US basketball

A look into Stephen Curry’s three-point shooting legacy by the numbers

Mariane Avendaño
A look into Stephen Curry’s three-point shooting legacy by the numbers
Here’s what the data says about Stephen Curry’s three-point shots during his career and how they influenced the NBA and other basketball leagues

MANILA, Philippines – Stephen Curry is a household name for anyone who enjoys basketball. The 6-foot-2 point guard from the Golden State Warriors was drafted as the seventh pick of the first round of the 2009 NBA Draft. Initially, Curry had been critiqued for being undersized, for his lack of explosiveness and athleticism, and for his poor defense and finishing near the basket.

Now, he is a four-time NBA champion, an eight-time NBA All-Star, a two-time Most Valuable Player, and the 2022 Finals MVP. After just 11 seasons, Curry has established himself as one of the best shooters and the best three-point shooter the NBA has ever seen.

Stephen Curry and the three-point shot

Stephen Curry holds the record for most three-pointers made in NBA history at 3,117 as of the end of the 2021-2022 season. Curry is also the first NBA player to make over 3,000 career three-point shots, and since he’s expected to play at least four more seasons before he retires, this number will still increase in the coming years.

Curry holds the NBA record for the most three-pointers made in a regular season at 402. This number is greater than the number of made three-pointers of any NBA team in the first 15 seasons after the three-point shot was introduced.

He also holds the records for most three-pointers made in a playoff run (98), most three-pointers made in the NBA finals (9), most consecutive regular-season games with a made three-pointer (157), and most consecutive playoff games with a made three-pointer (90).

Curry’s three-point shooting accuracy has been relatively consistent throughout the years, averaging at 42.8% his entire career, except during his 2019-2020 injury season when he broke his left hand during the Warriors’ fifth regular season game against the Phoenix Suns. Curry did not play another game that season.

However, he has been attempting more and more threes which result in high yield. Curry shot more two-pointers than three-pointers until the 2014-2015 season, the same season of the current Warriors dynasty’s first championship. As shown in the graph below, in the 2014-2015 season, 51.83% of Curry’s shot attempts were two-pointers while 48.17% were three-pointers. In the 2015-2016 season, 44.56% of his shot attempts were two-pointers while 55.44% were three-pointers.

The following shot charts further visualize the changes in Curry’s shot selection throughout his career. In his first season (2009-2010), Curry attempted 1,143 shots in total: 380 (33% of all attempts) from the three-point range and 763 (67% of all attempts) from the two-point range. During the Warriors’ 2015 playoff run, he shot more three-pointers (232 out of 439 attempts) than two-pointers (207 out of 439 attempts). Curry shot more three-pointers than two-pointers for the first time in a regular season during the 2015-2016 season, the same year he set the record for most three-pointers made in a single season.

Early days of the three-point shot with Reggie Miller and Ray Allen

There are two other influential three-point shooters from two different NBA generations apart from Stephen Curry: Reggie Miller, who played from 1987 to 2005, and Ray Allen, who played from 1996 to 2014. They currently rank fourth and second, respectively, among the NBA’s top three-point shooters of all time. James Harden, an active player for the Philadelphia 76ers, is ranked third.

Ray Allen generally attempted more two-pointers than three-pointers, except for the last two years of his career. During Ray Allen’s first season (1996-1997), 78.82% of shots attempted were two-pointers while 21.18% of shots attempted were three-pointers. During the 2008-2009 season (the season when Curry was still not in the NBA), 77.60% of shots attempted were two-pointers while 22.40% were three-pointers.

The last two years of Allen’s career overlap with Stephen Curry’s career, but this was when Curry was still attempting more two-pointers than three-pointers. In the 2012-2013 season, Allen made 139 of his 332 (41.87%) three-point attempts while Curry made 272 of his 600 (45.33%) three-point attempts. In the 2013-2014 season,  Allen made 116 of his 309 (37.54%) three-point attempts while Curry made 261 of his 615 (42.44%) three-point attempts. 

Curry overtook Allen as the top three-point shooter in NBA history during the December 14, 2021 win of the Golden State Warriors over the New York Knicks.

Reggie Miller, who played at an earlier time, generally attempted more two-pointers than three-pointers except for one season at the end of his career. During Miller’s first season (1987-1988), 94.31% of shots attempted were two-pointers while 5.69% of shots attempted were three-pointers. During Miller’s last season (2004-2005), 80.39% of shots attempted were two-pointers while 19.61% of shots attempted were three-pointers.

