One of the fun things about the NBA season is when something total anomalous and unexpected happens. Sometimes, the anomaly is so subtle that people miss it. To me, Anthony Carter’s 2007-08 season falls in that subtle anomaly category. Carter is having a career year in terms of minutes and scoring, though for a career year it’s not that far above his production in Miami in that late 1990s and early 2000s. The difference is that the nature of Carter’s value is very different than it was previously. Carter used to be totally unable to shoot from distance. Before 2007-08, AC never shot more than 40 threes in a season and never hit more than six in a season (he topped at 6-40 from three in 2000-01). Prior to this season, Carter was 16 for 127 (.126%) for his career from three. This season, Carter hasn’t exactly been Ray Allen but he has been a very respectable 18-50 from the three (.360%) this year and is averaging over a three-point shot a game.
The kicker is that Carter has become an average three-point shooter at age-32, when it would seem a player wouldn’t add a new skill set, particularly a confirmed non-shooter. How rare is this phenomenon? Well last year, Barnes exploded from three even more, going 106-290 from three after barely ever shooting. But Barnes was younger (age-26 at the time) and he had never really played much before that season anyway. In addition, there are several examples of younger players going from non-three-point shooters in the 1980s to shooters as the teams began to utilize the strategy much more in the mid-1990s. Just scanning my own memory banks, here is a sampling of players (not an exhaustive list) who abruptly added the three-point shot to their arsenal:
–Rod Strickland, 1994-95 and 1995-96: Strickland didn’t exactly explode as a three-point shooter but Strick had a hiccup in his career for Portland. After never hitting shooting much from three (his previous tops was 19-59 was a rookie for the Knicks three-point inclined Rick Pitino squad in 1988-89). At age 28 and 29, Strick shot 46-123 and then 38-111 for the Blazers. After 1995-96, Strickland was traded to the Bullets and never hit more than 13 threes in a season again.
–Muggsy Bogues, 1996-97: Muggsy had been a non-shooter for the Hornets for eight seasons (his best three-point showing had been 6-30 from three in 1994-95). Suddenly, at age-32, Bogues shot well (60-144 from three, .417%). Bogues was injured the rest of his career but had his second best showing from three with the Raptors in 1999-00 at age 35 (17-51 from three), which was his ostensible final season.
–Kevin Johnson, 1996-97: KJ never shot from three early in his career. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Johnson’s best long range shooting effort was 10-46 in 1991-92. He bumped it up to 21-57 from three in 1995-96 at age-29, which wasn’t exactly prolific. Then, at age-30, KJ shot a really impressive 89-202 from three (.441%). KJ returned to short range shooting in 1997-98 (4-26 from three), as a backup for Jason Kidd before retiring.
–Magic Johnson, 1989-90: Magic doesn’t fit our profile in that he played mostly in the 1980s, so it was natural for him to add a long range shot as the NBA changed. Still, Magic’s change was pretty dramatic that it bears mentioning. Magic’s career best from three was 11-56 in 1987-88. He bumped it up to 59-188 in 1988-89 at age 30. In 1989-90, at age-30, Johnson took another step up to 106-276 (.384%), his highs for makes, attempts, and percentage. Magic mostly kept the skill-set in 1990-91 (80-250 from three for a below average .320% percentage). Magic was forced to retire after 1990-91 but when he briefly returned in 1995-96 at age-36, Magic shot at nearly the same three-point rate (22-58 from three in 32 games).
–Andre Miller, 2002-03: Miller also doesn’t fit the profile. He slowly increased his threes form age-23 (10) to age-26 (23-108 from three). Age-26 was Miller’s only season with the Clippers and perhaps was bit more shot happy. Even his career best was a pretty miserable rate and Miller has never made or shot as many three-pointers ever since (he’s currently 2-18 from three this season).
–Gary Payton, 1994-95: Payton’s three-point increases were measurable and logical. Here was his production from three from his rookie season through 1994-95:
1990-91, 1-13 (.077%)
1991-92, 3-23 (.130%)
1992-93, 7-34 (.206%)
1993-94, 15-54 (.278%)
1994-95, 70-232 (.302%)
Payton’s three-point shooting continued to go up through 1999-00 (age-31).
–Clifford Robinson, 1994-95: Where the hell did that come from? Uncle Cliffy, went from 13-53 in 1993-94 (age-27) to 152-383(!) in 1994-95. It didn’t stop there either. In 1995-96, he jumped to 178-471 from three (.378%). C-Rob didn’t actually drop off from these three-point peak, as he continued to shoot 250-300 three-pointers a season for most of his career.
–Manute Bol, 1988-89: Just for fun, here is Bol’s entire three-point shooting career:
1985-86 0-1 (.000%)
1986-87 0-1 (.000%)
1987-88 0-1 (.000%)
1988-89 20-91 (.220%)
1989-90 9-48 (.188%)
1990-91 1-14 (.071%)
1991-92 0-9 (.000%)
1992-93 10-32 (.313%)
1993-94 0-3 (.000%)
1994-95 3-5 (.600%)
1988-89 was Bol’s first year with Don Nelson’s Warriors, which probably tells you all you need to know about that state line. There are plenty of players like Barnes and Rod Higgins who have had similar surprising spurts under Nellie.
–Jack Sikma, 1988-89: Another fun anomaly. Skiman had never shot more than 3-14 from three in a season through age-32. Then, in 1988-89, at age-33, Sikma became a three machine (82-216, .380%). Sikma lasted two more seasons but continued to shoot pretty well (68-199 in 1989-90 and then 46-135 in 1990-91 before retiring).
Virtually all these three-shooting improvements can be accounted for by coaching changes. Strickland and Cliff Robinson both jumped up with the the change in coaching and the three-point line being moved in by the NBA. The Blazers went from 770 attempts in 1993-94 to 1,265 in 1994-95. Bogues and KJ were under new coaches (Dave Cowens and Danny Ainge) when they jumped up in threes in 1996-97. Moreover, KJ was moved over to shooting guard so that Kidd could play the point. The same goes for Miller’s modest uptick with the Clippers. Payton and Magic, on the other hand, seemed to have added threes as part of a natural development process. Magic’s late development is further explained by the change in playing style in the NBA (neither Payton nor Magic’s improvements can be changed by coaching change).
The one guy I can’t explain is Sikma, who did not change coaches or teams when he popped up his three-point shooting in 1988-89. The only thing I can think of is the upward trend in threes throughout the league. Even that cannot explain such a dramatic bump up. We’ll just be left to wonder…
So where does Carter fall into the possible explanations noted above? It seems to be the coaching change. George Karl has gradually raised the Nuggets three shooting in his tenure:
2004-05, 320-940 (.340%)
2005-06, 350-1,076 (.325%)
2006-07, 484-1,440 (.336%)
2007-08, 287-861 (.333%), projects to 500-1,502 over an 82 game season
The Nuggets never shot the three particularly well for Karl but he clearly feels that the shot matters for tactical reason (offensive spacing perhaps–maybe Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony need the room to operate in the paint). In any event, it seems that Karl has directed Carter, like Cowens with Bogues, to take that shot and see what happens. Interestingly, Karl did not seem to give his previous point guard (Andre Miller) the same instructions. Miller never made more than six threes for Karl on Denver.
The upshot of all this study makes you wonder whether the adage about being born a shooter is true. Yes, shooting touch is hard to learn but many NBA players outside of the Chris Dudley/Jason Collins category should have a baseline ability and can utilize that ability depending the wishes and expectations (and perhaps exhortions) of their coaches, or even through just plain hard work.