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Ray Allen Fades Away

Ray Allen has opted against coming back this season. While he remains the greatest shooter of his era, today's NBA increasingly belongs to a different type of marksman.
Photo by Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

But for the few moments of aerial bliss provided by Zach LaVine, the clear highlight of February's All-Star Weekend was the three-point shootout. It was both a fun competition—including as it did five of the league's leaders in threes made, two MVP candidates, eight likely playoff participants, and a volcanic final turn from Stephen Curry—and a kind of celebration of basketball's strategic shift outward. In the way that the 1988 dunk contest of Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins, Spud Webb, and Clyde Drexler has come to encapsulate the high-flying dusk of the Twentieth Century, this year's shootout could represent the increasingly long-range Twenty-First.


While all this era-defining was going on in Brooklyn, Ray Allen was at home, deciding whether or not he wanted to emerge from semi-retirement to play for one of the half-dozen teams interested in him. The idea of signing Allen, even the 39-year-old version, brought comfort to contenders. On Wednesday, though, he decided against coming back this year, citing home-life contentment and a broader desire to reassess.

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Allen would have made for a fine addition for the stretch run, for any team. He's a certain Hall of Famer, after all: a cerebral and battle-tested specialist, and author of one of the greatest shots in playoff history. He would also have returned, though, to a game that has increasingly made core curriculum of his once-cutting edge skill set. Sought after as he was, Allen is nevertheless proof of basketball's generational tempo. Even the most singular career becomes the next crop's square one. That is where the Ray Allen and the NBA are now.

Watching Ray Allen shoot a jump shot was, over the course of his long career, one of the most reliably happy half-seconds in sports. It all started with his feet. He ran—at a pace that straddled designations; this was either the heaviest possible jog or lightest possible sprint—as if he could feel the grain of the floor through his sneakers, as if the difference in texture between plain varnish and paint alerted him to the location of the three-point line. Then he picked up his dribble or caught a pass, and stopped, and in the next frame was in the air.


Depending on his momentum and immediate environment, he leaned this way or that, but his joints kept in tune with themselves: toes down, legs extended, back straight. The signature flourish came from the right arm, which goosed out a little from its basketball camp-mandated slot, but there was no time to register this bit of flair before the shot was away and dropping neatly between front rim and back.

Repeat several thousand times as needed. Photo by Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

This magnificent shot was, itself, a response. Prior to Allen's claiming the title in the 2000s, the game's best shooter was Reggie Miller, all sharp elbows and flung-out legs. Miller would steam around screens and launch fadeaways that announced their difficulty, and which therefore seemed that much more impressive when they dropped. He stood for shooting as a thing apart, as pure gift; Miller's whole game was defiance. The Pacers trailed the Knicks by six in the closing moments of a Game 1 in 1995, and Miller, jersey bustling around his torso like a flag in a storm, deus-ex-machina'd them back with eight points in nine seconds, his bony jumper a welcome but hardly knowable salvation.

Allen, conversely, came to stand for shooting as craft. His shot had an innate component, sure, but it was also clearly honed, smoothed, as rational as it could be, and the game around it relied on a hard logic. The Allen most important to the historical progression of jump shooters may not be the franchise cornerstone of Milwaukee and Seattle, but rather the tertiary specialist he became in Boston during the brief bright years of the Big Three.


Over that time, Allen installed himself as the cool head opposite the manic Kevin Garnett and wily Paul Pierce, and while they directed the game he advanced his off-ball theories along the baseline, darting through thickets of screens and emerging to catch and shoot. Toes keen, wrist quick, three points, over and over. If you spotted Allen only at the end of a play, you missed the manipulations that preceded the shot: the initial turning of his defender in matador style; his clever disguising of the direction of the eventual cut; the unerring closeness of Allen's shoulder to his screener's; the quick glance backwards that let him know, at the decisive moment, whether to curl or flare.

To anyone watching the last decade's NBA, Allen seemed the very apex of jump shooting. Other players may improve on his results, the thinking went, but his tactics were an endpoint. We've always thought this of our innovators, and we've always been wrong.

Allen's NBA record for three-pointers made, which is stuck for the moment at 2,973, may be the mark whose eventual downfall is the easiest to see coming in all of sports. If Stephen Curry hits 250 threes a year—which would represent a slight dip from his recent pace—he will pass Allen's mark around 2022, with others likely soon to follow. Some enterprising team employee has doubtless already begun cutting together the highlight video.

This record's fall will be evidence less of improved shooting strokes than of a changed sport. Part of that change involves league-wide doctrine. Today's is a pick-and-roll game, and spacing is one of its key elements. Defenses spend whole evenings hedging and helping against driving guards and rocket-ship rollers, and the team with the better shooters spotting up around them wins, more often than not.

But the other part of the change is more individual. Some of today's best shooters take shots Allen never could. The likes of Curry and Damian Lillard noticed imperfections in the Allen approach—its reliance on well-timed passes,the way it shut the shooter off from playmaking duties—and evolved correctives. They shoot with the accuracy of last generation's spot-up men, but do so off the dribble, skirting screens, stepping back, their feet tracing Allen's old patterns while their hands do a point guard's work.

The game still features plenty of Allen disciples. Kyle Korver navigates screens like a late-career Allen; Klay Thompson has developed something like the outside-in game of Allen's youth. The proof of debt is on every court, every night. But there is a new vanguard.

Today's kid geniuses watch the radical pull-up artists, charting how they make their space and how defenses struggle to take it from them. In a decade or two, whatever traps and schemes those defenses have devised will be exploded by some other atomically-handled, mercury-accurate next step. This is progress, and it is already making Allen's undeniable greatness seem like something from a long time ago.