Legends of sport and true game changers

Stephen Curry shoots yet another three-pointer. PHOTO: USA TODAY SPORTS
Stephen Curry shoots yet another three-pointer. PHOTO: USA TODAY SPORTS
NBA superstar Stephen Curry recently became the all time leading three-point scorer in the history of the world’s elite basketball league. He also changed the sport. Jeff Cheshire explains, and looks at pioneers in other codes.

Stephen Curry’s name may not arise in discussions about basketball’s greatest player.

In terms of its most influential, though, very few have changed their sport like the 1.88m point guard.

Curry broke Ray Allen’s record for most three-pointers in NBA history last week.

Perhaps most tellingly, the Golden State Warriors’ former league MVP reached the 2974 mark in 789 games — 511 fewer than Allen.

That could be a pointer to the prominence the three-point shot has in today’s game.

But it is Curry who has given the shot that prominence.

In 1990, teams attempted 6.6 three-pointers per game — in the days when three-pointers were considered a low-percentage circus shot.

In 2020, that number had risen to 34.1 — 39.2% of all shots taken that season.

When Curry entered the league in 2009-10, that number was at 18.1 per game.

This season, Curry is putting up 13.4 per game himself and, at the time of writing, was shooting a career-low 39.9% from beyond the arc.

At his most efficient, he was averaging 5.1 successes from 11.2 attempts — a rate of 45%.

So, why the change?

Because he has shown it is possible to hit it in a much more efficient manner than the old-school mid-range.

It has caused points per possession to become a prevalent statistic in basketball.

A 40% three-point shooter is worth more points over the course of a game than a 50% mid-range — two-point — shooter.

Defences will often live with mid-range shots, knowing opponents will struggle to hit them at a high enough rate across a game to win.

Since 2010 mid-range attempts have dropped from 31%, to just 13%, of all shots in the NBA.

It is the type of shots Curry takes that has changed, too.

The classic catch-and-shoot three is still very much alive.

But Curry has made shooting three-pointers off the dribble — including those from very deep and coming off screens — an efficient shot.

The flow-on effect is that defenders have to guard those shots. He hits them at too high a rate to let him have it.

Others have followed, and so came the small-ball revolution.

It is not just Curry any more — although he remains the best at it.

Almost every player in the NBA has to be a three-point shooter, rather than 10 years ago when teams would have a few specialists.

It stretches defences further from the hoop, meaning they have to cover more ground.

The big, powerful centre that used to dominate inside is now exposed, having to guard quicker athletes on the perimeter.

They can no longer just stay in the paint, while defensive help is more spread out.

It is causing those classic centres, once the most dominant players in the game, to become a dying breed.

It has caused the catch-and-shoot mid-range — a shot the likes of Dwyane Wade and Michael Jordan lived off — to become non-existent.

Those types of players cannot survive in the modern NBA — and by extension modern basketball.

It has made defence that much harder to play — there are simply more things you have to cover.

It has made finishing at the hoop and three-pointers the two primary scoring tools in every basketball player’s toolbox.

And it has essentially all come because Curry was so good at a skill, that he normalised something once thought to be a low-percentage play.

Others to have changed their sports

Jonah was unstoppable in his prime. PHOTO: REUTERS
Jonah was unstoppable in his prime. PHOTO: REUTERS

Jonah Lomu (rugby)

Inga Tuigamala was the first, but Lomu was the game-changer. Never before had anyone combined size and athleticism quite like Jonah. At the time it would have been a waste to have someone with such presence in the backs.

But give him the ball and he scored tries, he attracted defenders, he essentially had an affect on the entire game without even touching the ball.

Fast-forward 25 years and the powerful, explosive back is now the prototype and the search for the "next Jonah" goes on.

Dick Fosbury. PHOTO: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
Dick Fosbury. PHOTO: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Dick Fosbury (high jump)

Not only did Dick Fosbury invent the Fosbury flop, he did so while being the best world’s best high jumper.

He popularised the now universally used high jump technique, which deviated from the straddle.

As rubber mats began to replace sawdust in the landing spaces in the mid-1960s, Fosbury began going against his coach’s advice and using his self-made technique.

By 1968 that reached its peak, as he won the Olympics in a then-Games record of 2.24m.

Tiger Woods plays his shot on the third tee during the final round of the PNC Championship last...
Tiger Woods plays his shot on the third tee during the final round of the PNC Championship last week. PHOTO: USA TODAY SPORTS

Tiger Woods (golf)

When Woods tore through the Augusta course at the 1997 Masters, it triggered the world’s most famous course to "Tiger-proof" itself.

Woods averaged 25 yards further than anyone else off the tee that year, on the way to winning his first green jacket by a record 12 shots. No-one had seen anything like it.

Holes became longer, fairways narrower and trees added to the sides. It was designed to make the course harder for Woods.

The only drawback was it made it considerably harder for everyone else.

Switzerland's Gregor Deschwanden shows his ski jumping style during the Germany round of the...
Switzerland's Gregor Deschwanden shows his ski jumping style during the Germany round of the world cup. PHOTO: REUTERS

Jan Boklov (ski jump)

You probably have not heard of Boklov, but he was as influential to ski jumping as Fosbury was to high jump. Before the winter of 1986-87, ski jumpers used a parallel style in which they stretched their arms out upwards over their skis.

Boklov brought a new approach - spreading his skis in a V and holding his arms close to his body. Initially, he was marked down for the technique.

However, he dominated the 1988 world championships with it. By the early 1990s, it had become the overwhelmingly common technique, which remains to this day.

jeff.cheshire@odt.co.nz

 

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