In the Age of Curry and Smarter Stats, Players Still Hate the Desperation Heave.
The numbers don't lie: Last season, Stephen Curry was one of the worst long-range shooters in the NBA.
During the 2016-17 season, Curry shot an abysmal .067 in a specific category: shots taken from half court or beyond in the final seconds of the first, second or third quarter. Per Basketball Reference, Curry attempted nearly twice as many such "heaves" (15) as any other player. He made just one, a running 50-footer against the Clippers that just beat the halftime buzzer. It was also the second straight season in which he led the NBA in such attempts.
What started as a pet peeve for this particular writer eventually morphed into a modest quest: To figure out why some players refuse to shoot the ball in the closing seconds of a quarter or half. To that question, the seemingly obvious answer—they're protecting their shooting percentage, duh—proved to be the correct one. But it also led to more questions, like: Why do some players seem to love hoisting these types of shots? Is this something coaches talk about, or even consider? And how is it, at a time when analytics have made everyone infinitely smarter about what stats actually measure, that a player would turn down a risk-free opportunity to throw the ball toward the hoop?
The answers, based on a sampling of players around the league, are at once crystal clear and (sort of) complicated. But at least part of it has to do with the fact that coaches are hardly thinking about it.
"I've never been coached on that," Washington point guard Tim Frazier said.
"Coaches don't really say anything about it," Mavericks forward Doug McDermott said.
"Every staff I've ever been a part of, you go over all the different situations in the course of a season," Grizzlies assistant Bob Bender said. "That's one that's probably never been a priority."
A member on Indiana's 1976 national championship team, former Duke assistant under Mike Krzyzewski and ex-head coach at Illinois State and Washington, Bender has worked as an assistant for five NBA teams over the past 16 years. He says that from the coaches' perspective, the rarity of such possessions—just one per game in college, and three per game in the pros—and the slim chance of making any shot from beyond half court means such scenarios are hardly worth spending valuable prep time on.
"You try to cover everything," Bender said with a laugh, "but you don't cover everything."
A coach might make an exception, Bender added, if a player passed up an obvious chance to get a shot off at a potential turning point in a game. Take the following scenario Bender laid out: "End of the third quarter, other team's on a run, they miss, and you get the rebound—but you don't shoot it. At that point it might be something you'd highlight after the game, to say, 'Next time, just put it up. That might be a little bit of momentum. You never know.'"
It's hardly an untested hypothesis. Two years ago in Memphis, the Grizzlies were facing an eight-point deficit going into the fourth quarter against Minnesota. At least, they were until Vince Carter helped force a driving Tyus Jones into a turnover, corralled the ball near his own baseline and looked to the game clock at the opposite end of the court. Judging that he had enough time, Carter dribbled once, gathered the ball and shot in stride.
The 73-foot heave was perfect, cutting the lead to five and sparking a 12-3 Memphis run. Talking to reporters after his team's come-from-behind 109-104 win, Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley said, "We call that the game-changer."
Carter has hit a few such heaves in his career. So has the Pistons' Andre Drummond (albeit on far fewer attempts from outside the paint). Detroit's All-Star big man told Bleacher Reporter that his most memorable heave came against Boston in December 2015. Pulling down a defensive rebound with a shade over four seconds left in the half, Drummond turned, took four confident dribbles and pulled up just behind half court—right over the head of Isaiah Thomas. Swish.
Drummond says he savors the memory because "I did it so casually, like I kind of just walked up and shot a jump shot." But he remembers its impact, too: The shot gave Detroit a three-point halftime lead. The Pistons went on to win 119-116.
"I think Steph has changed all that," Frazier said of Curry. "He's been shooting it from so deep that it feels normal now." A former Trail Blazer, Frazier cites his ex-teammates Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum as other guys unafraid to "pull up right as they come across half court," but Curry is clearly the player most responsible for the expansion of acceptable range.
It might be the NBA's worst-kept secret, but yes, players are mindful of their shooting statistics. In such moments, many opt to protect that number at the expense of a low-percentage three that might or might not have an impact on the outcome of a game. Some players are reluctant to reveal the guilty for fear of violating an unspoken honor code. But for others, the secret is out.
After a comfortable January win over Sacramento, Lakers coach Luke Walton good-naturedly sold out Kyle Kuzma, telling reporters that the promising rookie wanted it known that one of his turnovers came on a shot-clock violation in the game's meaningless closing seconds. When Walton told Kuzma he should've shot the ball, Kuzma admitted he didn't want to hurt his percentage.
Ivan Johnson was a member of the Hawks when Bender was on Atlanta's staff. Bender remembers how the bruising forward would regularly practice shots from three-quarter court. "And he was so strong," Bender said, "it really wasn't a 'heave.' If he got a defensive rebound, and there were any ticks on the clock, he was going."
McDermott said that as a rule, "big guys don't care" about the impact of an occasional heave on their shooting stats and cited his former teammate Taj Gibson as a big who "dreamed of those situations.
In a 10-month span last year, Gibson got to display both extremes of his carefree approach to heaves. In March, just a week after being traded to Oklahoma City, Gibson intercepted an attempted full-court pass at the end of the half and fired a high, perfect lob back from the top of his own key that found nothing but net. Then came this past December, when Gibson (by then in Minnesota), grabbed a defensive rebound in the closing seconds of the half and heaved again, this time from practically under his own basket.
TV cameras memorably caught Gibson's teammate, Jimmy Butler, asking "What the f--k was that?" Gibson could be seen smiling and laughing as he jogged to the locker room for halftime.
So let most of the league's best shooters avoid the heave (Steph Curry notably excepted). Let characters like Johnson and Gibson shoot them conscience-free, and let All-Stars like Drummond take his chances on the rare moments he has a reason to shoot from beyond 12 feet. "I just do it for fun," Drummond said. "It's just believing in myself and putting it up."
Drummond still remembers his first heave—not the specific opponent, but a game early in his high school career, the shot coming from about half court. "I was really young," he says. "It felt like the greatest moment of my life."