Why you should care
Because the NBA’s misfits are about to wreak havoc on the league.
Can you pinpoint the moment when your favorite sport changed?
For NBA fans, perhaps it was in 1992, with the Shaq attack. Or, if you’re younger, maybe Allen Iverson’s crossover of Michael Jordan in 1997. Since 2012, the fundamental shift, of course, has been the ceaseless three-point onslaught of the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors have shifted everything from the way teams are structured to how games are played. That’s the way it goes — when groundbreaking talent takes the floor, chaotic ripples ensue.
Today, a new shift looms, surprisingly unglamorous but with the potential for massive disruption nonethless — the rise of the midrange jumpshot. Defined as any two-pointer other than a layup or a dunk, the midrange shot has a lousy reputation, neither point-blank nor uncontested. Indeed, analytics experts deem midrange shots the worst in basketball. But in the wake of the “Warriors Effect,” which has kids and pros alike trying to be the next Steph Curry, the long two exploits a new vulnerability. After all, an uncontested two-pointer still holds value over a contested three.
Already, midrange players in an era that supposedly doesn’t want them are reaping the benefits. This off-season, DeMar DeRozan, Dwyane Wade and Evan Turner, all midrange players, made waves by signing $250 million in combined contracts. “Those players can still excel in the league because they get to the free-throw line,” says Dennis Scott, the NBA’s former three-point record holder and current NBA TV analyst. Through fourteen games this season, DeRozan is second in NBA scoring (30.9 ppg), while shooting just two three-pointers per game. Meanwhile, big men with a soft touch, like Pau Gasol or Myles Turner, can find holes in the defense, dragging defenders from every direction and opening up space for teammates.
To some, the notion of a midrange reemergence is counterintuitive, if not utterly ridiculous, given the sport’s current tidal shift. From 2012 to 2016, Golden State’s Curry and Klay Thompson broke countless three-point shooting records. They are the first duo to make more than 500 — and 600 — threes in a season and, in 2015, helped capture the franchise’s first NBA title in 40 years. Last season, Golden State set an NBA regular-season record with 73 wins and made another finals appearance. The copy-and-pasting of Golden State’s blueprint began immediately, with a massive uptick in the small-ball shooting lineup. League-wide three-point attempts are up to 24.06 per game, from 22.4 the year prior.
It’s not just coaches who are responsible for the three-point shift; referees’ paws are dirty too. According to Oregon State head coach Wayne Tinkle, subtle rule changes in college basketball, following the NBA’s lead, have begun to “remove the physicality from the game.” Hand-checks and contact in the post are whistled at a higher rate, incentivizing transition-shooting offenses.
But in truth, basketball’s infatuation with three-pointers is exactly what has birthed the imminent midrange opportunity. The current run-and-gun style of play has turned defensive strategy into a casualty, with a growing opportunity for midrange scorers to abuse overextended defensive schemes. Deep balls tend to drag defenders away from the rim, exposing passing lanes and opening up the critical inside-out game. When Curry knifes through the defense or a player passes to the post, defenders must either crash the paint or continue deflecting outside marksmen. Both options expose vulnerabilities.
And, of course, there’s the simple fact that building a team in the Warriors’ likeness is near impossible. There’s a reason Thompson and Curry have made 167 more threes in a season than any other duo: They’re two-in-a-million talents. Premier shooters are in the minority. Just ask the Grizzlies. Each year, Memphis looks to increase pace and shoot more threes, only to return to what works. “Memphis can’t shoot the transition three,” says Scott. “They go right back to the inside-out game with [Marc] Gasol and [Zach] Randolph.”
Of course, not any old schlub can master midrange offense. Midrange play requires sly nuance — a feel for the game — that can be hard to cultivate. Dwyane Wade, 39th all-time in career scoring, is the prototypical midrange slasher who has dominated eras past. The 12-time All-Star has shot above 30 percent from distance only three times. As the league trends outward, there is still a place for supreme athletes who can control a half-court offense, create opportunities in tight spaces and attack the rim.
Quality midrange offense takes more time than a transition three but, done right, can be just as valuable. Pac-12 Network analyst Casey Jacobsen says that efficient midrange shooters can take advantage of today’s spacing if they “understand how to shoot a high midrange shooting percentage.” Indeed, the key is finding open shots, creating opportunities for outside shooters and earning free throws.
Plus, for every epic midrange scorer, there are hundreds of youths on the blacktop honing Euro steps and 10-foot stepbacks — tongues wagging like MJ, draining imaginary title shots. This need not be erased.