The Beginning and the End of History

All Work and No Play for J.J. Watt

Kyle Korver: An Offense Unto Himself

How the Hawks sharpshooter became one of the most uniquely valuable players in the NBA

As the second round of the 2003 draft puttered along, the Nets watched as teams ahead of them plucked every player in which New Jersey had interest. The team, fresh off an Atlantic Division win and an appearance in the NBA Finals, was so low on cash, it considered selling the pick to finance its summer league team.

With none of their preferred choices on the board, the Nets brass selected Creighton forward Kyle Korver with the 51st pick — and immediately sold his draft rights to the Sixers for $125,000. That covered summer league. With the leftover cash, the Nets bought a new copy machine.

New Jersey thus became the first in a long line of teams that have underestimated Korver and live with regret as he continues to improve well into his thirties. Korver’s development into a borderline star has surprised everyone, even the 33-year-old swingman, and the journey will reach its latest peak this week when he competes for one of 12 precious roster spots on the U.S. team heading to the FIBA World Cup.

“We gave away a good player for summer league,” says Rod Thorn, the Nets GM at the time. “It was just one of those things we had to do. At least, that’s how I rationalized it.”

Korver is an antique perfectly suited to thrive at the forefront of the league’s evolution. He is among a dying breed who sprint around screens away from the ball, Reggie Miller–style, hoist quick catch-and-shoot jumpers, and sink enough of them to make the advanced math work. “Nobody plays that way anymore,” says Steve Clifford, the Hornets’ coach. “Game-planning for him is such a handful.”

But Korver’s shooting and ability to read the floor make him an ideal fit within a league that jacks more 3s and requires more movement on both ends — changes the league helped generate through rule changes. “The game over the last four or five years has become so much more suited to the way he plays today,” says Jerry Sloan, who coached Korver in Utah.

He’s developed into a smart passer with some off-the-bounce juice, and he moves around so much on offense, often outside the game plan, that he sometimes annoys the Atlanta coaching staff. He’s a plus off-ball defender, his head always on a swivel, watching every player on the floor without losing track of his guy. In Atlanta, Korver has found the perfect coach and system to leverage his unmatched shooting in new and adventurous ways.

“He was a huge priority for us,” says Danny Ferry, who drew some criticism for re-signing Korver last summer to a four-year, $24 million deal. “No matter what direction our summer was going, he was a part of what we were building here.”

Multiple current GMs say passing on Korver in the draft ranks as one of the worst mistakes of their respective careers. Maurice Cheeks, Korver’s last coach in Philadelphia, still remembers driving into the Sacramento arena parking lot in late 2007 when Ed Stefanski, then Philly’s GM, called to tell him the Sixers were dealing the Californian (by way of Iowa). Cheeks could summon only one word, he says: “Why? Why? Why?”

The Sixers needed to open both cap space and minutes for Thaddeus Young, Stefanski recalls. Still, dealing Korver wasn’t easy. He was already among the league’s best shooters and a beloved figure in the Philadelphia community, where Korver had started a foundation to benefit inner-city kids. “Our community relations manager was literally in tears when I told her,” Stefanski says. “And all the young girls in Philly wanted to kill me. Parents were coming up to me and saying I had traded their daughter’s favorite player.”

The Jazz finished 38-12 after landing Korver in exchange for Gordan Giricek and a first-round pick, but they let him walk to Chicago in free agency after drafting Gordon Hayward in 2010. “We loved him,” Sloan says, “but when we drafted Hayward, that cut down on his value here.”

Korver became a key second-unit cog in Chicago, but the Bulls traded him to Atlanta for nothing but a trade exception in July 2012. Cheeks ran into Tom Thibodeau in Las Vegas during summer league, and the two quickly found themselves chatting about Korver’s value — and of the lingering regret in having lost him, Cheeks says.

Korver averaged a career high in minutes per game last season and nailed a ridiculous 47.2 percent of his 3s. He received some All-Star consideration, though not as much as he should have, since he doesn’t dominate the ball. He makes great money — just about $45 million in his career to date — though he still gives a lot of it away to his father’s church and other charities, and he made the final 19-man list for Team USA tryouts this week. Korver is a big name now, and he can’t believe it.

