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Three Point Specialists and Playoff Rotations




As the NBA has evolved over the years, roles have changed even while the positional labels remain the same. No one would mistake LeBron James' game for that of Kevin Durant's, even if both are given the label of small forward (which doesn't really fit either, actually, what with James' sheer bulk and Durant's insane wingspan). And today, I am going to discuss a rapidly increasing breed of player: the three point specialist.

When the three point line was added to the NBA in the 1979-80 season (coincidentally the year Magic Johnson and Larry Bird entered the league), it was merely a peripheral part of teams' playbooks. Usually, a trey was only taken when the shot clock was winding down and a shot at the rim or a midrange jumper wasn't available, and even then it was usually only taken at the end of quarters. However, as the Lakers/Celtics dynasties of the 80s wound down and the rise of the Michael Jordan-led Bulls happened, the three point shot came into vogue. The Rockets won back-to-back titles by complimenting Hakeem Olajuwon's post game with outside shooters (which decided the Rockets-Spurs matchup, as the Rockets could double David Robinson as he had a weak supporting cast), a tactic mimicked by Stan van Gundy in Orlando. One of the star players who made the three point shot his trademark was Reggie Miller, as it allowed him to become a lethal scorer even with a relatively unathletic frame. On the other hand, while Jordan was never really a high-volume shooter from beyond the arc, he acquitted himself decently when he needed to (just watch Game 1 of the 1992 Finals), and the Bulls always had guys like John Paxson and Steve Kerr to receive a kick-out pass and shoot a wide open shot.

Nevertheless, men like Paxson and Kerr are renowned not because they were merely good at shooting, but that they took the shot when needed. And here's my thesis: Three point specialists are rarely going to be worthy of a playoff rotation spot, save if they provide something else.

Even if Bruce Bowen and Robert Horry were relatively limited offensively, they managed to help bring championships to San Antonio because they provided other qualities, like lockdown defense or good defensive awareness as well as key rebounds. On the other hand, guys like Matt Bonner are elite at the three ball... but are weak rebounders and merely average on defense at best. Even the 2006 champions Miami Heat, while having an elite shooter in Jason Kapono, had him out of the rotation by the playoffs. Or the 2011 Mavericks, while having shooters galore, had them range from decent in team defense to pretty good.

Another reason for the decreased importance of long range specialists is whether they have someone on the team who should be double teamed. Doubling a dominant post player or an elite slasher creates open shots for these shooters, but teams like the Knicks (which can be shut down by turning Carmelo Anthony into Iso Melo and stifling ball movement) should thus not be surprised if Steve Novak's production drops off in the playoffs (though he shot the three ball well even then, though it's small sample sizes talking).

In the end, for a long range shooter to get playoff minutes, they should either be able to create their own shots (like a Gary Neal), be a defensive pest or have other useful skill sets (like knowing when to cut to the basket).

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