Something noteworthy happened during the third quarter of Tuesday's innocuous preseason game between the Chicago Bulls and the Oklahoma City Thunder: Serge Ibaka made a three-pointer. During his first three NBA seasons, the promising young forward made just two three-pointers in six attempts. Ibaka has surpassed both figures during the exhibition campaign. After splitting his two attempts from downtown Tuesday, Ibaka is 4-of-7 on three-point attempts in five games. Air Congo might have a slightly different meaning this season.
These games being all about practice, Ibaka may just be working on adding a new element to his game that will not last into the regular season. However, Scott Brooks' comments to reporters on Monday suggest he's comfortable with Ibaka continuing to fire from long distance at times when the results begin counting.
"We still need Serge to stay within a range where he's going to make a high percentage," Brooks said. "He's worked on it and he makes them in practice. It's not something that we're just experimenting during games. He's definitely worked on them in practice and he's taking them. ... There are going to be nights where he's open. And we all feel confident (in him), especially in the corners. I think that range, 22 feet, he can knock that down."
So far in preseason, Ibaka has taken threes on 7.9 percent of the plays he has used. If Ibaka maintains that rate, it will be one of the largest increases in NBA history for a player who previously used fewer than 0.5 percent of his plays beyond the arc. Here are the largest single-season jumps for players like Ibaka who almost never shot threes beforehand (minimum 1,000 minutes):
Player Season Yr 3A%
Manute Bol 1989 4 .20
Travis Knight 1998 2 .10
Predrag Drobnjak 2003 2 .09
Jeff Grayer 1992 4 .08
Rolando Blackman 1989 8 .05
Eduardo Najera 2004 4 .05
Kenny Walker 1989 3 .05
You may remember 1988-89 as the season where Don Nelson decided to turn the late Manute Bol into a three-point specialist, theorizing that Bol would at least keep his defender away from the basket (more true in the days before illegal defense) and be in position to get back on defense. Oddly, the memorable game where Bol caught fire from downtown was actually years later (1992-93), when Bol was in Philadelphia and never made more than one three in any other game.
After Bol, we have a couple of big men who are more similar to Ibaka--midrange shooters who extended their range a few feet. There are also some wings who added a perimeter element to their game that was previously lacking. Clearly, however, this is not a common development. A few people on Twitter pointed to Chris Bosh doing something similar, but Bosh always took at least a few three-pointers (his low year was 10 attempts) and still has never averaged one attempt per game.
The other response I got from several followers was to wonder why Ibaka was taking threes, or comparing this development to Andrew Bynum's ill-fated attempt to add three-point range last season. There's an obvious difference between Bynum, one of the league's top post players, and Ibaka. Starting alongside paint-bound Kendrick Perkins, Ibaka has always played on the perimeter, and developed into a fine midrange shooter last season.
Per Hoopdata.com, Ibaka made 46.4 percent of his shots from 16-23 feet last season, which is close to the upper bound for a player. Last season, Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki were the lone players in the NBA to make better than half of their long twos. To match his efficiency on those shots, Ibaka has to make 31.0 percent of his threes, which is well within reach. Moving back beyond the arc has a lot of upside if Ibaka can hit threes at a decent clip both because the shots are more valuable and because it stretches the floor.
Finding evidence of the value of adding the three-point shot is somewhat more difficult. Removing the requirement of being quite so adverse to shooting threes at first, I found a group of 14 seasons by big men (including several multiple times) dating back to 2008-09 who increased their rate of three attempts by at least five percent of their plays and previously used no more than 20 percent of their plays on threes. Here is how their overall performance changed:
Player Year2 3A1 3A2 Diff DWin% DTS% DOPM
Kevin Love 2010 .02 .12 .10 .088 .011 6.1
Yi Jianlian 2009 .03 .22 .19 .043 -.011 3.2
Jared Jeffries 2010 .03 .16 .13 .047 .034 1.2
Dirk Nowitzki 2011 .06 .11 .05 .031 .034 5.0
Brad Miller 2010 .06 .17 .10 -.088 -.036 - 3.4
Lamar Odom 2010 .11 .19 .08 .010 -.010 -12.0
Dirk Nowitzki 2012 .11 .16 .05 -.040 -.048 - 1.2
Kevin Love 2012 .15 .20 .05 .003 -.025 4.1
Lamar Odom 2012 .16 .25 .09 -.242 -.166 - 6.7
Brad Miller 2011 .17 .27 .11 .120 .036 - 3.0
Charlie Villanueva 2010 .19 .29 .10 -.060 -.003 - 3.8
Josh Smith 2011 .01 .11 .11 -.039 .004 - 2.4
Boris Diaw 2009 .05 .16 .11 .077 .051 7.8
Boris Diaw 2010 .16 .20 .05 -.013 -.013 3.5
Average .09 .19 .09 -.004 -.010 - 0.1
On average, these big men doubled their three-point attempts. Nonetheless, their winning percentages, True Shooting Percentages and net offensive plus-minus (per BasketballValue.com) all dropped slightly. The presence of Lamar Odom here doesn't help matters, since Odom declined by a historically large amount last season. Eight of the 14 players improved their winning percentages, though less than half (six) improved their efficiency as shooters.
Though net plus-minus has shown the value of floor spacing, the results here were decidedly mixed. Again, Odom is a major negative factor--but even more from 2008-09 to 2009-10, when his value to the Lakers' offense in what was likely nothing more than a fluke. That aside, as many players declined in terms of net offensive plus-minus as improved.
So maybe there's no reason to expect that adding a three-point shot will make Ibaka any more valuable, at least in the short term, but there also seems to be little harm in the effort. As long as Ibaka can keep his percentage at a reasonable level, keep letting them fly.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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