How the NBA maximized shooting efficiency in an era of Stephen Curry's 3-point revolution

Prior to the 2009-10 NBA season, when Kevin Durant first emerged as a generationally efficient scorer, only four players averaged 30 or more points per game on 60% true shooting or better: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Michael Jordan and Adrian Dantley, or the three most prolific scorers of the league's first 67 years and a guy so skilled at manufacturing free throws that proliferation at the line became "The Dantley."

Through the first month of this season, eight players scored better than 30 points per game, and seven of them owned a true shooting percentage higher than 60%. The one who did not, Giannis Antetokounmpo, has a career true shooting percentage of 60%. A ninth player, Ja Morant, could join their club in short order.

If the NBA hasn't maximized shooting efficiency, the past three seasons have plateaued at a level we never could've imagined before the league's 3-point boon, and it'll take another revolution to raise the bar again.

The Dallas Mavericks scored 116.7 points per 100 possessions during the 2019-20 campaign, setting the NBA standard, according to Basketball Reference. Seven teams eclipsed that figure in empty arenas the following season. Another matched it last season, and three more are on pace to match or eclipse it this season. That list includes the Boston Celtics, currently scoring a record 119.5 points per 100 possessions.

Seven of the 12 teams on that list featured either Durant, Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum or Donovan Mitchell — five of the eight aforementioned players averaging 30-plus points a game this season:

  • Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks: 34.4 PPG (54.6 eFG%, 60.4 TS%)

  • Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers: 32.3 PPG (56.0 eFG%, 63.9 TS%)

  • Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics: 31.9 PPG (57.5 eFG%, 64.1 TS%)

  • Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland Cavaliers: 31.6 PPG (60.8 eFG%, 64.9 TS%)

  • Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors: 31.5 PPG (64.7 eFG%, 69.2 TS%)

  • Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder: 31.5 PPG (56.4 eFG%, 63.3 TS%)

  • Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks: 31.3 PPG (54.5 eFG%, 58.4 TS%)

  • Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets: 30.3 PPG (56.6 eFG%, 65.1 TS%)

Should Curry maintain these numbers, his season would rank as the most efficient high-volume scoring season ever, two ticks better than his unanimous MVP campaign. Mitchell's season would rank third, and together this group would account for six of the 16 most efficient high-volume scoring seasons in history.

Stephen Curry's ascent has also raised the ceiling for NBA offenses. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Stephen Curry's ascent has also raised the ceiling for NBA offenses. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

It is no coincidence that Antetokounmpo, Embiid, Doncic, Durant and Tatum form the top five for free-throw attempts this season, each averaging at least nine a game (more than Jordan did at any point in the 1990s).

Antetokounmpo, Doncic and Gilgeous-Alexander rank in the top seven in field-goal attempts per game at the rim, where each shoots better than 70% (roughly the equivalent of a prime Shaquille O'Neal season).

Curry, Mitchell and Tatum rank in the top nine for attempts per game from 3-point range, where Curry and Mitchell are both shooting 43% (and all three are making more triples per game than Ray Allen ever did).

They have all but perfected the game's most efficient shots and dialed up their volume from each location to 11 — quite literally. Curry's 11.5 attempts per game from 3-point range lead the league for a third straight season. (Only James Harden, who hit the 30 points per game and 60% true shooting thresholds three times from 2017-20, has averaged more in a season.) Antetokounmpo is averaging 11.6 attempts at the rim per game, the second most (behind Zion Williamson's 13.4 in 2020-21) since the NBA began tracking the data in 1996. Doncic, Embiid and Antetokounmpo could become the first trio to each average at least 11 free-throw attempts in the same season since Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Oscar Robertson in 1965-66.

It isn't just that they are taking the right shots. The accuracy with which they are converting them creates space to make difficult shots easier. Teams are taxing themselves to defend the rim and the perimeter, so the mid-range opens enough to make those attempts manageable. Kobe Bryant took a league-leading 12.2 mid-range shots per game (almost half his nightly total) during his 2005-06 campaign, when he averaged a career-high 35.4 points, and made just 42.4% of them. That is an awful lot of work to get 10 points a game.

