The Portland Trail Blazers’ new acquisitions at shooting guard and small forward all have a common problem: they do not shoot the three pointer well. For their careers, Al-Farouq Aminu, Gerald Henderson and Moe Harkless have all shot 31.9% or worse from deep.
In a league where Wesley Matthews gets a maximum contract, DeMarre Carroll earns roughly $15 million per year, and Kyle freakin’ Korver makes his first All-Star team at age 33, it is an understatement to say that acquiring three perimeter players who are missing the "3" from "3&D" was an unexpected move from Blazers GM Neil Olshey.
The new roster composition becomes even more surprising in light of Portland’s style of play under coach Terry Stotts. Last season, Portland shot 2,231 three pointers and made 36.2% of them, good for third and eighth best in the league, respectively. Broadly speaking, Stotts has emphasized creating open outside shots for his secondary offensive options through spacing and ball movement so as to punish opposing defenses that too aggressively tried to stop LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard. Wing players who were unable to shoot the three have not fared well in his system (see: Barton, Will).
And when it is working at peak efficiency, Stotts’ offensive system leads to some beautiful basketball:
Portland’s success with the three point shot as a consequence of having two elite scoring all-stars is not unique in the NBA. Kirk Goldsberry noted in a recent piece for Grantland.com that three point shooting is much more of a team skill than is often realized. In this article he writes:
Although one guy gets credit for every made 3-pointer, the truth is that the majority of long-range shots come as a result of some combination of teamwork. Across the league last season, 84 percent of triples were assisted, and for spot-up guys like Carroll (99 percent) and Green (94 percent), that number was even higher… Spot-up shooters serve as the indicator species of contemporary NBA ecosystems. They flourish in the spacing of San Antonio, Golden State, and Atlanta, but struggle among the crowds in New York, Memphis, and Lakerland.
Goldsberry notes that for some players good three point shooting is as much about the system in which they play as it is about their shooting ability. Vince Carter, for example, shot 40% from 3 in Dallas, a team known for its ability to generate quality shots, but his percentage dipped to 30% when he joined the Memphis Grizzlies who have struggled with outside shooting.
Portland fans witnessed the importance of team offense to three point shooters firsthand last season when the Blazers acquired Arron Afflalo from Denver. While playing for the offensively disjointed Nuggets Afflalo shot only 33.6% from deep, but during his time in Portland he became a 40% shooter. Notably, Afflalo’s percentage on catch and shoot 3s jumped from 35% with the Nuggets to 40% with the Blazers; a change likely indicative of receiving higher quality shooting opportunities in Portland off of better passes from teammates.
Which leads one to wonder: Could Henderson, Aminu, and Harkless get a similar boost to their outside shooting by playing for Terry Stotts? As Willy Raedy noted two weeks ago, Stotts has a history of empowering players to make the most of skills that were previously underutilized. Raedy discusses Batum’s emergence as a playmaker for the Blazers, and Afflalo’s sudden bump in three point shooting seems to be another example of player empowerment.
On the surface, Gerald Henderson does seem like a good candidate to be empowered as a better outside shooter for the Blazers. Last season Henderson’s former team, the Charlotte Hornets, finished dead last in three point shooting at 31.8%. Henderson has also shown steady improvement as a three point shooter after bottoming out at 19.4% in his second season, but improving to 34.8% and 33.1% over the last two seasons. Henderson’s shooting could be the consequence of playing for a poor shooting team, and not a flaw in his personal game
Unfortunately, these positive trends may be fool’s gold. The Hornets' poor outside shooting last season occurred in spite of generating open looks at the basket; they shot a league worst FG% of 50.89% when open. Vantage Sports notes that:
This means that the Hornets’ terrible three-point field goal percentage is not a result of poor ball movement or bad shot selection but rather the quality of players on the floor. Furthermore, the Hornets are missing open two-point field goals at a higher clip than any other team. This substantial issue needs to be rectified in the offseason or we will continue to see the Hornets miss NBA "gimmes."
Further, Henderson’s three point stats were buoyed by shooting 42% from the short corner, but he only shot 23.9% "above the break" (NBA parlance for three pointers from the 23’9" part of the arc). While it is encouraging to see the good shooting from the corners, the Blazers have historically relied on their wing players to spot up from anywhere on the court. Wes Matthews, for instance, shot 130 corner 3s last season and 314 3s from above the break. Under Stotts, Henderson most likely will not be able to hide in the corner a la a wing player from the Nate McMillan era.
