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Is The Mere Threat Of A Three Enough To Affect A Defense?

Three-point percentage is often thought of as a barometer for spacing, and for good reason: The higher a team’s percentage, the riskier it is for opposing teams to roam away from the shooters. Legitimate shooters pose a threat from a range of distances, splitting focus for defenders and opening opportunities for their teammates. But what happens when a sharpshooter is suddenly — and frequently — misfiring on all types of threes?

It turns out that a lower 3-point percentage may not necessarily guarantee cramped elbow room.

Just look at Eric Gordon. In his most recent season with the Houston Rockets, he shot 31.2 percent on shots 25 to 29 feet out — his worst mark in five years and the lowest conversion rate posted among the 10 players who hoisted at least six such shots per game. Overall from three, Gordon shot 32.9 percent in 2020-21, but it was even worse the previous season — 31.7 percent — after shooting 36.4 percent during his first three seasons in Houston. But despite that dropoff, the Rockets got to the rim more often when he was on the floor last season. Even as Gordon struggled to connect from distance, teams didn’t seem to change their defensive approach.

Gordon’s shooting woes were not unlike those of Russell Westbrook, who shot fewer threes per game than Gordon but at a similar clip. Westbrook’s notoriously clunky jumper played a significant role in Houston’s pivot to micro-ball one season prior. After all, before center Clint Capela was traded to the Atlanta Hawks in February 2020, the Swiss big man was a non-shooter in the roll spot, at the same time Westbrook was off-ball. That arrangement was untenable enough to warrant personnel changes around one of the world’s most intimidating scorers and playmakers in James Harden. Then shouldn’t Gordon’s diminished 3-point conversion rate — even with Christian Wood, a 6-foot-10 center with range, replacing Capela — have prompted defenses to clog driving lanes for the remnant of talent left behind in Houston? Instead, the Rockets posted the equivalent of the league’s third-highest rim frequency during his minutes

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To be fair, Gordon’s own aggressiveness is a factor here. Although he played only 27 games last season before sustaining a groin injury on March 11, the stocky slasher wasn’t deterred from attacking the basket and drawing contact, as he recorded his highest free throw rate (.311) and most drives per game (10.1) since arriving in Houston. Still, aside from his individual output in the restricted area, where he converted a career-best 68.9 percent of his shots, Gordon’s presence on the floor didn’t seem to produce any sort of measurable clogging effect for most of the ball-handlers with whom he logged at least 250 minutes of action:

Gordon’s teammates got to the rim

Share of shots attempted at the rim for Houston Rockets ball-handers with and without Eric Gordon on the floor, 2020-21 regular season

Rim Frequency
David Nwaba 60.5% 53.8% +6.7
Victor Oladipo 28.9 22.6 +6.3
Jae’Sean Tate 54.3 48.0 +6.3
John Wall 38.4 33.1 +5.3
Danuel House Jr. 28.9 27.4 +1.5
Sterling Brown 23.1 23.7 -0.6

Among ball-handlers with whom Gordon logged at least 250 minutes.

Source: PBP stats

Of course, everything changed for the Rockets after Harden left for Brooklyn — Houston finished the 2020-21 season with the league’s worst record after advancing to the second-round of the playoffs at the NBA’s bubble campus in Orlando the previous year. Likewise, Gordon’s existence in the half-court also changed. During Gordon’s first season in Houston, as the sixth man, he ranked third in the league in 3-point makes from 25 to 29 feet per game (2.2), behind only Harden (2.3) and Steph Curry (2.8). Firing away from several steps behind the NBA’s 3-point line was more to his advantage as the shooter because most opponents were going to make the calculated decision to either stunt toward or load up on Harden’s scoring wizardry.

In 2019-20, though the coverage against Harden escalated from rangy lunges and jabs to hard traps producing odd-man advantages, Gordon’s conversion rate on catch-and-shoot threes fell off dramatically, plummeting to 28.4 percent after hitting 37 percent or better over the prior three campaigns. And that rate did not rebound to the extent that would have seemed likely this past season (32.8), given that he appeared to regain his legs, at least as a driver and perimeter defender.

But what’s important here isn’t why Gordon missed shots, but rather how much opposing defenses cared that he missed shots. If we look at contested frequency, pioneered in rate charts by FiveThirtyEight contributor Owen Phillips, we can see that those defenses were contesting his threes as much as ever.

Opposing defenses still respect Gordon’s shot

Share of total 3-pointers attempted by Eric Gordon that were contested* by the opposing defense, per regular season since 2016-17

2016-17 8.7 37.7% 4.8 3.9 44.8%
2017-18 8.7 36.0 4.8 4.0 46.0
2018-19 8.8 36.1 5.4 3.3 37.5
2019-20 8.4 31.7 4.7 3.8 45.2
2020-21 7.6 33.0 4.5 3.1 40.8

*Contested threes are those with the closest defender less than 6 feet away. Numbers may not add up due to rounding.


Despite Gordon’s downturn as a marksman, defenses have continued to respect and/or react to him, with barely any change relative to the prior four seasons. 

