You will no doubt recall a very curious statistic about the Los Angeles Clippers from last season. In games in which the team made nine or more three pointers, they were practically unbeatable, compiling a 36-1 record. By contrast they were under .500 when making eight or fewer threes, just 21-24.
Barometers don't get much more accurate than that. And it's not as if this is one of those "duh" stats (like shooting 55% or outrebounding an opponent by 10) that correlates highly with winning games league-wide. Sure, teams win more when they make some threes, but for the vast majority of teams the difference is incremental. For the 13-14 Clippers, the difference was between a losing team and an invincible team.
League-wide last season, teams making nine or more threes won 592 times versus 340 losses. That's a very nice ,693 winning percentage -- but it pales in the light of the Clippers' mark of ,973 in such games.
The Oklahoma City Thunder, who had a similar overall winning percentage as the Clippers, were actually WORSE in games in which they made nine or more threes (27-12, .692)) than in those in which they made eight or fewer (32-11, .744). The argument isn't very current in the modern NBA, but some might maintain that shooting too many threes at the expense of scoring in other ways is counterproductive, and it seemed to be so for the Thunder last season. But for the Clippers it was indisputably a good thing to make a lot of threes. Only the San Antonio Spurs approached the same sort of success tied to threes-made that the Clippers exhibited -- 37-6 when making nine or more, 25-14 in the rest of their games. And let's face it, it's not bad to be like the Spurs.
So far this season, the trend has continued. They did lose to the Sacramento Kings while making nine threes, but that game deserves an asterisk, as the Clippers were 9-18 from deep through three quarters (when they led the game) but went 0-12 in the fourth. Even including that asterisk game, the team is 9-1 when making nine or more threes, just 2-4 when making eight or fewer, mirroring very closely last season's numbers.
But here's the difference: this Clippers team should be better shooting the long ball than last season's edition, and despite an atrocious start to the season, they have been. Last year the Clippers were below the league-average or .360 in three point percentage at .352 which ranked them 22nd among 30 teams -- remarkable when you consider that they led the league in offensive efficiency. So far this season they are hitting .376 from deep, fifth best in the league -- and that's after making just 28-94 in the first three games of the season. Since November 3 the Clippers are shooting .399 from deep -- the best percentage in the league in that span.
Why have they been better? Well it's important to point out that we're dealing with a small sample size here, and there's no guarantee that they will continue to shoot as well. But as compared to last year's team, there are several positive factors. The mere presence of J.J. Redick, who missed more than half of the games last season, helps to stretch the floor for the Clippers. Paradoxically, Redick is actually shooting a worse percentage on the season -- .352 as compared to .395 last season -- but after an ice-cold start, he's begun to return to form. After going 4-23 in those first three games, he's made 27-65 (.415), a much more Redick-like percentage.
Beyond Redick, the Clippers simply have a better collection of shooters this season. Newcomers Jordan Farmar and Spencer Hawes both hit over 40 percent from deep last season. Hawes is actually under 30 percent so far this year, so one would expect him to be better than he has been. Farmar on the other hand seems to be starting to hit his stride after a poor start. Meanwhile Hedo Turkoglu didn't join the team until January last season, and he's been deadly from deep.
And while Chris Paul and Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes might be overachieving some to this point, they are getting wide open looks, so one would expect them to hit a better than usual percentage. Paul's .426 percentage is probably not sustainable (he's a career 36 percenter from deep) but I would not be surprised to see Crawford remain in the high 30s all season.
Doc Rivers has sought to add shooting to his roster at every turn. Jared Dudley was a disappointment last season as were both Byron Mullens and Antawn Jamison. But Doc keeps trying, and his obsession with shooting seems completely justified by these numbers. I doubt the Clippers will continue to win 90% and more of their games when they make nine or more threes, but the trend is undeniable -- the team is incredibly successful when they are making the long ball. Given the composition of this roster, there's every reason to think they'll continue to make them, which would seem to indicate that they will be very difficult to beat.
A final coda on this topic. One of the well-worn tropes of the NBA is that "Everything changes in the playoffs." I'm not generally a big fan of that saying, but for the Clippers last season, at least one thing did change. After going 36-1 when making nine or more threes during the regular season, L.A. was 2-5 in such games during the postseason. Now it must be stated that there are no weak opponents in the playoffs and both the Warriors and the Thunder are well-suited to withstand some outside shooting and still come away with a win. I remain a staunch believer in the power of the three point shot -- but the bottom line is that if does gets tougher in the postseason.