Sports

Last of a Dying Breed: Shaun Livingston Has Never Needed a Three-Point Shot

Even though he's capable of making them, Golden State's reliable backup point guard continues to do his best work inside the arc. Does it matter?
June 7, 2018, 2:52pm
Photo by Kyle Terada - USA TODAY Sports

Shaun Livingston made his last three pointer on April 5, 2017. This is what it looked like.

Including the playoffs, Livingston is 3-for-25 from beyond the arc in nearly 7,000 minutes in a Golden State Warriors uniform. Here are the other two that were good. Both make you wonder, just a tiny bit, how much higher the level of stress would be defending this team if opponents couldn’t ignore him off the ball like they’re currently inclined to do.

Nothing about this is new or particularly inefficient, and in these Finals Livingston is averaging 9.3 points per game on 92.9 percent (not a typo) shooting. He’s an exceptional passer who feels his way through the game, takes what is given, and understands his role. Livingston hunts for buckets in secondary transition, often catching the opposition off guard after they’ve just made a shot by sprint dribbling into what’s typically viewed as a dead zone for other players, and then rising up for a short two. He looks hurried and relaxed at the same time, like a professional pickpocket.

But when you really step back and observe Livingston’s shot chart with a bird’s eye view, it’s easy to forget just how unusual it is for someone to thrive as a guard in today’s NBA without ever being even the slightest threat from deep. When he first signed with Golden State, Steve Kerr’s coaching staff encouraged him to space out to the corner, a migration that would not only increase his general point production but theoretically let the Warriors’s offense thrive inside even wider dimensions than they already do. It didn't catch on.

“He never got comfortable with it, and so we never really pressed the issue,” Steve Kerr said before Game 2. “I think he's a great shooter, but he knows his range. He knows his game. So he sticks to that.”

As a two-time champion on the verge of a third ring, and trusted cog for not only one of basketball's all-time greatest teams, but a roster that best represents the ongoing perimeter-oriented NBA revolution, Livingston has made 13 three pointers in his entire career. This is his 13th season. The margin of error for any guard who isn’t respected on the outside narrows by the playoff series, but Livingston knows how to balance out Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Kevin Durant’s 103 mile-per-hour heat with an unhittable knuckleball.

"I’m the guy that’s probably gonna be shooting threes at 24 Hour Fitness when I retire, just because...Right now, the twos just look so good.”

He agrees with Kerr about the increased comfort with his in-between game, even though he works on his three-point shot during the offseason and in practices. When I asked him last week about Golden State’s initial desire to embolden him from beyond the arc, he acknowledged it without feeling the least bit bothered. “Yeah for sure, for sure.” A wide smile crossed Livingston’s face. “But twos are so enticing for me.”

The Warriors get by perfectly fine with Livingston on the floor. He's a versatile defender and walking mismatch. But during his four years in Golden State the offense has suffered compared to when he’s on the bench. That’s to be expected, considering those minutes often coincide with Steph Curry’s rest, but the entire team’s percentage of shots from the mid-range rises while their shots from beyond the arc drop, significantly. (To be fair, Golden State made 39.6 percent of its threes with Livingston on the court this year, which is really good.)

He’s still, at 32 years old, obviously effective enough to justify this antiquated shot selection, but life inside the arc doesn’t come without a cost, even on a team blessed with three of the ten purest shooters who ever lived. In the Western Conference Finals, Golden State’s offense only scored 105.4 points per 100 possessions with him on the court, a number that spiked to 115.5 when he sat. Whenever the Houston Rockets switched themselves into a mismatch, their defense survived by shading the attack away from Livingston and using his man to clog up any driving lanes. It’s partially why so many of Durant’s contested pull-ups weren’t dunks.

But Livingston still makes himself useful. According to Cleaning the Glass, he’s ranked in the 100th percentile over the last three regular and post-season’s on the percentage of his shots hoisted between four feet from the rim and the arc. In terms of accuracy, he’s been above the 91st percentile in field-goal percentage from that area for the past three regular seasons. He's the last of a dying breed, in an unusual but ideal situation, playing for an organization that hasn't tried to jam a square peg into a round hole.

“It’s not really a story by now,” Livingston told VICE Sports. “It’s more so just what I do. It’s my game. Everybody encourages [me to shoot threes] but at the end of the day, if it happens it happens. I’m the guy that’s probably gonna be shooting threes at 24 Hour Fitness when I retire, just because," he smiles once more. "Right now, the twos just look so good.”