008-200920244.6%37.7%+6.9%
Michael JordanCHI1995-199626042.7%32.7%+10.0%
Richard JeffersonSAS2010-201120342.4%35.8%+6.6%
Rodney RogersPHO1999-200026243.9%34.7%+9.2%
Steve SmithSAS2001-200124647.2%35.8%+11.4%
Tony KukocCHI1995-199621640.3%33.5%+6.8%
Troy MurphyIND2008-200935845.0%38.1%+6.9%
DeShawn StevensonDAL2010-201119641.3%34.7%+6.6%

Looking at things in this way certainly favors the freakishly flukey. Historically great three-point shooters like Steve Kerr, Dale Ellis, Reggie Miller, Dell Curry and Wesley Person don’t make our list because they consistently shot a high percentage each season.

There are a few other oddities with this list. The first is that Stevenson is not the only player showing such a dramatic improvement in their three point shooting this season. I mentioned Ray Allen above, but Richard Jefferson is also on pace to match Stevenson’s improvement over his own career average. The second is a fellow Maverick: Jason Kidd’s performance last year earned him a spot on this list as well. Kidd, a career 34.9% three point shooter, made 42.5% of his three pointers last year, an improvement of 7.6 percentage points. Unfortunately, Kidd hasn’t been able to sustain that improvement this season.

There are only two pairs of teammates who appear on the list for notably improved performances in the same season. The first pairing is Toni Kukoc and Michael Jordan for the 1996 Bulls. Not that you needed any convincing from me, but things went really, really well for the Bulls that season. Brent Price and Tim Legler also made the list for the 1996 Washington Bullets. I’m not sure what was happening in our nation’s capital that winter but it was apparently a glorious time to be an undersized, athletically limited, one-dimensional shooter.

The biggest single season improvement over a career average I could find was Kevin Johnson’s 1997 campaign for the Suns. Johnson was a career 30.5% three point shooter but knocked down 44.1% that season. Looking at the Suns’ 40-42 record gives the impression that it was a fairly unremarkable season for them. However, that team was one of my all-time favorites to watch. In the early stages of that season, the Suns traded Sam Cassell to Dallas for a talented young point guard named Jason Kidd. The rest of the season they started a three-guard lineup of Kidd, Johnson and Rex Champman, with Wesley Person and a young Steve Nash coming off the bench. That team was an early predecessor of the run-and-gun Suns that would rise to prominence several years later.

Even if surrounded by a generally unimpressive list of players who have accomplished this feat, Stevenson’s improvement is still something to be recognized. But where did this scorching stroke come from? I took a look at the data from Synergy Sports to compare what type of offensive possessions his three point shots came out of this season and last season.*

*For some reason, only the data from his time in Washington was available for last season, though he didn’t attempt many shots at all for Dallas. Stevenson took 87 three pointers last year and 63 of them came with the Wizards, so a significant chunk of last season’s performance is represented here.

Three Point Distribution

Possession3PTA (2010)3PTM (2010)3PT% (2010)3PTA (2011)3PTM (2011)3PT% (2011)
Off Screen010.0%61540.0%
PnR Ball Handler010.0%22100.0%
Hand Off1250.0%010.0%

It would be nice to have some data from earlier seasons for a point of comparison, but we’re stuck with what we have: publicly available data. The trend from the past two seasons would seem to indicate that Stevenson is a reluctant and inefficient shooter when it comes to taking three-pointers off the dribble. He is taking roughly the same percentage of his three-pointers from each area as he did last season, but in situations where he can just catch and shoot (off screens, transition, spot-up) he has seen a remarkable improvement.

Last season in Washington, Stevenson made just 20.8% of his spot-up three pointers compared to 43.4% this season. Obviously an offense run by Jason Kidd with Dirk Nowtizki as a primary offensive threat is going to generate more open looks than one run by Randy Foye with Andray Blatche as the “weapon of choice,” but I don’t think all of his miraculous shot making can be attributed to better teammates or better coaching. You can call it skill, luck, fate or an aberration. I just think Stevenson has been having one of those days . . . again and again and again.