Hacking the NBA Three-Point Contest

There is a bit of data beneath the surface that can help reveal the true favorites going into the weekend's three-point contest.

|
Feb 13 2015, 2:24pm

Image via Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The three-point contest is not all that different from the home run derby in that it's a long way from replicating real life game environments. Attempting uncontested shots one after the other is nothing like shooting in a five-on-five game, just as competing in the derby is nothing like facing in-game pitching. And so, while it makes sense to look at a familiar stat like three-point field goal percentage when assessing the field, it's important to dig deeper. Let's go down this statistical rabbit hole to preview Saturday's NBA All-Star three-point contest, no calculators necessary. For you at least.

In the contest, each shooter gets one minute to attempt 25 shots, with five racks of balls stationed around the arc. Each basket is worth one point, except for the last ball in each rack—the multi-colored money ball—that is worth two. For the second straight year, there will also be an all-money ball rack, which the shooter must place in any of the five designated spots, increasing the highest possible score from 30 to 34. The top three scorers from the first round advance to the championship round.

Read More: The Plot to Kill the Slam Dunk

Going strictly by three-point field goal percentage this season, Kyle Korver is way ahead of his seven competitors. Through Tuesday's games, he's at 52.8 percent, tops in the NBA and far better than the next best marksman in the competition, Klay Thompson (44.1 percent). Next best after Thompson, in order, are J.J. Redick, Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry, Wesley Matthews, James Harden, and Marco Belinelli.

In case the names alone didn't tip you off, this is a loaded field, perhaps the best in the contest's history. Belinelli has missed half the Spurs' games with a groin injury so he doesn't qualify among the league leaders, but as the defending champion it's only right to include him this year. The other seven are the best high-volume three-point shooters in the NBA this season.

We know Korver can run through screens and bury jumpers over pursuing defenders just as Curry is remarkable at shooting off the dribble. The three-point contest, though, involves nothing but wide-open, zero-dribble attempts. Using the massive and impressive database at Vantage Sports, we can isolate and analyze this type of shot attempt. The following chart displays the contestants' overall three-point field goal percentage this season as well as their percentage on open shots this season.

"Open" is defined here as zero-dribble attempts in which there was no defender within three feet of the shooter at the time of release. The player with the ball is not likely to be left wide open, and the data represents that. Harden, known for dribbling the air out of the ball, attempted only 21 open threes. Point guards Irving and Curry were in the low 30s. Others were in the 50s, while Matthews attempted the most open threes of the group (73).

While these sample sizes are not huge, they're large enough to help gauge the competition. Redick doesn't look as strong as conventional stats might suggest. Irving somehow gets worse when he's open. Or, as former participant Brent Barry told me, "some players like to establish rhythm with a dribble." The data slice is small, but it suggests that Irving might be one of those players. He had a poor showing last year, but won the competition in 2013.

Matthews may have a better showing on Saturday night than you would have thought. According to current Vegas odds, he and Harden are the biggest underdogs in this competition at 15/2, but Matthews benefits more than anyone from open shots, for which his percentage ranks second. Belinelli improves a lot, too, and considering his Vegas odds are worse than Korver's, Curry's, and Thompson's, there could be value in betting on him to repeat.

Curry is considered a favorite to win because, well, he's Steph Curry. If we're talking in-game shooting, I'll take him against anyone. But keep in mind that Reggie Miller competed in the three-point contest five times and never won. Curry is 0 for 3 and hasn't reached the final round the last two years. I've also seen Curry dominated in a three-point shootout by 33 percent career shooter Mark Jackson, a video I can't erase from my mind.

Perhaps Curry should reconsider the placement of his money ball rack. Last year he put it in the right corner, a logical move considering corner threes are 21 inches closer to the rim than the rest of the arc. But Vantage data shows he's slightly better from the left wing on the aforementioned zero-dribble, "open" threes. (Numbers for the individual spots were calculated using data from this season and the second half of last season in order to reach a more respectable sample size.) For what it's worth, Curry hit 4 of 5 from the left wing in last year's contest and just 1 of 5 from the right corner.

The corners are the way to go for most of the other participants: Harden, Matthews, Redick, and Belinelli shoot best from the right corner; Irving and Korver from the left. Fatigue and rhythm could be additional factors and it's unclear which corner will come first for each participant. Curry's teammate and Splash Brother, Thompson, is the only other player who should avoid a corner money rack. He is deadliest from the right wing.

From the generic to the specific, the stats support Korver as the favorite on Saturday night. He's an incredible shooter in all in-game situations and the highest-rated in the above chart. Like Belinelli, Curry, and Irving, Korver has competed before, coming in third as a rookie in 2004 and second in 2005. He's improved as a shooter since then and has all the tools to win. Most important of all, a deep, statistical analysis helped lead to a conclusion that even Charles Barkley would have to agree with.

Stories