Raymond J. de Souza: Stephen Curry is a superlative player who has changed basketball – for the worse

Christmas Day is a working day in basketball, with the NBA running its traditional slate of marquee games.

This year the featured contest was the Golden State Warriors vs. the Phoenix Suns, the top two teams this season. The Warriors prevailed despite having three of their best scorers out. Their star, Stephen Curry, led them to first place in the NBA with 33 points, including five three-pointers. His Christmas Day total brought him to 2,999 career three-pointers, adding to the all-time record he set 10 days before.

Most remarkably, Curry broke the record in more than 500 fewer games than Ray Allen, who held it before.

Curry is the best shooter in the game’s history. He has changed how basketball is played. Everyone agrees on that. I am in a minority in thinking that the change is for the worse.

Curry is the best shooter in the game’s history … Everyone agrees on that

The background. Baskets made in the usual course of play count for two points. Baskets made from the free throw line when play is stopped count for one point.
In 1979, the NBA introduced a three-point line, approximately 24 feet from the basket. (Other leagues had introduced the innovation in the 1960s.) A shot made from behind the line counts for three points instead of two.

The 1979 season was the rookie year of Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics and Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers. How has the game changed? Bird, one of the best shooters ever, attempted about three three-point shots/game. Curry has averaged about ten/game in his career. This season, Curry has, on average, made 5.4 of his 13.5 three-point attempts/game. Curry makes more three-pointers in an average game than Bird even attempted. Indeed, Curry makes more three-pointers than both teams, on average, would attempt twenty-five years ago.
Consider Michael Jordan, the consensus best player in NBA history, winner of six championships in eight seasons, including a two-year sabbatical when he did not play basketball. In his rookie season, he was 9-for-52 from three-point range and never shot better than 20 per cent from three-point range in his first four seasons. But the game was slowly changing in the 1990s, and by the end of his career Jordan had improved his three-point shooting to better than 35 per cent, a very impressive average from that distance. The master of the slam dunk learned to shoot from distance as well.
By the time Curry’s NBA career began in 2009, the three-point revolution was ready. In 2010, already a fifth (22 per cent) of all shots taken were from behind the three-point line. In 2020, that percentage had risen to almost 40 per cent, or two-fifths of all shots. In 2015, six teams took more than one-third of their shots from three-point range; in 2020, it was 28 out of 30.

Not only are players shooting more, like Curry they are getting better at it. While the percentage of two-point shots made has remained rather steady over time (just under 50 per cent), players have improved their three-point shooting over the years. It is now better than a third of attempts made (about 35 per cent).

Curry turbo-charged the change. The thrilling contests of the 1980s, with the Celtics’ half court offence and punishing defence going up against the Lakers’ “showtime” fast break style, are no longer. Clashing styles of play have slowly disappeared. Instead, all teams now spread out as much as possible in order to pass the ball backward, outside the three-point line. It’s a largely different game. Most fans seem to think it’s better.
Clashing styles of play have slowly disappeared

I don’t. I don’t dispute that watching Curry is a treat, as excellence in any field is marvellous to behold. But the premise of the three-point shot, namely that a long distance shot should count for more than the effort and skill needed to get closer to the basket, is flawed.

It would be like making a home run count for two runs instead of one. Or if a line was painted on the ice between the blue line and the face-off circles and goals scored from there counted for more. Or that a touchdown in football was worth nine points instead of six if it was scored on a play from behind the 25-yard line. Imagine if football offences deliberately moved the ball backward in order to attempt the nine-point touchdown. It happens in basketball all the time.
I don’t deny that the long distance shot has a certain excitement. So, too, do any number of other plays which are not favoured by an extra point. While I enjoy watching Curry, the game itself has become less exciting, as teams go up and down the court not even attempting to move the ball inside — which is often more difficult — while they launch three-point attempts one after the other.

Stephen Curry is a superlative player and an admirable man who is immense fun to watch, given his evident joy in the game. But the game itself is worse off.

>> Raymond J. de Souza: Stephen Curry is a superlative player who has changed basketball – for the worse

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