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What If Kevin Garnett And Tracy McGrady Had Shot Threes Instead Of Long Twos?

Forty years and many analytic debates after the first 3-pointer in NBA history, the league finally understands the power of that arc. Twenty-six of the 30 NBA teams have averaged more than 30 3-point attempts per game this season, and only one (the Knicks) has made fewer than 10 long balls a contest. The three hasn’t killed the midrange game, particularly for star players, but it has wreaked havoc on the long 2-point jumper. We saw an average of only 2.28 made 2-pointers from at least 19 feet per game this season. That’s less than half the number from an average game in 2015-16 and less than a third of a typical contest from the 2007-08 season.

The jump shot is older than the pro game itself, and sharpshooters have been hitting long jumpers ever since. The difference now is that players increasingly take one step further back to earn an extra point.

NBA players aren’t making as many long twos

Total regular-season 2-point shots made from at least 19 feet since 1996-97, plus each season’s leader

Long TWOS made
Season Total Per game Season leader
2019-20 2,212 2.28 LaMarcus Aldridge
2018-19 3,593 2.92 J.J. Redick
2017-18 4,841 3.94 J.J. Redick
2016-17 5,216 4.24 J.J. Redick
2015-16 5,828 4.74 J.J. Redick
2014-15 6,315 5.13 Avery Bradley, LaMarcus Aldridge
2013-14 6,437 5.23 LaMarcus Aldridge
2012-13 6,840 5.57 LaMarcus Aldridge
2011-12 5,877 5.94 Josh Smith
2010-11 7,865 6.39 LeBron James
2009-10 8,115 6.60 LeBron James
2008-09 8,725 7.09 Dwyane Wade
2007-08 9,536 7.75 Tracy McGrady
2006-07 8,547 6.95 Tracy McGrady
2005-06 8,633 7.02 Kobe Bryant
2004-05 8,533 6.94 Tracy McGrady
2003-04 7,528 6.33 DeShawn Stevenson
2002-03 7,940 6.68 Desmond Mason
2001-02 7,517 6.32 David Wesley
2000-01 7,570 6.37 Mike Bibby
1999-00 9,004 7.57 Terrell Brandon
1998-99 5,116 7.06 John Starks
1997-98 8,326 7.00 Ron Mercer
1996-97 5,209 4.38 Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

In fact, shooters almost always take that step back now. Twenty years ago, 43.9 percent of all jumpers made from 19 feet or further were two-pointers. Terrell Brandon, who led the league in long twos made that season, made 2.7 jumpers per game from at least 19 feet. Only 27 percent of those shots were 3-pointers. Twenty-seven percent!

The contrast to 2019-20 is stark. LaMarcus Aldridge, the NBA leader in long twos made per game, is behind the 3-point line on 61 percent of his jump shots made from at least 19 feet. And Aldridge is an outlier: On average, 91.4 percent of all shots made from at least 19 feet this season were threes.

[Related: The Winners And Losers In Our Updated NBA Forecast]

So what about players like Brandon who made lots of jumpers before the NBA found religion with 3-pointers? How many points did they leave on the table? To find out, I looked on Basketball-Reference.com at every regular-season 2-point jumper made from at least 19 feet since the 1996-97 season.1 I filtered for players with at least 250 field-goal attempts and at least 5,000 career points total. I then converted all of those long twos to threes and recalculated each shooter’s scoring totals and true shooting percentages.2

Of course, this is just a thought experiment — there’s no way to know whether those shots would have actually gone in from the longer distance. But this does offer us some insight into who may have most benefited from ditching long-range twos for threes. Here are the 25 players with the greatest difference between their actual true shooting percentage and what it could have been if they had just stepped back.

Players have left a lot of points on the court

NBA players since 1996-97 with the biggest difference in true shooting percentage after adjusting the value of their long 2-pointers* to 3 points

Career points True Shooting %
Player Long TWOs Total Adjusted CAREER Adjusted DIFF.
Eddie House 567 5,356 5,923 50.77% 56.14% +5.37
Ron Mercer 549 5,892 6,441 47.01 51.39 +4.38
José Calderón 597 7,921 8,518 57.35 61.67 +4.32
Mike Bibby 1,177 14,698 15,875 53.62 57.91 +4.29
Raja Bell 545 6,998 7,543 54.39 58.62 +4.24
Derek Fisher 844 10,713 11,557 51.41 55.46 +4.05
DeShawn Stevenson 481 5,930 6,411 48.72 52.68 +3.95
David Wesley 885 11,842 12,727 52.55 56.48 +3.93
J.J. Redick 707 11,589 12,296 60.23 63.91 +3.67
Travis Best 382 5,376 5,758 51.45 55.11 +3.66
Channing Frye 515 7,786 8,301 54.65 58.27 +3.61
Avery Bradley 469 6,712 7,181 51.53 55.14 +3.60
Travis Outlaw 379 5,273 5,652 50.03 53.63 +3.60
Brevin Knight 391 5,342 5,733 47.57 51.05 +3.48
Wally Szczerbiak 559 9,195 9,754 57.26 60.75 +3.48
Ben Gordon 693 11,084 11,777 54.63 58.04 +3.42
Kirk Hinrich 632 9,594 10,226 51.58 54.97 +3.40
Steve Blake 363 5,662 6,025 52.14 55.49 +3.34
Lucious Harris 370 5,784 6,154 50.70 53.94 +3.24
Tracy McGrady 1,134 18,381 19,515 51.92 55.12 +3.20
Caron Butler 751 12,430 13,181 52.29 55.45 +3.16
Kevin Garnett 1,484 26,071 27,555 54.62 57.73 +3.11
Luke Ridnour 462 7,740 8,202 51.87 54.96 +3.10
Mike Miller 584 10,973 11,557 57.63 60.70 +3.07
Damon Stoudamire 703 11,763 12,466 50.49 53.51 +3.02

