Although the ‘tanking vs. trying to win now' debate appears to be in full swing, let's all pretend for a moment that we want the Toronto Raptors to improve on last year's 34-48 record, and fight to make the playoffs in the coming season. As any Raptors fan that has suffered through the last few seasons knows, there are numerous areas in need of improvement if the Raps are going to have any chance of making the post-season. But one area of particular importance is three-point shooting.
Last season as a team, the Raptors made just 34 per cent of their shots from beyond the arc - good enough for 26th in the NBA. Although the numbers aren't quite so gruesome when we look at three-pointers made per game (7per game, for 15th in the NBA) as that aforementioned percentage attests, the Raptors were woefully inefficient. And last season's numbers don't sit alone in reassuring isolation: The Raps have been a terrible three-point shooting team for a while now. In the 2011/12 season they hit that same, depressing 34 per cent mark (19th overall), and in 2010/11, just 30 per cent from downtown - dead last in the NBA.
Although the Raptors ranked 12th in the NBA last year in 3-pointers attempted (20.3 per game) - which is better than being scared of taking them in the first place (seriously, some teams just don't shoot enough of them)- the individual percentages make for predictably ugly reading.
The Raptors' best three-point shooter last season was Jose Calderon, who hit 43 per cent of his attempts - the only Raptor over 40 per cent. Kyle Lowry hit an acceptable 36 per cent (he also led the team in most made 3-pointers), and Andrea Bargnani was a woeful 31 per cent. (Editor's note - BARGS!) Most of the Raptors role players - players that were paid, in part, to shoot from downtown - were atrocious. Alan Anderson, the Raptor who attempted the most three-pointers, was 33 per cent, Terrence Ross (we'll give him a pass for now) also 33 per cent, while Landry Fields, a player who shot well from three-point range during his rookie season in New York, hit just 2 of his 14 attempts. At this stage Fields might be better suited to concentrate on defense and off-the-ball cuts.
...and then there's DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay: 28 per cent and 33 per cent last season, respectively - but more on that duo later.
So yeah, overall the Raptors were a pretty horrible three-point shooting team last season. And the fact is, unless you're an elite defensive team, (think Chicago, Memphis, and Indiana), which the Raptors haven't been for quite some time, it's nearly impossible to have success with that kind of anemic long-range shooting.
By and large, teams that are successful in today's NBA are teams that can get to the rim and knock down three-pointers (particularly corner 3's) at a consistent clip. The NBA Finals featured two such teams: Miami and San Antonio. During the regular season the Heat finished second in three-point shooting percentage (39 per cent), and third in three-pointers made per game (8.7), while the Spurs were fourth (37 per cent) and seventh (8.1) in those respective categories.
Of course, both teams had players that could draw double-teams and create space by attacking the rim - the likes of Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Dwyane Wade, and of course, LeBron James - which created open looks for their shooters. But the shots still had to be made, and both teams had a plethora of guys adept at swishing the ball through from 24-feet. Don't forget, if Ginobli or Leonard had made one more free throw, there was a good chance that Danny Green could have won Finals MVP - and largely for his three-point shooting.
And it wasn't just the league's two best teams that demonstrated the correlation between good outside shooting and success. The other three teams that made up the top five in three-point shooting percentage from last season - Golden State, New York, and OKC - all made it to the second-round of the playoffs. All those teams concentrated on surrounding their stars with those all-important ‘floor spacers' - players that Chris Ballard featured in his excellent S.I. piece earlier in the year.
But the great three-point shooting teams from last season were successful not just because they had floor spacer-type players who could catch-and-shoot from beyond the arc, but because their offensive stars - Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, LeBron, Carmelo Anthony, etc. - had to be chased off the three-point line themselves, creating more opportunities for clean looks.
Which leads us to the biggest problem that the Raptors have - more problematic than their role players' inability to consistently drain three's: Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan - the two players they rely on most from an offensive standpoint - can't make shots from downtown. If your starting shooting-guard and small-forward are bad three-point shooters, you better have a potent stretch-4, and that's not in Amir Johnson's or Tyler Hansbrough's skill-set...nor was it in Bargnani's, apparently.
Ultimately, one of the worries when the Raptors traded for Rudy Gay last season was that his skill-set was too similar to DeRozan's. They're both athletic, can attack the basket, take a lot of long 2's (incidentally, viewed as the worst shot in the game by most), and as the numbers indicate, are woefully inconsistent from downtown. Again, when you have two starters who don't shoot three's well it does the opposite of what Ballard's discusses in his floor spacers article - it restricts the space on the floor for everyone. Instead of coming out to meet the three-point threat - which would create space for big-men and other shooters - defenders sag off and restrict driving and passing lanes, creating congestion closer to the basket.
Room for Improvement?
Perhaps we can take some solace from the fact that Rudy Gay had been suffering from vision problems throughout his career, and that's now apparently been fixed, (check out Dan Devine's fun piece on that weird story.) However, all we have to go by are the numbers up to this point, and judging by those, Gay has been a bad three-point shooter for most of his career. His career average is 34 per cent, and he's never had a season of 40 per cent shooting from long-range.
DeMar DeRozan's issues from downtown have been well publicized, and rightfully so. His career average from beyond the arc is a dismal 23 per cent, and although he exhibited glimpses of improvement during March and April, last season, 28 percent from 3 over the season isn't good enough for a shooting-guard. If an elite defensive guard like Tony Allen puts up those numbers it's tolerable, but not a player getting paid $9 million a year for his offensive production.
Dwane Casey did give some reassuring words about DeMar's three-point shot last week, telling the media that, "He's really improved. Now the challenge for DeMar is doing it when the popcorn's popping." But whether that's akin to the Lakers trying to convince everyone that Dwight Howard was hitting free throws in practice last season, remains to be seen.
If DeRozan and Gay can improve their outside shooting (I realize that's a big ‘if'), everyone will benefit - particularly Jonas Valanciunas. Of course, if Jonas can eventually dominate down low he'll open up space for shooters by virtue of attracting help (the Raptors haven't had a dominant big-man for a while which could partly explain their poor outside shooting) but if the perimeter guys can knock down shots from the outside, he'll have a lot more room to operate in. It goes without saying that a Gay/DeRozan-Valanciunas pick-n-roll, or a Lowry-Valanciunas pick-n-roll, with DeRozan waiting in the corner, is infinitely more deadly if it becomes a "pick-your-poison" scenario for the team defending.
While the fact that Gay did shoot 39 per cent from 3 during the 2010/11 season - his best season shooting the 3-ball - gives reason for cautious optimism, for DeRozan anything close to 35 per cent would be a huge bonus for the Raptors.
Unless we're talking about Jason Kidd, or LeBron James, players don't normally go from being horrendous 3-point shooters, to good ones, so DeRozan becoming a 40 per cent shooter from downtown is a tad unrealistic. But the Raptors don't need DeRozan to become great in that facet of the game; they just need him to become an average shooter from that range. And as Casey alluded to last week, if either DeRozan or Gay (ideally both) can become a consistent three-point threat it'll not only create space for other shooters, but will also open up their own game -defenders won't be able to stand off, and they'll have more options off-the-bounce.
With the addition of Steve Novak - a career 43 per cent three-pointer shooter - the Raptors have the potential to put up better overall numbers from long range. But Novak was successful for the Knicks in part because there were other shooters around him - other guys that had to be chased off the three-point line, which created open shots for him. Ultimately DeRozan and Gay have to at least give the opposition defenders pause for thought when they're 24-feet from the basket.
If that happens there's a good chance that everyone's percentages will go up next year. If not, expect the Raptors to once again struggle with their offensive cohesion.