Monday December 1st, 2014

One month of NBA basketball has come with its share of surprises, though none more incredible than the fact that Tony Parker ranks – at a 66.7-percent clip – as the league’s most accurate three-point shooter. Parker does not gun from the perimeter by trade. His career is predicated on an ability to drive down the seams of an opposing defense, after which he flips in shots around the rim and lures opponents into collapsing on his drives. Those talents remain, though Parker has taken to further complementing the Spurs’ complete offense through marksmanship from the perimeter as the situation calls for it.

Progress in that regard has come incrementally. For much of his career, Parker was ineffective and uninterested in the ways of beyond-the-arc scoring – evidenced by his attempting few three-pointers and making fewer. The last two seasons marked a notable turn in that approach, beginning with Parker’s sharpened accuracy from the corners. Those Spurs sets that use Parker for only some initial action often have him retreat to the right corner, a spot where he converted 41.7 percent of his attempts over the past two seasons combined. The corners have acted as Parker’s gateway to three-point shooting since.

“[Spurs coach Gregg Popovich] was like 'You need to start working on your three in the corner because as you get older you are going to need to make threes, a little bit like Jason Kidd,’” Parker said, per Pounding the Rock. In the early stages of this season Parker has eclipsed that standard by making two-thirds of his attempts from beyond the arc. The next-best player projected to qualify for the leaderboard is Atlanta’s Kyle Korver, whose 55.3-percent shooting somehow pales in comparison. 

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There are issues of equivalence in directly comparing Parker’s conservative approach to three-point shooting with that of Korver (who averages 5.1 threes per game to Parker’s 1.5) and other perimeter specialists. To be clear: There is no argument that Parker is a better shooter than the league’s best dedicated marksmen, for whom three-point shooting is both a more consistent weapon and an expected threat that opponents must account for. This is in part because Parker exists in a different space entirely; his three-point shooting is a mere accessory to both his all-around game and San Antonio’s robust attack, notable in this case only for the fact that a low-volume shooter is off to the most accurate 15-game start in NBA history.

The development of the season may yet render Parker’s hot start to be only that – an unusually fruitful stretch for a shooter who has honed his craft from the corners. Thus far, however, Parker has matched his 10-of-16 shooting from the corners with a superior 6-of-8 mark on three-pointers from above the break. Those shots are both longer and outside of Parker’s usual comfort zone, even if for the moment the’ve come in such short supply as to be especially vulnerable to random chance. At some point Parker’s shooting will cool, as could be said of any player making this many long-range shots. Where it settles, though, remains to be seen. Regression to the mean could still leave Parker’s shooting as one of this season’s most surprising developments.

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In such a case, no team in the league would be better positioned to capitalize than the Spurs. San Antonio doesn’t look to Parker for creative dominance as it once did, relying instead on scoring diversity and collective playmaking to bring about efficient offense. This approach calls for Parker to give up the ball early in possessions more often than one might expect of a future Hall-of-Fame point guard. As a result, Parker’s role in the offense has expanded well beyond the direct attack of head-on pick-and-roll basketball. He cuts. He curls. He’s comfortable operating from all areas of the floor because the Spurs’ heralded ball movement rewards those who are in the right place at the right time. 

Parker’s accuracy from three is thus both a benefactor and a beneficiary of all that the Spurs do. While stationed as one more threat from the corner on a team that already has so many, Parker challenges an opposing defense’s rotational principles. Built into that influence, though, is the fact that San Antonio creates quality corner looks more organically than most. No matter how one untangles the cause and effect of that relationship, the most important thing that Parker can do is knock down. Every one of his makes forces opponents to strain further in defending one of the league's most impossible offenses, culminating in a setup where even by-the-book rotations are punished by Parker's sure shooting.

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