Three-point shooting has been out of Tony Parker's repertoire for years but there was a time in which he let it fly from outside. In his first four seasons in the league Parker took two three-pointers or more per game. But after shooting 27% that fourth year, he completely erased the shot from his game. As he told Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express News: "It was a discussion with Pop. We had so many great shooters around me that it's better I penetrate and create for everybody. I agreed I would give up threes and let everybody else shoot them."
Those three-pointers turned into mid-range jumpers in the 2005/06 season, shots that Parker could make more often. His true shooting percentage rose and so did his free throw rate. Not coincidentally, that season he made the leap and became an All-Star. For years, that was Parker's identity: a drive-and-kick point guard who didn't take threes.
It's important to note exactly just how rare it is for a point guard to be so three-point averse. Among point guards that have played at least 10,000 minutes over the past ten seasons, only six other players have averaged under two three-pointers per 36 minutes. In the entire three-point era and among players who have at least played 30,000 career minutes, only seven other guards have attempted fewer than 1500 total three pointers. To be a rotation player that lasts long in the league, a guard needs a three-pointer. That Parker has been able to survive without one is a testament to the rest of his game.
But the Spurs' offense has changed over the years and the ever-evolving Parker has transformed with it. He's been slowly, methodically re-incorporating the outside shot to his arsenal recently, with Pop's blessing. "He's improved every year, especially from the corners. It's a shot we want him to shoot. He's getting more and more confident with it."
Here are Parker heat maps for the last ten years, courtesy of basketball-reference.
You can clearly see his range expanding over the years until he becomes a threat from everywhere inside the arc. Then the corners start being an option. And then, out of nowhere, this season he begins eschewing some mid-range jumpers for more three-pointers, including a few from above the break.
If he continues shooting them at this pace, Parker will attempt 138 three-pointers this year, the most since 2004/05 and more than he took in the last two seasons combined. His outrageous conversion rate will drop because no one can ever sustain a 63% from outside. But Parker shot 35% and 37% the past two seasons in limited attempts and has set the goal for himself to shoot over 40% on threes. With the way he's been shooting, he seems well on his way to achieve that goal.
And if that happens, it would open up so many options for the Spurs.
I don't think Pop has ever come out and say it but it's obvious one of the main reasons Ginobili has come off the bench for most of his career is that having him playing next to Parker would have forced Tony to play off the ball more than it would have been ideal. His impact has traditionally been directly tied to his ability to create so it would have been a waste to have him standing on a corner.
But with Parker now hitting those shots at a high level and the Spurs' offense not relying on individual exploits to create shots as much as it did in the past, the combination works better than ever. Manu has already assisted Tony in five of his nine corner threes and it's only been 13 games. Tony can finally complement other ball-handlers. Both Manu and Marco Belinelli have found him on pick-and-rolls in which Parker's defender leaves him to help on the roll man, once a sound strategy that would derail the Spurs' offense.
The Spurs won't draw up a play trying to get Parker a corner three. But Tony is actually looking for those opportunities by sneaking into the corners against inattentive defenses and asking for the ball.
That gives the Spurs' offense yet another layer of unpredictability. And while his corner shooting has showed the most promise, Parker has also gone 5-7 from above the break and hast taken shots when he gets the pass out of the post. This is really unprecedented territory we are entering and it's impossible to not get excited about the Spurs' prospects if Tony finds the right balance between playing on and off the ball and keeps connecting.
So the effects of Parker developing a reliable three-pointer -- if he in fact has done that -- will be felt this season. But the biggest payoff might come in the next couple of years. And yes, like everything else that has to do with the Spurs' future, it involves Kawhi Leonard.
In the past few games, all the talk about drawing plays for Kawhi has finally translated to reality. Leonard is mostly getting ISOs at the elbow and the mid-post that often turn into post-ups. Sometimes he begins to post up, then Duncan comes over and sets a screen for a quick pull up. It's simple action but it plays to Leonard's strengths. And the Spurs seem committed to feeding him even when his shot is not falling and when he is in with the starters. The passing of the torch to Kawhi is slowly happening.
It would shock me to learn that Parker getting the green light from outside isn't related to that. If Parker can be a threat to shoot when he gets the pass out of post ups, it would allow him to be in the strong side with Leonard. After spending his entire career feeding Tim Duncan, Parker is a fantastic entry passer and Leonard has showed the potential to be a killer post player. Having the two on the same side also opens up the possibility to run all kinds of dribble pitch and screening action between the two, a type of play we are seeing more and more of between point guards and wings.
And if Leonard eventually develops the ball-handling and court vision to be a threat running pick-and-rolls? The Spurs won't have to worry about wasting Tony's talents and hurting the team's spacing by having him parked in a corner because he now seems to be a genuine threat that the defense can't ignore.
Parker will have to continue to hit three-pointers at a high rate for defenses to begin to guard him closely. For all we know, his hot start could be an aberration and the regression that will follow brutal. But Parker's outside shot has followed a progression that seems sustainable -- even if his current percentage isn't -- and him taking more threes has been by design. It looks like Tony Parker, the three-point shooter is here to stay. And the Spurs, now and in the future, will be better for it.