There are shooting guards, and there are guards who can shoot.
The difference is important. Shooting guard is a position, obviously, but every coach’s goal is to have two guards who can shoot the ball effectively, especially from beyond the arc. That was the hallmark of the Mavs’ 2011 title team, for example: Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, and DeShawn Stevenson were all dead-eye shooters that season, which made all the underneath stuff Dirk Nowitzki did at the elbow that much easier.
With all the scouting and analytics in today’s league, defenses are as well-prepared as they’ve ever been. But if you flood the floor with enough shooters, offenses are nearly impossible to stop. That’s what propelled the Warriors’ run to the title this season.
Last season, the Mavs tied for 11th in the NBA in three-point shooting as a club, connecting on 35.2 percent of their long-range attempts. The league average was 35.0. The most dangerous shooting threats, however, came either in the form of frontcourt players or reserves. Richard Jefferson, Dirk Nowitzki, Chandler Parsons, Charlie Villanueva, and Devin Harris were the team’s top five three-point shooters last season.
Dallas ranked 29th in the NBA both in starting guards’ combined 3s per game and 3-point shooting percentage, according to Basketball-Reference. Heading into this summer, then, the Mavs needed to add some guards who can shoot into the mix in the starting lineup. Dallas did just that, signing Wes Matthews and Deron Williams.
All of a sudden, now, the Mavs can really shoot the ball.
Matthews shot 38.9 percent from deep last season with the Portland Trail Blazers and is a career 39.3 percent shooter from beyond the arc. Only Stephen Curry and Kyle Korver have hit more threes since Matthews entered the league in 2009.
Williams, meanwhile, hit 3s at a 36.7 percent rate last season and has hit them during his career at a 35.8 percent clip, a very respectable number for a point guard who typically plays on the ball. However, as his career has gone on he’s played less on the ball and has spent more time as a spot-up shooter. He excelled in that role with the Brooklyn Nets last season, connecting on 42.2 percent of his catch-and-shoot three-point attempts.
So how do Matthews and Williams compare in terms of made 3s and shooting percentage not only to last year’s Mavs backcourt duo of Rajon Rondo and Monta Ellis, but also to the rest of the league? First, let’s look at three-pointers made. Below is a chart comparing the most prolific shooting starting backcourts in the NBA last season, taking those players into account who either finished the season starting at either point guard or shooting guard, or who normally would have been the starter but had his season cut short by injury. (For example, Kobe Bryant qualifies for the latter.)
|1||GSW||Stephen Curry & Klay Thompson||6.68|
|2||POR||Damian Lillard & Wes Matthews||5.27|
|3||CLE||Kyrie Irving & JR Smith||4.94|
|4||HOU||James Harden & Patrick Beverly||4.62|
|5||LAC||Chris Paul & JJ Redick||4.26|
|6*||DAL||Deron Williams & Wes Matthews||4.16|
|7||ATL||Jeff Teague & Kyle Korver||3.92|
|8||IND||Geroge Hill & CJ Miles||3.80|
|9||NOP||Jrue Holiday & Eric Gordon||3.59|
|10||NYK||Langston Galloway & Tim Hardaway Jr.||3.11|
|29||DAL||Rajon Rondo & Monta Ellis||1.43|
The new Mavs duo would have ranked sixth in the NBA last season in that category. And for those who are skeptical about the value of the three-point shot, look at it this way. An extra 2.73 three-pointers per game — the difference between last year’s and this year’s backcourts — is worth 8.19 extra points per game. Now, the addition of points is obviously not that simple, as Rondo and Ellis were able to score and create points for others in ways that Williams and Matthews certainly might not be able to replicate. But, considering that seven of the nine teams in the top-10 (other than the new Mavs) made the playoffs last season, this is a list you want to be on.
In terms of combined three-point percentage, the Mavs stack up almost just as well.
|1||ATL||Jeff Teague & Kyle Korver||44.5%|
|2||GSW||Stephen Curry & Klay Thompson||44.1%|
|3||NOP||Jrue Holiday & Eric Gordon||42.7%|
|4||LAC||Chris Paul & JJ Redick||42.0%|
|5||SAS||Tony Parker & Danny Green||41.9%|
|6||CLE||Kyrie Irving & JR Smith||40.3%|
|7||MEM||Mike Conley & Courtney Lee||39.3%|
|8||MIL||Michael Carter-Williams & Khris Middleton||38.2%|
|9*||DAL||Deron Williams & Wes Matthews||38.1%|
|10||MIN||Zach LaVine & Kevin Martin||36.9%|
|29||DAL||Rajon Rondo & Monta Ellis||29.6%|
This list is even more predictive of team success than the last one, with eight of nine non-Mavs teams in the top-10 qualifying for last season’s playoffs. The results of this exercise are pretty clear: It takes efficient shooting to win. And the Mavs have shooting.
Where things turn more favorable for Dallas, of course, is that its frontcourt is among the league’s best — if not its best — in three-point shooting. Between Parsons, Villanueva, Jefferson, and of course Nowitzki, Dallas fielded one of the best stable of shooting forwards in the league last season.
What’s more, the new Williams/Matthews backcourt is now right in line with the league’s average in terms of combined height. Williams, 6′ 3″, and Matthews, 6′ 5″, both have nice size for their positions, and their combined 152 inches in height matches last season’s league average combined starting backcourt height of 152.06 inches. The Rondo/Ellis backcourt, as good as that unit was at penetrating and finding shooters, was the second-shortest backcourt in all of basketball last season in terms of combined height at just 148 inches. Only Denver’s backcourt of Ty Lawson and Randy Foye was shorter at 147 inches tall, and that’s because Lawson stands at 5′ 10″.
Now, however, opponents won’t have a size advantage at any position against the Mavericks. The projected starting five at this point — Williams, Matthews, Parsons, Nowitzki, and Pachulia — have an average height of 6’8″ and are a combined 400 inches tall. Only six starting lineups league-wide last season were taller. Height matters in every aspect of the game, from rebounding to getting off a good shot.
But back to shooting. It’s sort of silly to project such things, but if you replace the three-point attempts from Rondo and Ellis with the makes and misses of Williams and Matthews last season, the Mavs’ three-point percentage as a team rises from 35.2 percent to 36.8 percent, which would have ranked fifth in the league. In addition, the club’s 892 3PFG in this scenario — taking into consideration the conversions by the new guards — would have totaled 160 more than Dallas actually made, and that total would have ranked second in the league. Those 160 extra points alone add up to nearly two additional points per game. The math might be mind-bending, for sure, but there are some real benefits to shooting 3s well.
Remember: A player’s “gravity,” for lack of a better word, affects the way a defensive unit of five players defends. When you have three or four above-average shooters on the floor, a defense is stretched to uncomfortable lengths.
There’s no better proof to the idea that you can’t win without shooting than to look at graphs like the one above. Of course, last year’s Mavs won 50 games despite their guards not hitting many threes, as Ellis in particular was tremendous at getting into the lane and creating for himself and others. The hope is that Parsons and Williams will now be able to augment their team’s long-range shooting skills with superior driving ability, as well. Doing so would force opposing defenses into all sorts of uncomfortable situations almost every time down the floor, and would lead to plenty of offensive success for Dallas.