Curry’s influence on the NBA

However, Allen and Miller are not as close to being as influential as Curry. Their prolific three-point shooting did not cause the same increase in three-point shot attempts in other teams seen during Curry’s NBA career. Performing the Pearson’s correlation test shows that there are weak positive correlations between Allen’s and Miller’s shot percentage that are three-pointers and that of the NBA during their time. The same statistical test suggests that Curry’s and the NBA’s shot percentage are highly correlated: Stephen Curry’s shot selection greatly affects that of the entire NBA. 

From the 2009-2010 season to the 2021-2022 season, both Curry and the entire NBA league had increased their number of three-point shot attempts. However, in the seasons where Curry was injured (2011-2012 when he played only 26 games, and 2019-2020 when he played only 5 games), the number of three-point attempts in those seasons dropped.

Sports analyst David Berri established that making one in three of your shots from the three-point range is as good as making one in two of your shots from the two-point range. Because of this and the success of the Warriors and their strong three-point shooting, NBA players have moved towards shooting more threes. 

Ten years ago, during the 2012-2013 season, the league only averaged 21.51 three-point attempts and 7.71 three-point shots made per 100 possessions (i.e. per 100 times a team holds the ball and plays offense). Of the 12 teams who shot above this average, 9 were playoff teams. Of the 18 teams who shot below this average, 7 were playoff teams. Even the Golden State Warriors shot below league average this season! 

In the 2021-2022 season, the entire NBA league averaged 35.6 three-point attempts and 12.59 three-point shots made per 100 possessions. Of the 14 teams who shot above this average, 7 were playoff teams. Of the 16 teams who shot below this average, 8 were playoff teams.

From the shot charts shown above, there is an obvious shift from mid-range shots (i.e. two-point shots taken outside the painted area but inside the three-point line) to three-point shots. The Memphis Grizzlies shot the lowest percentage of three-point shots out of their total attempts in the 2012-2013 season at 17%. In the 2021-2022 season, this percentage doubled to 35%. On the other hand, the Houston Rockets shot the highest percentage of three-point shots during the 2012-2013 season at 35%. This also increased during the 2021-2022 season to 45%.

This is not surprising. The influence of Stephen Curry is not just seen in the Warriors’ performance, but in the performance of other teams as well. Here are a few more examples: in the 2019 playoffs, the Houston Rockets attempted 470 of their 922 shots (51%) from the three-point range and only 452 of 922 (49%) from the two-point range. They were the first team in NBA history to attempt more threes than twos in a playoff series.

James Harden, another prolific three-point shooter, set the record for the most three-point attempts in a single season with 1,028 in the 2018-2019 season. Although he only shot with 36.77% accuracy this season, he still attempted significantly more three-pointers (1,028 out of 1,909) than two-pointers (881 out of 1,909).

Curry’s influence on international basketball leagues

The gap between the percentage of shots taken that are two-pointers and shots taken that are three-pointers is decreasing. This is a trend that is not only observed in the NBA, but also in various international basketball leagues. International basketball leagues are experiencing an upward trend in the percentage of shots made that are three-pointers.

There is a high correlation between the percentage of three-point shots taken by Curry and the percentage of three-point shots taken by all players in the EuroCup, EuroLeague, Liga ACB, NBL Australia, and CBA China leagues. This means that as Curry attempts more three-point shots, players from other countries tend to do so as well.

However, there is no evidence that three-point shooting accuracy is actually improving across various leagues. As seen in the graph below, most basketball leagues have a mean three-point shooting accuracy between 32% and 38%, with no significant improvement throughout the years. This suggests that the increase in the number of three-pointers made is due to an increase in the number of shots attempted, not because of an improvement in shooting accuracy. Furthermore, for all the leagues investigated, players tend to make one in every three attempts for three-point shots.

The popularity of the three-point shot is changing basketball. It allows teams to score more points and makes the game more exciting. In close or do-or-die games, the three-point shot can be crucial in securing victories and closing out deficits. Stephen Curry’s range and ability to shoot from great distances have earned him many accolades and championships, and have influenced the shot selection of the NBA and other basketball leagues. It would be very interesting to see what the 2022-2023 season and the rest of his career hold! – Rappler.com

Mariane Avendaño is a Rappler volunteer.

Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.