“He was never one of those guys,” says Marcus Elliott, founder and director of the P3 Peak Performance Project in Santa Barbara, and the man Korver credits with helping save his career. “He was telling me recently, ‘But now I am one of those guys. I’m getting calls to do this and that. Team USA called me.’ It surprised the hell out of him.”

Budenholzer and Korver love basketball’s ballet of constant motion, and Budenholzer envisions a roster of 3-point bombers raining fire. He wants his players to suggest adjustments, and that meshes well with Korver’s nature as a restless tinkerer. “Every coach says they have an open-door policy,” Korver says. “Bud actually means it.”

It’s a telling contrast with Korver’s first season in Philly, when Randy Ayers, the team’s head coach, pushed Korver away from the 3-point arc. Ayers wanted his rookie to develop a midrange game and attack the basket before launching triples.

That changed when Philly fired Ayers and hired Jim O’Brien, late of the Celtics, before Korver’s second season in 2004-05. In the team’s very first practice, Allen Iverson ran a two-on-one fast break with Korver filling the wing. Iverson dished to Korver behind the 3-point arc. Korver took two dribbles, nailed a 17-footer, and waited for the applause.

O’Brien was livid. He screamed for Korver to look down at the 3-point line. O’Brien told him that if Korver ever passed up another open 3-pointer, he would remove him from the game. Korver remembers one thought flying through his head during O’Brien’s tirade: This is awesome.

Korver led the league in made 3s that season, establishing himself as perhaps the league’s deadliest shooter. But he would not be pigeonholed as a spot-up guy chilling in the corner. He liked moving too much for that. Korver grew up in Lakewood, a small town within Greater Los Angeles, and he fell in love with the Showtime Lakers of the 1980s. “Everyone on that team was running, cutting, and passing,” Korver says. “To me, that’s still perfect basketball.”

He mastered the Miller and Ray Allen footwork of sprinting around picks, catching the ball at full speed, planting his feet, and rising for jumpers. He transformed Chicago’s offense that way. But he wanted to push himself further, and he found the perfect coaching staff for that in Atlanta.

The Hawks under Budenholzer are not going to pound the ball with isolations and stagnant pick-and-rolls in the middle of the floor. Budenholzer wants to build a sort of Spurs East, with the ball whipping from side to side in an unguardable blur of passes, handoffs, and picks.

Budenholzer also understands that the very best shooters don’t necessarily maximize their value by standing around. Great shooters have a gravitational pull, and they can shift the range of that force around the floor as they move. A defense can go haywire if that force collides with another object — a teammate screening for Korver, or a defensive player suddenly realizing that Korver has drilled him in the back with a nasty pick.

No coach has unleashed the full breadth of Korver’s game like Budenholzer. Korver isn’t a traditional pick-and-roll player; he can’t dribble the ball 25 feet to the rim, juking dudes along the way. But Budenholzer has tailored a sort of hybrid species of pick-and-roll to his secret star — a high-speed curling action in which Korver takes a pitch or a handoff, probes the defense with a dribble or two, and makes the next pass from there:

Korver has added a floater to his game just for this type of action:

It doesn’t look like a pick-and-roll, but it functions like one. It’s even deadlier when the screeners are capable 3-point shooters, like Paul Millsap and Pero Antic. There are no right choices for the defense, only painful ones that are less bad than others.

Korver can punish any choice with his new-ish dribbling and passing skills. “He has evolved so much,” says Millsap, who also played with Korver in Utah. “He used to be a stand-in-the-corner guy. Now he’s putting the ball on the ground, hitting pull-ups. He’s such an underrated passer. His whole game is at another level.”

Learning new stuff this deep into an NBA career takes diligence. Korver devours film, and he and Quin Snyder, an Atlanta assistant last season, practiced for hours at getting Korver to slow down just a tick as he came rocketing off those picks — a small deceleration that allows Korver to map his passing options. Korver didn’t need to do that when he was just catching and shooting.

“Kyle’s unique in the sense that players his age who have had success aren’t usually open to trying new things,” says Snyder, now Utah’s head coach. “It makes them uncomfortable.”

Sloan agrees. “Most guys just stay the same after they’ve been in the league 10 years.”

Korver isn’t satisfied with his progress on these plays, but he knows he’ll be better at them than he ever would running pick-and-rolls in the style of a ball-dominant NBA point guard. “I’m not going to kill myself to get mediocre at that,” he says. “I want to find things I can be really good at in the system we run. Bud’s concept of what the pick-and-roll can be is a bit different — like, with me getting the ball on the run. And it can be really good for me.”

