Are the Denver Nuggets the NBA’s new trendsetters?

The last player we saw truly revolutionize the NBA was Steph Curry.  This wasn’t all that long ago.

As soon as Curry started making three after uncanny three, NBA teams got smart.  Realizing the value of the well-planned, well-calculated three-point shot, front office stat geeks sabermetrically plead their case for increasing the frequency of the three-point shot attempt.

Of course, not every team had Steph Curry, or his running mate Klay Thompson, who have comprised arguably the best shooting duo in NBA history.  That didn’t stop them from doing it anyway.

Steph Curry currently ranks 12th all-time in career three-point field goal percentage.  He makes 42.75% of his attempts from distance, which is impressive considering he’s taken nearly 8,000 of them over his career.  Klay Thompson ranks 18th all-time, shooting at a 41.6% clip.  These numbers are even more impressive considering how much of their offense is predicated on the three-point shot.  Ironically, their head coach Steve Kerr is the all-time leader in three-point career percentage (45.4%) so it should come as no surprise that he was the perfect man for Warriors job and to coach their offense.

The league-wide, three-point barrage is a relatively new phenomenon.  NBA teams went from averaging only three three-point field goal attempts per game in 1985, to nine a game in 1993, to 17 a game in 1997, to 20 a game in 2013.  These days, teams average about 35 shot attempts per game.

Surprisingly, since 2000, the league’s overall field goal percentage from beyond the arc has remained relatively consistent, with the lowest over that period coming in 2003-04 (34.7%) to a high of 36.7% in both 2008-9 and 2020-21.

Curry has gone from taking just under five three-point shots per game his first years in the league (2009-10) to the nearly 12 he averages per game today.  I’m not sure exactly when the first NBA sabremetrician suggested that taking more, high quality three-point shots made sense but it’s a trend that’s here to stay.

This year’s Denver Nuggets didn’t shy away from taking three-point shots.  They took their fair share, 31 per game.  By comparison, that ranked near the bottom of the league.  What should be noted is that they ranked 4th in the league in makes.  They were also the only team in the league to shoot over 50% from the floor overall.  This year’s shooting efficiency was no anomaly.  Denver ranked second in field goal percentage in 2021-22 and fourth in 2020-11.  In other words, they take quality shots.

A lot of this is because Nikola Jokic takes the bulk of their attempts (ranks second on the team to Jamal Murray) and is a 55% career shooter.  This season, he shot 63% from the floor.  For a player who accounts for so much of his team’s offensive and shoots from essentially anywhere on the floor, that number is simply astonishing.

In other words, while teams around the league, often arbitrarily, launch three-point shots with the hopes they’ll go in, over the last three years, the Nuggets have relentlessly focused on offensive efficiency.  All that hard work has paid off in a title.  The shots they take are the shots they want to take, high percentage shots that give them the best opportunity to win basketball games night after night.

Of course, Jokic’s presence in the middle grants them the luxury to do so. 

My challenge to NBA teams, which we know will never happen, is this.  Since the Warriors set the trend of launching as many three-pointers as humanly possible, responsibly so, and we’ve seen NBA teams follow this design, far too often unsuccessfully, will teams now follow the Nuggets’ example of taking the best shots they have created for themselves by working tirelessly to create the highest percentage shot?

Don’t count on it.

The lazy NBA superstar thinks these two approaches (Denver’s and Golden State’s) don’t require effort, which couldn’t be further from the truth.  If you told me that Klay Thompson and Steph Curry have practiced more three-point shots than any two humans on the face of the earth, I wouldn’t be surprised.  In fact, I’d be surprised if that wasn’t the case.  Any team looking to copy their blueprint better hit the gym.  On top of that, they had better be the first to get there and the last to shut off the lights on their way out.

The same holds true for anyone attempting to accomplish what the Denver Nuggets pulled off in 2023.  The last team to shoot 50% from the floor for the entire season was the 2013-14 Miami Heat team that lost in the Finals to the San Antonio Spurs.  Basically, it is a tried-and-true recipe for success that might not always be sexy, but it gets you to the promised land.

The Nuggets take the shots they want.  They are disciplined in doing so.  If the 29 other teams in the league don’t put forth that same effort, don’t be surprised if the Denver Nuggets continue to do as they please against them when it matters most.

I’d even go so far as to say there’s a high percentage of that happening.

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