*Long 2-pointers are those from at least 19 feet.

Players include only those with at least 250 field-goal attempts and 5,000 career points. Regular season only.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

In general, role players saw the largest true shooting percentage gains, while stars got smaller efficiency bumps despite adding more points to their totals. That shouldn’t surprise anyone — role players are more likely to shoot the assisted perimeter jumpers that were once long twos and are now almost exclusively threes.

But there are two fascinating exceptions: Kevin Garnett and Tracy McGrady. Like most superstars, they both made a ton of long twos. Unlike most superstars, they got the scoring efficiency boost in this exercise more typical of role players. That’s because their games were made for today’s NBA, not the league in which they starred. The fact that they were near the top of their craft despite so many long twos that would have been discouraged today should be a major boost to their historical legacies.

Garnett and McGrady were prototypes of the two kinds of superstars taking over the league today. Garnett was what we now (ironically) call a “unicorn”: a long, mobile, skilled big man who could space the floor on offense and shut down all five positions on defense. McGrady was the platonic ideal of every top wing scorer today — more point guard than small forward, with shooting range, handles and a lanky core that allowed him to drive around and through his defender.

Put another way, KG was the precursor to Anthony Davis, while James Harden is just T-Mac 2.0. Like Davis, KG toiled on mediocre teams before a midcareer trade to a contender. Like Harden, T-Mac passed up being a sidekick and became the sun that his other teammates orbited around.


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Davis and Harden are fortunate enough to play in an era that properly values 3-point shots. Their shot profiles — Harden’s especially so — feature many more threes than long twos, so they appear to be far more efficient scorers than Garnett and McGrady. Based on that, it might be easy to think that Davis and Harden belong in a higher echelon in the NBA pantheon than Garnett and McGrady.

But the reality is far more complex. If you turn every long two made by those four players into made 3-pointers, the efficiency gap among each pair of superstars significantly shrinks. Davis and Harden still have an advantage over their prototypes, but not by as much.

How do KG and T-Mac compare to the next generation?

Career shots made and differences in true shooting percentage after adjusting the value of long 2-pointers* to 3 points for Anthony Davis vs. Kevin Garnett and James Harden vs. Tracy McGrady

Career shots made True Shooting %
Long twos Threes Actual Adjusted Diff.
Anthony Davis 266 246 58.82% 60.07% +1.25
Kevin Garnett 1,484 174 54.62 57.73 +3.11
Difference -1,218 72 4.20 2.34 -1.86
James Harden 176 2,296 60.99 61.51 +0.52
Tracy McGrady 1,134 1,081 51.92 55.12 +3.20
Difference -958 1,215 9.07 6.39 -2.69

*Long twos are since 1996-97, Garnett’s second season in the NBA, which is as far back as play-by-play data goes.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

And that’s before considering that Garnett and McGrady had far less room to get their shots and drives than Davis and Harden see today, in an era of pristine spacing. KG would’ve been more open if he stood here:

Lakers vs. Pelicans, Jan. 3, 2020.

ESPN

Instead of here:

Timberwolves vs. Lakers, April 29, 2003.

TNT

And you think T-Mac wouldn’t have relished attacking his man off the dribble with the floor spaced like this?

Rockets vs. Timberwolves, April 15, 2018.

TNT

Instead of this?

Magic at Pistons, April 23, 2003.

NBA TV

Perhaps it’s assuming too much to say McGrady and (especially) Garnett would have shot as accurately from one step behind the 3-point line instead of one step inside it. But their reluctance to make that change has more to do with their era than their own qualities.

That’s worth keeping in mind when comparing the statistics of current superstars with past legends, especially amid the 3-point revolution. They may play alike, but they weren’t playing the same game.

Footnotes

  1. That’s as far back as play-by-play data goes.

  2. True shooting percentage is a measure of shooting efficiency that takes into account field goals, 3-point field goals and free throws.

Mike Prada is an NBA writer and editor who watches way more basketball than is healthy. His work has appeared at SB Nation since 2006, and he writes the Prada’s Pictures newsletter.

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