Watching Steve Novak shoot the ball has been one of the few bright spots of the last few weeks. I remembered watching him at Marquette, and I had seen his percentages in limited minutes in Houston, so I knew he was a big time shooter. He struggled in garbage time appearances in November and December, but as more and more Clippers have been injured, Novak has benefited from consistent playing time, and his shooting has been incredible ever since. At this point, I am shocked when he misses an open look. I fully expect him to make everything.
It didn't start out that way this season. He made only 1 of 9 three point attempts in limited action in November, and was 7 for 21 heading into the New Year's Eve game against Philly. Since then he is 30 for 55 (55%) from deep, and 45 for 87 (52%) overall. His three point percentage is actually higher than his overall percentage in January, but that's not overly surprising since most of his 2 point attempts are 'foot on the line' type long jumpers. He's not getting a lot of dunks. His shooting in January has him up to 7th in the league in three point percentage - and he's rising fast.
This shooting display would be plenty impressive if he were on the Lakers or the Spurs - teams with superstars and post players who force the defense to collapse and double, leaving shooters wide open. (It's not an accident that Matt Bonner, Roger Mason, Vlad Radmanovic, Derek Fisher and others join Novak near the top of the three point shooting percentage leaders this season.) But Novak doesn't play for those teams. He hasn't been racking up his numbers on kick outs from Tim Duncan, or drive and kicks from Kobe Bryant. For the most part, he hasn't even been getting them from Zach Randolph or Baron Davis, since his minutes have come after and partially as a result of their injuries. No, he's shooting lights out for the injury-ravaged Clippers, while on the floor with teammates that defenses don't even have to single cover, let alone double cover. All an opposing defense has to do is stay home on the guy at the three point line. He's not a threat to drive, and there's no point in leaving him to double. He should be about the easiest cover in the NBA. And yet he's shooting 55% from deep.
94 of his 136 field goal attempts this season have been from behind the arc. That's 70%. And remember, of the other 42 two point attempts, most are long jumpers. Because such a huge percentage of his shots are threes, and because he makes so many of those, his effective shooting percentage is a ridiculous 62%, fourth in the entire NBA among players with 100 or more shots on the season. Since that December 31st game, the percentage goes up to an even more ridiculous 69%. This is on a team whose effective shooting percentage for the season is 46% - dead last in the NBA.
Novak is a very specific archetype in the modern NBA: the gunslinger; the hired gun; the guy you pay to do one thing - shoot. There are plenty of good shooters in the NBA who do other things well also. That's not who we're talking about here. If we're sticking with the gunslinger analogy, he's Shane, incapable of or disinterested in defending the homestead. Bruce Bowen and Raja Bell and Anthony Parker (and before them Michael Cooper) earned their NBA minutes as defenders, and then developed a three point shot to make themselves more valuable. Novak is clearly not in that school. He's in the group with Jason Kapono and Kyle Korver - shooters who are just so good you have to play them, even though they don't really do anything else at the NBA level.
Great shooters are always at a premium in the NBA, but great TALL shooters even more so. Eddie House has bounced from one year contract to one year contract for years. Meanwhile, Jason Kapono signed with Toronto for 4/$24M in 2007, and Korver re-signed with Philly for 6/$27M. I'm not sure why taller shooters are more in demand - shooting is shooting, so why is Kapono more valuable than House? They're both great shooters, and truth be told House is probably a better all around player. Perhaps the lure is to draw an opposition big away from the basket. Perhaps the perceived defensive liability is easier to cover on the interior than on the perimeter.
Of course, there is also such a thing as buyer's remorse. Philly really couldn't wait to get rid of Korver after they signed him, though Utah seems happy. And I assume that Kapono's contract will be an albatross in Toronto before long. And let's not forget Brian Cardinal, who made 44% of his threes in 03-04, signed a 6/$38M deal with Memphis that summer, and has been among the most overpaid players in the league since.
I want to point out that Novak, like Korver and Kapono, is a different animal than a lot of guys capable of shooting a good percentage from distance like Matt Bonner and Brian Cardinal. Bonner and Cardinal and others shoot set shots from spots. Bonner, as we mentioned, benefits from playing with Tim Duncan and Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili - Bonner's job is to spot up behind the arc, make sure his feet are set, catch and shoot. But Korver and Kapono worked themselves into big time NBA money by doing something else that great gunslingers do - being quick on the trigger. You would never see the Spurs run a play for Bonner to get him open behind the arc. But that's what the truly elite shooters can do - catch the ball running away from the basket, with a defender trailing not far behind, turn and shoot before the defender catches up. Try making a high percentage of those.
I wasn't convinced that Novak could do that when the Clippers acquired him, but it's looking more and more like he can. He may not have the lightning trigger of Kapono or Korver, but he's faster than I thought, and he appears to be developing daily. He's made several threes in this run where I didn't think he had the space he needed but he proved me wrong. In my mind, I was saving that roster spot for Nick Fazekas, a Clips Nation favorite. Suffice it to say that Novak is a much better addition to the team.
The dark cloud at the center of this silver lining is that Steve Novak is in the final year of his rookie contract, making about $800K. So while it's good that one of the positives coming out of this lost season is that we found out how valuable Novak is, the bad news is that every other team found out as well. It will be interesting to see what kind of interest he generates on the free agent market, but it seems safe to say that he's playing himself into more than $800K next season.
Which means someone else may want to buy him, which would only be appropriate for a hired gun.