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Basketball’s Other 3-Point Revolution

The Steph Curry Pull-Up Vigil has been going on for weeks now.

Curry is the pagan god of long-range pull-ups, a shot that doesn’t seem to have a place in a league obsessed with efficiency. But over the last three seasons, Curry has made it work anyway, leading the league in pull-up threes — taken and made — and hitting them about 40 percent of the time. But this season he got off to a slow start, making 21.4 percent of his pull-up threes in December, and today he’s sitting at 33.3 percent, just a hair below Russell Westbrook’s mark. Curry’s swoon is hard to explain, but he’s shooting 43.3 percent in his last 10 games and 48.5 in his last five. Smart money says he’ll be just fine.

Glance at that pull-up leaderboard, though, and you’ll notice that Curry’s seat hasn’t been vacated, it’s been overtaken. Where just a few years ago Curry was the unrivaled king of pumping efficient points out of a traditionally inefficient well, today an armful of players are doing convincing Steph impersonations off the bounce.

The logic against the pull-up three is simple: It’s far, far easier to shoot a spot-up jumper than it is to shoot off the dribble, and it’s far, far easier to find an open look by moving without the ball than it is while holding the ball. This is why most modern offenses are built to work the ball around to players in motion off the ball, looking for an open catch-and-shoot three, preferably from the corner. If the goal of an offense is to seek the most efficient shots, and the best offenses are chasing spot-up threes, then the alternative is clearly less than ideal.

The argument in favor of the shot is somehow even simpler: If it goes in, it’s unstoppable. For a player with a certain set of skills, it’s a shot that’s both always available and always open.

For the last three seasons, Curry has been unstoppable. For all the intricacies and nuance built into the Warriors’ offense, the single most unguardable piece of it was always Curry pulling up from 30 feet or sliding around a ball screen and flicking up a jumper. Fans, announcers and coaches all learned to recite the Steph Curry mantra: That’s a bad shot if anyone else takes it. Except, increasingly, it isn’t.

This season, 26 players are taking at least two pull-up threes per game, up from 17 in 2013-14 and 21 last season. Of the guys taking at least two per game this season, 12 are hitting at least 36 percent (the league average for all threes), up from five in ’13-14. Kemba Walker is taking 4.5 per game and hitting 37.3 percent; Kyle Lowry is taking 4.1 per game and hitting 41.5; James Harden is making less than 32 percent of his, but he’s taking 6.4 a game, tied for the most in the four years the NBA has kept track of pull-ups. We can’t write off this wave of Steph-like gunners who have emerged as mere early-season noise this deep into the schedule. These players aren’t just taking Curry’s signature shots — they’re making a good number of them as well. And that says something about the way teams are approaching modern offense.

Not many players can approximate the totality of Steph Curry, but they can emulate him piecemeal. The Rockets, for instance, are shooting from the parking lot this year, distorting the basic shapes of NBA defenses. And while not many teams can duplicate the ball movement of Houston or Cleveland — movement that sets up all those open threes a good number of them have a guy who can shake his man and rise up for a three. In a league dominated by the long ball, teams seem to be coming around to the idea that sometimes one player can make his own shot, especially if the guy can hit it regularly.

The shift in the league’s approach is noticeable at the team level as much as at the player level. In 2013-14, teams averaged 5.1 pull-up threes per game; by last season, that had climbed to 5.9 per game, and this season we’re up at 6.6. A shot and a half per game doesn’t sound like a lot, but that represents an increase of about 30 percent. For context, compare that to what’s happened during the league’s “scoring explosion” — that has come with just a 25 percent rise in overall 3-point attempts over the same four seasons. As teams try to cram ever more threes into each game, a little revolution within the revolution is changing the ways that these shots are created. Hero ball is allowed back on the court, so long as it’s at the 3-point line.

This spike in pull-ups isn’t just about the NBA’s faster, rip-and-run style of play these days. When I looked at numbers for the traditional image of a pull-up three — a point guard dribbling the leather off of the ball 30 feet from the rim for ages, only to pull up from deep without ever sniffing the paint — I still saw an uptick in volume and performance. Eleven players are taking at least one three per game on plays where they took seven or more dribbles before the shot (that’s the proxy we’re using for half-court, rather than transition, shots). Six of them are shooting at least 40 percent. Back in 2013-14, those numbers were seven and three.

Because the NBA only has reliable data on pull-ups for a few seasons, it’s tough to say how much of this comes down to luck from year to year, like a player’s BABIP in baseball. Walker went from shooting 31.9, 25.6, and 32.2 percent on pull-up threes in years past to 37.3 so far this season; Lowry was a mid-30s guy until this season, when he’s jumped up to 41.5 percent; Kyrie Irving has consistently been in the high 30s to low 40s, except last season, when he slumped badly to 29.1. The individual players peaking from season to season can and likely will shift around. But even with a revolving-door cast, the trend can live on. If it does, it might just give the 3-point revolution a little more flavor.

Whether it’s the razzle-dazzle of Curry’s Shammgod or Kemba’s UTEP two-step, or Westbrook hitting the handbrake and going from top speed to perfectly perpendicular in one bounce, or LeBron and Harden casually walking into an unblockable shot, the pull-up done right is a beautiful thing. And if its most proficient practitioners have reached a point where we can reclaim it from the analytics-say-it’s-bad graveyard, perhaps NBA fans won’t be so quick to mourn the next time Steph Curry has a bad December.

Kyle Wagner is a senior editor at FiveThirtyEight.

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