Reviewing the video and advanced stats of Henderson’s above the break three pointers further dampens positivity about his shooting potential. (You can review the playlist here: http://on.nba.com/1V0UJHk). Most notably, when Henderson shoots from above the break his shooting percentage stays below 30% whether or not he is covered. While watching the playlist, it’s also clear that many defenders only give a half-hearted close out when Henderson spots up from 3 and many of his open shots still miss badly. Additionally, several announcers comment that Henderson’s shot has an unusual sidespin because of an unorthodox release. All of this points to Henderson simply being a poor shooter who is unlikely to see a bump in his effectiveness from deep while playing for the Blazers.
Unlike Henderson, Aminu played for the Dallas Mavericks last season. The Mavs have had success getting open shots for their perimeter players under Rick Carlisle and last season they were 11th in the league in three point percentage. Aminu, however, shot only 27.4% from 3, close to his career average of 28.6% and well below Dallas’ team average of 35.2%, suggesting that Aminu’s shooting woes are not the result of a poor offensive system. Aminu also shot only 30.1% from the corners and 24.6% from above the break, so it would also be unwise to use him as a bailout option in the corner.
Virtually all of Aminu’s three point shots last season were catch and shoot – he shot only 2 three pointers after a single dribble and none after more than two dribbles. Further, every single one of his 3s was assisted – he clearly prefers to only spot up, in contrast to Matthews who would often take a single dribble to create space and then shoot. Encouragingly when Aminu is wide open, classified as no defender within 6 feet when the shot is attempted, he has shot 33.3% and 38.6% from deep over the last two seasons. Taken together, these numbers paint the picture of a player who is incapable of creating his own offense, but could function as a fifth option if the opposing defense is scrambling to cover other more dangerous players. Aminu will not be the threat for the Blazers that Batum or Matthews was last season, but if utilized properly he is capable of converting wide open looks from 3.
Last season Harkless was the worst shooter of the Blazers newcomers, converting an atrocious 17.9% from 3, despite shooting an encouraging 38.3% for the 2013-2014 season. Over the last two seasons Orlando was in the middle of the pack for three point percentage, finishing 15th last season and 19th two seasons ago, so his precipitous fall does not seem to be due to a major change to the team. Further, his decline also was not the result of a change in shooting location: 71 of his shots were from the corners two years ago (he converted 43.7%) and 70 were above the break (converted 40.0%). Last season his distribution was similar: he shot 7/31 from the corners and 3/23 from above the break.
Last season, almost every single one of Harkless’ shots from deep was classified as open or wide open. Specifically, 32.1% of his total shot attempts were open 3s, while 3.8% of his total shot attempts were closely defended 3s. These numbers are nearly identical to his 2013-2014 numbers in which 29.1% of total shots were open 3s, and only 2.9% were 3s with a defender nearby. Similarly, 26% of his shots from each of the last two seasons were catch and shoot, and for both seasons about 9% of his total attempts were pull up 3s. The biggest difference is that, paradoxically, all 10 of his three point makes last season were assisted upon, but two years ago about 90% of his three point makes were assisted. In short, Harkless was getting virtually the same type of shots last season when he shot 17.9% as he was the year before when he shot 38.3%. The explanation for his shooting woes does not apparently lie with his style of play.
Aside from shooting, the biggest change for Harkless was a substantial decline in playing time. Perhaps his success in 2014 was contingent on the guarantee of regular playing time and the confidence to shoot as he chose. Encouragingly, his 2014 success was attributed to significant off-season work on improving his jump shot, and the results did pay off for him that year. Unlike Henderson, this implies that Harkless’ jumper is not fundamentally broken so there may be hope that if he regains his confidence he may also regain his shooting form.
In the end, even though none of these players have been consistently successful shooters in the past there is some hope that Aminu and Harkless could become serviceable shooters with the right system and some hard work. Aminu is not likely to be as successful as Matthews or a healthy Batum from deep, but he will hopefully be able to hit a shot if wide open, whereas Harkless may flourish as a shooter with more consistent playing time.
The emergence of either player as a reliable shooter would help Stotts manage the rotation this season. Aminu and Henderson are the presumptive starters right now, and playing two wings who can’t shoot flies in the face of success in the NBA. It would likely be impossible to play those two at the same time for extended stretches without also putting Meyers Leonard on the floor to help spacing and relieve defensive pressure from Damian Lillard. If Aminu, or even Harkless, can turn into a reliable shooter it will open up the rotation for Stotts and allow a better balance of offense and defense.
As far as Henderson goes, Olshey is almost certainly aware of all the negative stats mentioned in this article. Whether or not they factored into Olshey’s decision to acquire him from the Hornets is unclear. But Henderson’s lack of upside as a shooter in a league that emphasizes and requires shooting guards to shoot may not bode well for his future with the team.
Note: All stats from stats.nba.com unless otherwise indicated.