The Hawks rewarded Korver by designing funky new sets for him, including this doozy, in which he sets a down screen for an Atlanta big before U-turning into a handoff from a little guy posting up:

Atlanta fooled damn near the entire league with this play, and once it got into scouting reports, the Hawks drew up counters — some for Korver, and some in which he was a decoy:

No one is quite sure of the play’s origin, though Budenholzer and Korver think they worked it out over dinner and wine. “We have to figure out what bottle we were drinking,” Budenholzer jokes.

Korver loves sets like this because they let him move around. He sometimes surprises Budenholzer by breaking plays with cuts and picks he improvises. He just can’t stay still, even when a certain set calls for him to do so. “Bud is always getting mad at me when I move around,” Korver says. “I think he was just throwing me a bone with that play.”

“Sometimes it works out” when Korver moves in unexpected ways, Budenholzer says, “and sometimes, it’s like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ You end up with three guys standing right next to each other.”

Korver indeed loves to move. He traveled at least six feet in the second preceding the release of 61 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s, the fifth-largest share of “moving” shots among the top 30 players in overall 3-point attempts, per data from SportVU tracking cameras provided exclusively to Grantland. He nailed 44.6 percent of those “moving” 3s, also fifth-best among those 30 guys.

Here’s the killer number: Korver shot 58 percent on “stationary 3s,” classified as any 3-point try on which he moved less than six feet in the final second before launch. That blew away the rest of those 30 players; Kyle Lowry ranked second, at 53 percent. A “stationary” Korver triple was worth about 1.75 points, making it only slightly less valuable than a layup.

That is insane. That is why defenses react to any Korver movement with sheer terror, and Budenholzer uses that terror against opponents in crunch time. Shelvin Mack nailed an easy floater on this out-of-bounds play in overtime against Cleveland after all five defenders, including Mack’s, tuned in to the Korver show:

KORVER

The fear is real. The gurus at Stats LLC, the company behind the SportVU cameras, have developed two previously unreleased metrics designed to measure the amount of attention an offensive player gets from defenders when he doesn’t have the ball.

The first, dubbed “gravity score,” measures how often defenders are really guarding a particular player away from the ball. Korver had the fourth-highest score, behind only Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, and Paul George. The second — “distraction score” — is a related attempt to measure how often a player’s defender strays away from him to patrol the on-ball action. Korver had the lowest such score in the league.1

“I underestimated how much attention he gets from defenses,” Budenholzer says. Korver is almost an offense unto himself. “You don’t appreciate it until you see it every day.”

Korver wouldn’t have anticipated it five years ago, either.

Korver arrived at P3 in Santa Barbara a half-decade ago with a ravaged left knee, some elbow pain, and a game that was slipping away.2 Elliott put Korver through three hours of tests in which Korver jumped on force plates, moved side to side, and executed other basketball-specific moves. Elliott measured the force that Korver put into cuts and jumps with his lower body, and the numbers were disturbing.

Korver had almost no oomph, and what oomph he had was isolated in his right leg. Korver had undergone surgery to remove a bone spur from behind his left kneecap, and though the injury had healed, he still wasn’t able to generate any momentum planting off his left foot.

“He was asymmetric,” Elliott says. “By NBA standards, he had a handicap.”

If he kept overstressing his right leg, Korver might have suffered an injury there or in a related location.

“I wasn’t sure where my career was going to go,” Korver says.

Elliott gradually retrained Korver’s body with exercises designed to strengthen his leg and improve his leaping and lunging mechanics. Korver would never jump high or run fast, but if he could start moving before his opponent and reach peak speed faster, he might eke out the tiny opening he needs to shoot.

“It’d be nice if he could jump 40 inches, but he can’t,” Elliott says.3 “But it’s not about how big he goes. It’s how quickly he can get there. If two guys both jump 36 inches, but one guy gets there faster, that guy has an advantage.”

Korver now ranks among the top 20 percent of Elliott’s basketball clients in terms of how fast he can generate force — both upward and side-to-side.

Elliott has never had a more committed NBA client, he says. Korver moved his family to Santa Barbara so he could live near P3, and Elliott has to bully Korver into taking at least some time off after the NBA season. Staying healthy takes more work as a player ages. A glaring flaw in body mechanics will manifest itself in an injury for most aging NBA players, Elliott says. “The 82-game NBA season is close to the threshold of what the human body can handle,” he says.

And Korver? He hasn’t missed significant time in four seasons, and the data shows he is a symmetrical player now — able to attack with equal strength on either side of the floor.

Physical and mental stamina in the gym aren’t enough. Korver’s off-court life — he’s married with one child and rarely parties — never interferes with his work. “He has great life skills,” Elliott says. “With some guys, you don’t know if they are going to show up on time. Maybe they’ll take a last-minute trip to the Bahamas with a girl they met last night. Kyle has none of that nonsense around him.”

Korver is also willing to test himself in unconventional ways. Elliott introduced him to misogi, the Japanese annual purification ritual some athletes have adapted into a once-a-year endurance challenge. Korver and Elliott stand-up paddled 25 miles from the Channel Islands to Santa Barbara last year. Korver may have one-upped himself with the misogi he did this summer.

Big-wave surfers build lung capacity by holding a large rock, sinking to the bottom of the ocean, and running short distances on the ocean floor. Korver and four friends decided to go back to the Channel Islands, find an 85-pound rock, and run a collective 5K holding the thing underwater.4 Each participant would dive down, find the rock, run with it as long as he could, and drop it for the next guy to find. Those waiting their turn wore weight belts and tread in water between five and 10 feet deep.

It took five hours. “We were honestly worried about blacking out,” Korver says. They were also worried about sharks.5

“He wants to turn over every stone, and try every possible thing that might make him better — as a player and a person,” Elliott says.

Korver is hoping to make Team USA, but if he doesn’t, he’ll be happy to spend time with his family and resume what he views as a worthy long-term project in Atlanta. The Hawks struck out in free agency despite mammoth cap room and an intriguing nucleus, and Korver says players around the league don’t view Atlanta as a desirable place to play.

“There’s a bad perception around the franchise now,” Korver says. “But we’re gonna change that.”

Korver will try to keep still when Budenholzer wants and grow more comfortable with Atlanta’s defensive principles. Korver is a solid defender despite a reputation as a liability. His teams have generally defended at about the same level regardless of whether he’s on the floor, and the league’s emphasis on ball movement and shooting plays to his strengths on defense too.

Wing players in today’s NBA have to shift all over the floor as the opposing offense moves the ball, and Korver is always tugging in the right direction. He’s hyper-alert, glancing back and forth, computing what the eight players away from him are doing second by second without losing his guy.

He knows when to help from the weak side, when to stick with a corner shooter on the strong side, when to fake help, and when a crisis is afoot. His movement around the floor here is typical:

“He’s a really good team defender,” Budenholzer says.

He sees breakdowns as they happen, and slides an extra couple of steps into the paint:

“Wing players have to move more in today’s game,” says Clifford, the Hornets coach. “And if you watch the film, he’s always aware.”

Korver’s biggest weakness is probably that he helps too much, straying into the paint to snuff out a threat that isn’t so serious. “It’s similar to how he can’t stand still on offense,” Budenholzer says. “He just wants to be involved and help his teammates, and sometimes he over-helps.”

He’ll never be the kind of long-armed, explosive athlete who can work as a shutdown wing defender; there’s a reason Jarrett Jack is able to sink that triple over him in the above clip. But he’s worked hard to clean up his individual defense, with quick and precise footwork that can contain superior one-on-one players.

O’Brien, his former coach in Philadelphia, says Korver struggled as a defender early in his career, but O’Brien admires his improvement from afar. “If he needs to be somewhere on defense, he’ll be there, and he’ll be there 100 percent of the time.”

The Hawks still send Korver help against post-up threats, but they did so less often at the end of the season than at the start. Korver proved up to the challenge, and even when the matchup presented a real problem for him, he would get angry when the Hawks sent double-teams, Budenholzer says.

Korver is excited for what lies ahead in Atlanta. He’s glad he got in early during Budenholzer’s tenure. “Give us another year or two here,” he says. “It’s gonna be really good.” 

Filed Under: NBA, Kyle Korver, Philadelphia 76ers, Utah Jazz, Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ ZachLowe_NBA