It’s hard to know exactly the kind of distraction Gordon was for the defense, though, given that we don’t know how many closeouts he may have bum-rushed to the rim or closely he was defended away from the ball when he wasn’t shooting. Plus, while it’s certainly notable that more of Gordon’s 3-point attempts have consistently been uncontested than contested, consider for a moment that he launched more of his long balls “early” in the shot-clock this past season than any other player who matched or exceeded his volume of attempts, with the exception of Curry.

Gordon shoots earlier than most high-volume shooters

NBA players with at least 7.6 3-point attempts per game by share taken with at least 15 seconds left in the shot clock, 2020-21 regular season

Seconds left in shot clock
PLAYER 3PA/GAME 24-22 22-18 18-15 EARLY 3PA FREQ.
Curry 12.6 0.1 2.8 3.1 47.6%
Gordon 7.6 0.1 1.2 2.2 46.1
Walker 8.2 0.1 1.4 2.1 43.9
Hield 10.2 0.1 2.0 2.0 40.2
Clarkson 8.8 1.7 1.7 38.6
McCollum 8.9 0.1 1.3 2.0 38.2
Lillard 10.5 0.1 1.4 2.5 38.1
Brooks 7.8 1.0 1.9 37.2
Beasley 8.7 0.1 1.2 1.9 36.8
Graham 8.7 1.6 1.4 34.5
George 7.7 0.1 1.0 1.5 33.8
Mitchell 8.7 1.1 1.8 33.3
Bogdanović 7.6 1.4 1.1 32.9
Tatum 7.6 1.1 1.4 32.9
VanVleet 9.2 0.1 1.5 1.4 32.6
Ball 8.3 1.1 1.6 32.5
Harden 7.6 0.1 0.8 1.5 31.6
Robinson 8.5 0.1 1.1 1.4 30.6
Rozier 8.3 1.3 1.2 30.1
Dončić 8.3 0.7 1.6 27.7
LaVine 8.2 0.1 0.7 1.3 25.6


Don’t get it twisted: In no way does Gordon bend defenses to the extent of Curry, who boasts a ridiculous 79.4 contest rate as one of the greatest shooters ever. However, for someone who sprints ahead of the action and erupts like a volcano early and often with a low time of possession, it makes sense that Gordon is catching defenses on their heels while flanking ball-handlers in semi-transition — especially since he routinely receives screens that are purposed with the intention of generating extra breathing room.

On the whole, there’s no publicly available way to track how willing defenders are to drift away from shooters when that shooter isn’t the player who finishes the possession with a shot attempt, but the film seems to corroborate that Gordon’s established reputation as a shooter is more important to the defense than his current shooting percentages, likely because of the way he presents himself as a cannon.

Take a look at these clips.

Granted, there’s a difference between Harden and virtually anyone else when it comes to being the center of attention off-the-bounce, but notice above how hard-nosed defender Dillon Brooks isn’t even hopping back and forth between his man and the ball, here, as Jae’Sean Tate turns the corner. Instead, with his hand reaching out to touch Gordon, he’s making sure to stay, quite literally, within arm’s reach.

Likewise, good thing versatile big man Bam Adebayo is capable of suffocating drives, because Andre Iguodala is essentially face-guarding Gordon, without remotely shifting his weight to help.

Or how about the way in which Cleveland’s Isaac Okoro opted to spring back toward Gordon rather than smashing down on John Wall’s penetration from the top of the zone?

Is it starting to make sense why the Rockets didn’t struggle to get to the rim with Gordon on the floor?

Another factor is positioning. Because Gordon is known to let loose from way downtown, Rockets head coach Stephen Silas has more flexibility to play wide, particularly on side pick-and-rolls, with Gordon either standing near the hash mark or practically using the sideline like a handrail. Moreover, playing high and wide also has the potential to create a driving lane for Gordon himself between the two weak-side defenders.

So while taking deeper threes likely contributed to the dip in Gordon’s overall 3-point percentage, it’s clear that continuing to stand further behind the arc redistributed some of the tension on the defense, opening opportunities for others, even without Harden as an all-world, difficult cover.

Overall, none of this should be taken as a commentary on Gordon the player, or whether the combination of his veteran experience, iffy durability and the three years he has remaining on his contract1 makes sense for Houston’s young core. Rather, while it’s obviously better to make shots than to miss, Gordon’s slide as a shooter shows that, no matter how often his shot fell last season, teams largely continued to defend him as the same threat. 

Whether it’s the impact of the timing of his shots and how he was positioned or the respect he accrued over prior campaigns and what other sources of gravity were on the floor, Gordon’s tenure with the Rockets is in many ways a case study in why 3-point percentage isn’t an adequate proxy for, or always representative of and synonymous with, actual spacing.

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  1. Worth roughly $18.2 million this season, $19.6 million in 2022-23 and $20.9 million (non-guaranteed) in 2023-24.

Caitlin Cooper is a freelance NBA writer from Indiana. She is a regular contributor at Indy Cornrows, the Indiana Pacers blog at SB Nation, and has also been published at SB Nation NBA.