Every jump shot is an ecosystem unto itself. The living components that give it form are rather fickle in nature—legs that grow tired, arms that can be rushed, a core that might waver. When any one element is out of sync, the others must compensate. If they don’t, the shooter loses the equilibrium of his release and sparks a flicker of doubt. So delicate is the jumper that even years of muscle memory cannot fully protect it from the variability of the moment. Elite shooters strive to control as many variables as possible because they know that in the heat of a game, every single shot that goes up will rely on its own delicate balance and be subject to the potential for organic flaw.
Hawks wingman Kyle Korver reeled earlier this season when he saw the structure of his shot perturbed. A May procedure on his ankle, a June surgery on his elbow, and a considered alteration of his shooting mechanics left Korver, one of the top shooters in the world, unable to hit even even the clearest of looks. The downturn in his shooting percentages was troubling. For as trustworthy as Korver’s stroke has been, there are certain implications when a 34-year-old specialist struggles to find his game after two surgeries. Other NBA careers have trailed off with less warning.
Then, around the turn of the calendar year, something clicked. It was Korver’s patience with his revised mechanics—the physical manifestation of an exceptional shooter who had dared to mess with a good thing. Players in the league are consistently nudged to address their weaknesses and hone their strengths. Any particularly bold approach to those tasks risks throwing the player’s game off its center. The exact shift in Korver’s shot is a matter of inches. Yet it was so significant to Korver’s process and desired result that he characterized it as a sort of reboot.
"My challenge was that I was trying to—and I don't want to over-talk about it—I was trying to develop a different shot, kind of,” Korver said, per Hawks.com. This aligns with what Korver told ESPN.com’s Tom Haberstroh before the season when he described the adjustment process as “re-learning how to shoot.”
Consider that notion. The league leader in three-point percentage for two years running had decided to overhaul his release just months after undergoing two separate surgeries. The thinking, as laid out in Haberstroh’s story, was that Korver’s repaired elbow would be able to supply more power and therefore reduce the need for a dip at the beginning of Korver’s shot. The ball would start higher and flow upward into the shooting motion as quickly as possible—shrinking the window for an opponent’s contest even further.
The results, at first, were passable. Korver shot 43.7% from three-point range in November, which could be explained away as an orientation to the new form. December, however, brought the cold; the end of the calendar year marked one of the worst shooting stretches of Korver’s career. Over a seven-game stretch at the turn of the calendar year, Korver went a ghastly 7-of-44 (15.9%) on shots from beyond the arc.
Every shooter goes through challenging spells. For Korver, however, that kind of sustained breakdown was almost unthinkable. This was a marksman who had converted 40% or more of his three-pointers in nine of his 12 NBA seasons to that point. In each of the four years prior he had finished top five in three-point percentage. Korver’s form was fast and repeatable, his success clear and empirical.
Strangest of all: During that six-game nadir, Korver came up empty on virtually all of his open shots. This wasn’t a matter of an aging Korver losing his edge on NBA defenders. One of the most dangerous three-point shooters in recent NBA history went a shocking 1-for-12 on attempts in which there was no defender within six feet, according to NBA.com. It was that stretch that seemed to push Korver to his breaking point.
The new release is out. Here is Korver now, lining up an attempt with as significant a dip in his shot as ever:
It’s remarkable that Korver has been able to revert to his previous form with relative ease after spending months overwriting that very tendency. Bringing overt thought into the mind of a shooter—like the kind needed to clear away an engrained adjustment—can be a recipe for disaster in some cases. Korver, for whatever reason, seems to have managed it well. His shooting numbers are trending up across the board of late, tracking more closely with the career marks he set last season. Most promisingly: Korver is connecting on his open shots again, acing those free-and-clear threes at a clip of 47.1%.
That’s a figure more deserving of Korver’s reputation. No opponent dared to take Korver’s shooting slump as some exploitable weakness; scouting reports still pushed opponents to guard the 2014–15 All-Star as closely as possible. If anything, Korver now faces a burden of proof to show that he can get the better of permanent, dedicated coverage in a way his nagging elbow wouldn’t allow last May. Atlanta’s fate this season hinges on his mechanical resilience. It makes sense, then, that with his season at its tipping point, Korver would put his faith in the familiar.
While You Weren’t Watching
A spotlight on the little moments in the frenzied NBA slate that might otherwise get lost in the shuffle.
As far as completely unnecessary fouls/most excellent wrestling moves go, this maneuver from Nene against Jusuf Nurkic is A-1:
• A neat, animated chart from Aaron Barzilai measuring up the Warriors and Spurs against the 72-win Bulls on a game-by-game basis.
• Draymond Green and Larry Bird, Kawhi Leonard and Steve Nash, Russell Westbrook and Oscar Robertson, Tony Parker and John Stockton. Good stuff here on the elite statistical company that current NBA players keep.
• Karl-Anthony Towns’s plan for meeting Drake? Following Andrew Wiggins around Toronto during All-Star Weekend.
• What does it mean that the NBA standings are so middle-heavy?
• Amar’e Stoudemire has been playing better than 20 minutes a night of late—about as many as he should, physically—as he filled in for the injured Hassan Whiteside. Couper Moorhead of Heat.com goes inside the old and new of Stoudemire’s pick-and-roll artistry.
• One of the fun wrinkles in watching guys play with an athletic big like Andre Drummond is seeing how bold and creative they become in throwing up lobs. Not everyone is a natural, but any wing who dribbles with his head up can find opportunity to set up an oop.
• Jared Dudley has a terrific grasp of when to take a spot-up shot and when to move the ball along to create another shot. That discretion is a crucial part of playing off of an elite playmaker, even if Dudley doesn’t have the speed off the dribble to make as many secondary plays as he’d like.
• The fact that Milwaukee’s overload defense appears to be solved is bad, bad news for Greg Monroe. His entire defensive fit was predicated on the idea that his long, athletic teammates could eat up driving and passing angles to protect him. Now that the Bucks are getting killed by skip passes and forced to scramble, Monroe is as vulnerable in rotation as ever.
• In focusing so much on Stephen Curry’s shooting, I wonder if we may be glossing over the fact that he’s one of the most incredible layup finishers in the league. His body control, audacity, cunning, and touch are all top-notch.
• Why don’t more teams with hyper-athletic ballhandlers set screens far above the three-point line? Players like Russell Westbrook can explode off of that screen into an instant downhill scenario—the kind that often results in a shot around the rim or a key defensive overreaction.
• It’s been nice to see Cam Payne’s game unfurl over the last month with the Thunder in what seems like a perfect role. Payne might be suited for a higher-pressure role in time, though for now he does perfectly in leveraging his smooth, poised game against second units.
• It’s amazing how much easier Chandler Parsons’s life becomes when he catches the ball on the move rather than at a stop.
• I’m not sure any player has done more to help his impending free agency than Ian Mahinmi. Cases could be made for others, but Mahinmi brought down his foul rate, showcased some good awareness on offense, and has anchored a top-three defense with his rim protection.