Good games, weird data

Can Klay or Steph break the NBA record for threes in a game?

Can Klay or Steph break the NBA record for threes in a game?

We move away from Kobe and on to the Splash Brothers by the bay, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Few experiences rival watching the Warriors when one or both of these guys start feeling it. Steph rightly holds the claim as the greatest shooter of all-time, while Klay operates in an ethereal space between ice and fire. Thompson averages out a 40% rate from three only by going one for thirteen one night and then hitting all seven the next. 

Each player produces countless highlights and memorable moments, from Steph’s hilariously cold blooded game winner against OKC in 2016 to Klay dropping 37 points in a quarter against Sacramento. My personal favorite of the duo came last season. A relatively cold Thompson broke out of his early season slump by casually dropping an NBA record fourteen threes. This record, of course, originally belonged to Steph. In this game, Klay played three quarters and essentially beat the Bulls by himself.

These supernovas fit perfectly for our simulation series. Will either guy hit that magical 15 mark?

Breaking the NBA record all over again

First, let’s look at the distributions of threes made for both players, pulled from Basketball Reference for every game they’ve played.

Other than a slight bump for Steph in games with 6 threes, the distribution is nicely aligned. Steph averages 3.6 threes a game, while Klay is a bit lower at 2.9; both guys have the same median number of threes made at 3 a game. Each graph also highlights the small glimmers at the right end of their histogram, the little hints of ridiculousness that we’ve come to love.

To simulate this firepower, I want to experiment with a truncated normal distribution. This becomes a slight variation on our Kobe analysis that lets us cap the lower bound at zero made threes. Despite what my middle school coach may have told me, you cannot have a negative three pointer.

Steph’s long right tail showcases a higher capacity for complete and utter destruction. Klay’s million games appear more tightly placed between two and five threes.

Even with that increased range, Steph might have a hard time matching his backcourt mate’s NBA record. In my million simulations, Steph only beat the record in 3 of them. Klay himself topped out at 12.07 made threes, a number that would shock any NBA fan before 2010 but barely elicits a second-glance from anyone today. Call me when he’s putting up 52 in two quarters, please.

What if every one of those threes had been wide open?

Take off your analytics hat (I’m imagining the green visor that accountants always have) and put on a comfy Gandalf wizards cap, because we’ve entered the realm of laughable hypotheticals. 

These simulations are well and fun, but the true joy comes in tinkering with past data solely for our content. Klay and Steph boast not only historical output, but they do so at an incredibly efficient rate. Per Basketball Reference, Steph has the fifth highest 3P% of any player with at least 100 attempts at 43.8%. Klay stands at 16th.

For this simulation, imagine a world where every opposing player trips over an untied shoe, silently protests their assignments by pouting under the basket, and leaves the two most devastating shooters wide open. tracks player shooting by the distance of their nearest defender. We can rewrite history by swapping Curry and Thompson’s actual field goal percentage with their shooting rate while wide open last season.

Steph hits a ludicrous 52.5% of his threes in this scenario, while Klay actually shot worse (39.2%) when wide open.

This filter diminishes Klay’s output, but look at the impact on Steph’s three point barrages.

His average threes per game jumps up to 4.4, but his max in this simulation drops to 13.4. While upping his overall three point rate increases his stats holistically, we’ve actually reduced his efficiency during his supernovas.

I don’t know if I could make 84.6% of my uncontested layups, let alone threes in a real NBA game.

What if klay and steph shot like retirement year Kobe?

Wide open is one thing, but imagine a world where Steph Curry and Klay Thompson make threes at the same rate as a 37-year old, ready to retire Kobe Bryant.

Kobe’s 2015-2016 season with the Lakers stands as the most iconically selfish year in my humble opinion, as, per Basketball Reference, Kobe took roughly 17 shots a game (including over 7 threes!) but produced a career-worst 46.8% true shooting. He also managed to hit only 28.5% of his threes, the single lowest rate in the history of the NBA for someone with that amount of attempts. 

What does it look like for our Splash Brothers if they adopted that efficiency?

In our bizarro, Puddle Brothers reality, Klay maxes out at 6.2 threes while Steph only reaches 7.6 makes; sad numbers until you realize Larry Bird’s career high for threes in a game is seven. 

Steph Curry and Klay Thompson are inevitable, unstoppable, and still unlikely to hit that magical 15 made threes record. 

I can’t wait to watch them try.

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Jamie Larson