Step back in time for a moment, back to the NBA of the late 1960s. In your mind's eye you can see Jerry West going up for a jump shot with picture-perfect form. Now it's the '70s, and there's Rick Barry coming off a pick, catching and shooting all in one motion. Move forward to the '80s, and there's Larry Bird casually tossing in three-pointers. Listen closely and you can almost hear the constant flick, flick, flick of the net as these players send the ball through the hoop.
Skip ahead to last spring's NBA playoffs. There is Phoenix Sun guard Dan Majerle missing 20 of 24 shots in the last three games of the Suns' second-round series against the Houston Rockets. There is John Starks of the New York Knicks converting three of 18 shots in Game 1 of the Finals and missing all 11 of his three-point attempts in Game 7. There are the Rockets holding the championship trophy aloft, even though for most of the Finals starting guards Vernon Maxwell (35 for 96 from the floor in the series) and Kenny Smith (14 for 36) couldn't have thrown a pebble in the ocean if they had been standing on the shore. And these are the good shooters. No wonder the league decided during the off-season to move the three-point line from 23'9" at its farthest point to a uniform distance of 22'.
Granted, memory can play tricks; yesterday's shooters laid their share of bricks. Still, 10, 20, even 30 years ago the NBA had far more players who were virtually "automatic" when left open for a jumper than it does today. Remember Jamaal Wilkes and Bill Bradley from the corner? The no-conscience gunners like World B. Free? The bombardiers like Downtown Freddy Brown? Jerry Lucas's shotput heaves? Hal Greer's pull-up jumpers? Sam Jones's bank shots? The hot streaks of Andrew Toney? The sugary shot of Sweet Lou Hudson?
Where have all the shooters gone?
They haven't completely disappeared. Reggie Miller of the Indiana Pacers (page 104), the NBA's preeminent marksman, would do just fine in a shooting contest against players of any era, as would the Denver Nuggets' Dale Ellis (who holds the league's career record for three-pointers, with 1,013), the Golden State Warriors' Chris Mullin, the Cleveland Cavaliers' Mark Price, the Miami Heat's Glen Rice and the Sacramento Kings' Mitch Richmond. Indeed, Miller, with his long arms and cocky demeanor, is in many ways a latter-day Barry. And Ellis, with his classic form and businesslike manner, is reminiscent of Hudson.
Still, the list of first-rate outside shooters is as short now as it has been in 25 years. Ten years ago the league's overall field goal percentage was .492, which remains the alltime high. Last season it dropped to .466—the lowest in 27 years (chart). In the last two seasons, no team made 50% of its shots; that hadn't happened since 1976-77. Not surprisingly, scoring is down (chart). Last season seven teams—the most since 1954-55 (the season in which the 24-second shot clock was introduced)—failed to average 100 points. Further proof of faulty marksmanship comes from the foul line. The '93-94 free throw average of 73.4% was the league's lowest in 25 years.
For every team like the Charlotte Hornets, who have multiple outside threats (Michael Adams, Dell Curry and Hersey Hawkins), there are several like the Knicks, who are so lacking in perimeter shooting that their offense often appears to consist of throwing the ball at the rim in order to chase the rebound, like a hockey team dumping the puck into the offensive zone. With good shooters spread so thin across the league, defenses can frequently concentrate on stopping the one or two perimeter threats. "You can double down low and still cover the other team's best outside shooter," says Boston Celtic coach Chris Ford. "You have to leave someone open, so the key is finding someone you don't mind leaving free. That's usually not too hard to figure out, because teams don't have the depth of talent they used to."
In today's macho NBA, New York's clank-and-chase style of play may be as highly regarded as one that is considered perimeter-based and "soft." Says TNT basketball analyst Doug Collins, one of the league's better shooters when he played for the Philadelphia 76ers from 1973 to 1981, "It's gotten to the point where being called a good outside shooter is almost like a curse. When you hear that someone is a shooter, usually the implication is that he's just a shooter, and that he's not that valuable because he can't do much else."
The new three-point line, part of the NBA's attempt to open up the game again, should help raise the stature of the so-called shooter. "Guys who didn't quite have the range before are suddenly three-point threats," says Detroit Piston coach Don Chaney. Richmond, Hawkins, the Washington Bullets' Don MacLean and the Pistons' Joe Dumars are among those who could flourish in this closer comfort zone.
"The three-point line is close enough now to make the three a more natural part of the offense," says Collins. "You might see coaches making an effort to get more shooters on the floor. You might even get teams to run a little bit more because they'll be more willing to shoot the three off the fast break."
In the off-season the league also reduced the amount of contact that defenders may have with offensive players by severely limiting hand checking. It's a move the NBA's better shooters obviously endorse. "If players can come off a pick and not get bumped or held, you're going to see them hit more jumpers," says Miller.
Think of how the gunslingers of the past would have salivated over a 22-foot three-point shot and curtailed hand checking. Begin the roll call, and you'll find it's hard to stop: Collins, Bobby Dandridge, Gail Goodrich, Pete Maravich, Bob McAdoo, Jon McGlocklin, Calvin Murphy, Rudy Tomjanovich, JoJo White.... "You can't even list them all," says Nugget general manager Bernie Bickerstaff. "The league had so many guys who just buried the open jumper. Certain players today shoot as well as anybody from the past, but there just aren't as many of them."