Nobody is attempting more than nine mid-range shots per game this season. Only two players are taking more than seven, and both are converting better than 50% of them. Only 13 players are taking more than four mid-range shots per game this season, and 11 of them are making more than 45% of those attempts.

This speaks to the league-wide skill level and discipline. It isn't just the stars, either. Seasons past have seen a smattering of mostly specialists who shot better than 45% on at least three 3-point attempts per game. You can probably name off the top of your head half the list of 35 players who have ever done it for more than half a season. J.J. Redick, Steve Nash, Kyle Korver, Joe Harris, Dale Ellis, Hubert Davis, Stephen Curry, Seth Curry and Brent Barry are the only ones to have done it multiple times. Beyond them, a Brandon Rush, Eric Piatkowski, Steve Novak, Troy Murphy or Anthony Morrow might catch fire for a year.

This season, 18 players are on pace to join that club, albeit early in the season. The Celtics boast three of them: Grant Williams, Al Horford and Sam Hauser, who are shooting a combined 46% on a dozen 3-point attempts per game. The Celtics have weaponized the roster around Tatum. Defend their shooters, and Tatum attacks the rim. Close in on Tatum, and he picks his poison around the arc. (No NBA duo is scoring more points per possession than the 1.34 the Celtics are scoring when Tatum and Hauser share the court.) Try to defend both, and Jaylen Brown steps into the mid-range, where he's shooting 60.5% this season.

Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum reacts after hitting a 3-pointer against the Atlanta Hawks at State Farm Arena in Atlanta on Nov.16, 2022. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum reacts after hitting a 3-pointer against the Atlanta Hawks on Nov. 16, 2022. He's averaging 31.9 ppg on 64.1% true shooting. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Just how far can players and teams take this math? There is only so much pace and space to generate.

The last three seasons have seen the highest average offensive ratings in NBA history, peaking early this year at 112.3. That is four points better than the heydays of the 1980s, when last the league played at an average pace of 100 possessions per game. Regulation scores are reaching the 120s and 130s on a nightly basis, and the Sacramento Kings scored 153 points against the Brooklyn Nets in four quarters on Tuesday, when their pace for the game (109 possessions) would have set a record if averaged over a full season.

Obviously, the increase in 3-point attempts has had a profound impact on this efficiency. A team's average attempts per game did not reach double digits until 1995 and only eclipsed 20 in 2013. That number rose steadily each year until 2020, when it plateaued around 34 per game, same as where we stand this season. The league-average conversion rate on 3-pointers has stayed around 35%-36% throughout the last 25 years.

The last time the league's average number of 3-point attempts held steady was from 2007-12, when teams shot 18 per game. Around that time, then-Houston Rockets executive Daryl Morey escalated the brand of basketball we see so often today. His teams topped out at a record 45 attempts per game from 2018-20. The Rockets peaked at 114.9 points per 100 possessions when they shot 35.6% from distance in 2018-19, and their offensive rating dropped to 112.5 when their 3-point shooting percentage as a team fell to 34.5%.

There is evidence of diminishing returns on open and wide-open 3-pointers as the Rockets increased their attempts from 26.6 in 2013-14 to 45.4 in 2018-19. Defenses got hip to Houston's scheme, and Harden had to work even harder as the heliocentric core of the offense. There is only so far you can push the limit, and we should not be surprised the league average has settled at the median of Houston's escalating attempts.

There is similar evidence that pace has its limit before the toll gets taken on efficiency. No team has ever maintained a pace of more than 103 possessions per game, shot at least 36% from distance and scored better than 1.13 points per possession (an offense that would rank outside the top 10 this season). Dial the pace back a handful of possessions per game, and 33 teams have hit those marks — 30 of them since the 73-win Warriors did it in 2015-16. A record eight teams are on pace to exceed those figures this season.

Maybe we have hit the ceiling for the pace-and-space era, and it has resulted in a record number of 30-point scorers and the highest offensive rating in NBA history. Or maybe players will continue to become even more skilled than they already are. That is essentially asking someone to become an amalgam of Antetokounmpo and Curry — hitting those 11 shots apiece at the rim, 3-point line and free-throw line at 70/45/90 splits, which would translate to the game's first 40 point-per-game scorer since Chamberlain.

Whether that's possible or not, NBA offenses — and the stars that drive them — have never been better.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach