CourtVision: How the Spurs and Heat Use the Most Important Shot in Basketball

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At first glance, the Spurs and Heat do not seem to have much in common, but one thing they share is a love affair with the corner 3. Across the league, about 6.7 percent of field goal attempts are corner 3s, but Miami shoots 11.3 percent of its shots from the corners, the NBA’s highest rate, and San Antonio is third at 9.5 percent.

The corner 3 has become the most lauded jump shot in the NBA for two reasons: it’s the closest 3-point shot on the floor — about 1 foot shorter than “above the break” 3s — and stashing great shooters in the corners creates annoying headaches for defenses. When a sharpshooter is loitering in the corner — especially on the weak side — he is necessarily about as far away from the action as he can be while still posing a huge scoring threat. As a result, a good corner man “stretches” the defense in ways that other players can’t. Both NBA finalists are really good at exploiting this tactic, and both feature a duo of corner-3 specialists.

Miami: Shane Battier and Ray Allen

This seems almost unfair. Both Shane Battier and Ray Allen are among the headiest players in the league, and both are elite spot-up shooters — as long as they’re not playing Indiana. Allen is arguably the best shooter of all time, but Battier actually had a better year. In fact, no player in the NBA had as many points from the corners as Battier this season.

Shane Battier Corner 3 - Kirk Goldsberry

The so-called “no-stats all-star” made 46 percent of his 191 corner 3s, outmatching Allen in terms of both attempts and efficiency. However, Battier has struggled to make these exact shots during the playoffs; he’s made 11 of 38 corner 3 attempts since the close of the regular season, and was particularly abysmal in the conference finals, when the great Pacers defense was able to shut him down. After playing 31 minutes in Game 1, Battier played 30 minutes combined in the final three games. I’m sure he’s looking forward to not playing against the Pacers (or the Bulls for that matter).

How does Battier get all those corner 3s? Well, 100 percent of them are assisted, and many of those come from an unsurprising source. Such are the trickle-down benefits of playing with LeBron James. When James is at his best, he attacks the defense, compromises its shape, creates openings for his teammates, and then finds them for wide-open shots. He might be the best passer in the game, and the Heat’s corner 3s offer huge evidence of that. Here we see four classic examples of James finding Battier open in the corner. As the MVP creates havoc and terrifies the defense, Battier slides around the perimeter and often ends up with a wide-open look.

People around the Heat organization are quick to tell you that the acquisition of Battier a couple years ago changed the team’s culture. They say that his presence has elevated the professional climate in Miami. If that’s the case, Allen must have further entrenched those traits. Few players work as hard as Allen, who is almost compulsive in his attention to detail and preparation.

In his first season in Miami, Allen helped the Heat suddenly become one of the NBA’s elite jump-shooting teams. Simply stated, Allen is great everywhere beyond the arc, but is frightening from the corners. Historically, he might be the greatest left-corner shooter ever, and this season he again demonstrated why; he made 49 percent of his 86 attempts there this season.

Ray Allen Corner 3 - Kirk Goldsberry

San Antonio: Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard

Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard are two young athletic guys who share a common trait: Just two years ago nobody in their right mind thought either player could shoot. Now, through some combination of hard work, playing for the Spurs, and the tutelage of the soon-to-be-legendary Chip Engelland, they’re both top-tier spot-up shooters.

In the fall of 2010, the Cleveland Cavaliers washed their hands of Green, and it looked like he was going to become just another casualty of a cruel league with limited roster spots. But then the Spurs came calling, and less than three years later he’s a starting shooting guard in the NBA Finals. While it’s tempting to suggest that Green is just the latest discovery by the Spurs, that sells everyone in the whole process a bit short. R.C. Buford and the San Antonio front office don’t simply find diamonds in the rough; they identify potential diamonds, develop them better than anyone in the league, give them confidence, and then integrate them into their well-calibrated system. Such is the case with Green, who is now one of the best 3-point scorers in the NBA, trailing only Battier in overall corner production this season.

Danny Green Corner 3 - Kirk Goldsberry

Green started 80 games for the Spurs this year, and his reliability enabled Manu Ginobili to slide back into his comfort zone as a well-rationed sixth man. Like Battier, Green’s best scoring opportunities are created by his teammates. In his case he often loiters around the perimeter while Tony Parker bounces off countless picks, deconstructs the defense, and identifies the best option. Often, that best option is Green, open in the corner. Here we see four Green corner 3s that are each the result of Parker and the Spurs making fools out of opposing defenses.

Along with Green, the Spurs use Kawhi Leonard a ton in the corners. Similar to Green, Leonard’s evolution as a sharpshooter has been nothing short of amazing. Two short years ago, the word on Leonard was that he was a great athlete but couldn’t shoot. He was sort of a poor man’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Take a look at this excerpt from his Draft Express profile:

Leonard is not only an average ball-handler, but he also struggles to make shots consistently from beyond the arc. His 0.743 points per shots on jumpers ranks 16th of 17 in the [draft] class, where he shot an abysmal 31% from the field. His struggles extend both to his catch and shoot jumpers (32%) and pull-ups (28%).

That was written about two years back. Here he is now, one of the most important shooters on the Spurs, making 43 percent of his corner 3s, far from abysmal. Like Green, Leonard is a testament to San Antonio’s penchant for talent identification and development.

Kawhi Leonard Corner 3 Shot Chart - Kirk Goldsberry

The Spurs have taken Green and Leonard and developed them into great shooters. The Heat have taken more of the Steinbrenner approach by acquiring established spot-up talent via free agency. Both teams complement their elite interior offenses with terrifying perimeter threats disguised as “role players.” In Miami you have James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh, who are constant attacking threats. In San Antonio you have Parker and Ginobili running off countless Tim Duncan/Boris Diaw/Tiago Splitter screens, perpetually surveying the scene for any sign of weakness. In both cases, the opposition is often forced to pick a poison, and many times that poison is an open corner 3.

In 2013, corner 3s are an indicator species of very healthy offensive ecosystems, and both of our finalists feature pristine scoring habitats. They have state-of-the-art NBA offenses that may be vastly different in many ways, but share an affinity for the corner 3. The outcome of these Finals will likely depend on Parker and James, but remember that part of their performance includes passing the basketball to the corners.

Filed Under: Courtvision, Kirk Goldsberry, Miami Heat, NBA, NBA Finals, NBA Playoffs, Ray Allen, San Antonio Spurs

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Kirk Goldsberry is a professor and Grantland staff writer.

Archive @ kirkgoldsberry