One clear advantage the current generation has over its predecessors is that big men are better shooters than they were 10 to 20 years ago. The 6'9" McAdoo, the best-shooting big man of his era, wouldn't be such a rarity today, when players like the Knicks' 7-foot Patrick Ewing, the Rockets' 7-foot Hakeem Olajuwon, the New Jersey Nets' 6'10" Derrick Coleman and the San Antonio Spurs' 7'1" David Robinson are comfortable shooting 20-footers. Nonetheless, it's becoming increasingly clear that the NBA has entered the Dunk Ages, an era when jamming the ball through the net is far more glamorous than tossing it in from long distance. And while the dunking is being elevated, outside shooting is becoming, if not a lost art, at least a fading one.
"This is a generation of dunkers," says former Piston star Isiah Thomas (page 114), the vice president of basketball operations for the expansion Toronto Raptors. "Players are learning how to dunk as opposed to learning how to play. Sometimes you watch a game and you ask yourself, Why can't anybody shoot anymore?"
A number of answers come to mind:
Dr. J. That's right, Julius Erving, one of the game's immortals, is indirectly responsible for the shooting decline. Erving turned dunking into an art form, and he was so good at it that a generation of players grew up trying to imitate him. Instead of shooting hundreds of free throws in the driveway or at the playground, many of today's NBA players grew up hanging from the rim and practicing their 360-degree midair spins. Instead of pulling up for the jumper, they went to the hoop at every opportunity. After Erving came Michael Jordan, who took the dunk to yet another level, and gradually the jump shot became an afterthought for many developing players. Shooting leaves no room for the creativity that has become such a large part of the sport. Good shooters do it the same way almost every time. Where's the fun in that?
"People didn't realize that there was a lot more substance to Dr. J's and Michael's games," says Bickerstaff. "Michael became a great jump shooter, and Dr. J got to the point where you couldn't lay off him. They had complete games, but a lot of kids growing up only want to copy the spectacular stuff. I've got a young son at home, and all he talks about is throwing it down on somebody."
Collins and his son, Chris, now a shooting guard at Duke, gave a clinic for some youngsters two years ago in which the elder Collins discussed proper shooting technique, which his son demonstrated. "Chris took about 25 three-pointers, and he must have hit 18 or 20 of them," says Doug. "Shot after shot, swish, swish, swish. When we were done, we took questions, and the first thing they wanted to know from Chris was, 'Can you dunk?' "
Kids aren't the only ones who are taken with the dunk. Madison Avenue is just as impressed, which is why jamming has become the fastest route to riches and fame. Winning the slam-dunk contest at the 1991 All-Star Game got Boston Celtic guard Dee Brown a sneaker commercial. "It's the dunkers who wind up on the posters," says Charlotte forward Larry Johnson, "not the jump shooters."
Fascination with the dunk isn't limited to the NBA. When Dream Team II played in the world championships in Toronto in August, the most popular players among the international fans were Orlando Magic center Shaquille O'Neal and Seattle SuperSonic forward Shawn Kemp—because they were the most spectacular dunkers. The long-range shooting of Majerle, Miller, Price and Dumars drew appreciative applause, but O'Neal's and Kemp's rim-rattlers brought the house down.
"It's the show that's important," says Bickerstaff. "Everybody wants to dunk and talk trash, and now the fans expect it. Pull up for the jumper instead of taking it to the hoop, and it's almost a letdown." Bigger D. Playing defense has become more glamorous. Players like Denver's Dikembe Mutombo (page 150), Seattle's Gary Payton and San Antonio's Dennis Rodman have shown that a good defender can attract the spotlight. Combine that with the fact that the league is stocked with bigger and better athletes than it was a decade ago, and it's clear that getting a good shot is a more difficult proposition than it was in earlier eras. Bradley and Hudson were 6'5" forwards. Today they would probably be shooting guards struggling to get a good look at the basket against defenders like 6'8" Stacey Augmon of the Atlanta Hawks.
Athletic Supporters. "If you find a great athlete, the thinking is that you can turn him into a great basketball player," says Sixer coach John Lucas. The NBA has fallen in love with athletes, and with good reason: The superior speed, quickness, strength and jumping ability of today's players are hard to resist. None of those qualities, however, necessarily translates into shooting ability. "We have more athletes than pure shooters these days," says Chaney. The result is players who might make great decathletes but have suspect jump shots, among them shooting guards like Miami's Harold Miner and Seattle's Kendall Gill.
College Dropouts. Then there are the players who leave school early to enter the NBA. "Some of these kids haven't needed to become good shooters," says Thomas. "They've always been able to drive past the other guys or jump over them, and they've never been forced to develop their jumper."
Two of the best examples of this phenomenon are Magic Johnson, who left Michigan State after his sophomore year and didn't become a consistent outside shooter until he had been with the Los Angeles Lakers for several years, and Dallas Maverick point guard Jason Kidd, who left Cal last spring after his sophomore season and enters the league with a shaky jump shot. By the time a player reaches the NBA, it's hard to turn him into a significantly better shooter. Most often he has to work on his shot by himself, and in many cases he merely practices bad habits. NBA teams have strength and conditioning coaches and video coordinators but not shooting coaches. Warrior forward Billy Owens struggled with his jumper as a rookie, so he spent the following summer working on it—with his father. It may be time for NBA teams to have shooting instructors, just as baseball teams have batting coaches.
In the meantime we can only hope that kids will go back to shooting jump shots on the playground and that from them will come another wave of NBA sharpshooters. That's a long-range goal, but making long-range goals is what jump shots are all about.
Team Points per Game
NBA Field Goal Percentage