A few weeks ago, when Ray Allen announced his retirement, I profiled his Mechanisms of Impact in the Hoops Lab. In that article I scouted Allen vs his main historical rival (Reggie Miller) and his main contemporary rival (Kobe Bryant), while also pointing out the succession of “best 3-point shooter ever” from Reggie to Ray to now Stephen Curry.
But as part of that article, I promised a deeper dive into the numbers that describe the way that Reggie and Ray changed the game, and a comparison for which one produced more on the court. Let’s do that today, and also add in the other shooting guards of their era and some of the best shooters of today in a big analytics extravaganza.
Scoring efficiency vs. volume
Miller and Allen were two of the first players to truly use the 3-point shot as a weapon, shooting from distance at a volume and efficiency that outstripped any other player of their respective generations. The 3-point shot and drawing fouls are two of the ways to increase scoring efficiency, and thus Miller and Allen were ahead of their time at pushing the envelope on scoring efficiency.
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Here is a look at scoring efficiency (True Shooting percentage) vs scoring volume (per 100 possessions) for most of the elite perimeter scoring wings (primarily shooting guards) of the 1980s, 90s, and 2000s in the regular season, in their prime years.
As detailed in the Mechanisms article linked above, Miller performed more off the ball and as a pure shooter than did Allen, who performed more on-ball with more assists, rebounds and steals than Miller. This was especially true in Allen’s peak years with the Bucks and Sonics, before he went to Boston. But as we see in this chart, when it came to regular season scoring, Miller was on an island by himself as far as efficiency, though his volume was lower than any of the other wings profiled here outside of Joe Dumars.
Allen, meanwhile, had a more impressive scoring volume than Miller with the best scoring efficiency outside of Miller and Michael Jordan. But, let’s take a look at what happened to the scoring of this same group of players in the playoffs.
Most volume scorers see their scoring efficiency decrease in the playoffs, as defenses are better, more focused, and can game plan to make life harder on opposing offenses. Similarly, when most players increase their scoring volumes it comes at the expense of lower scoring efficiency. But this chart shows us that Miller and Allen were exceptions to these rules.
Miller was able to increase his scoring volume up to 32.8 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs with still mega-elite scoring efficiency, while Allen was able to join Miller in the efficiency stratosphere while upping his own scoring average to 33.3 points per possession. This chart most clearly shows the difference between how Miller and Allen scored when it mattered most, compared to the other high-scoring wings of the past 30 years.
Impact on games: One Box score estimate vs. a non-boxscore measure
Okay, that’s cool…Ray and Reggie measure out just as you would expect them to as hyper-efficient scorers that ramp up their games in the postseason. But…which one was better?
That’s still a difficult question, because while they were evolutionary versions of each other, they did play in different generations with some stylistic differences in their games. As I wrote in the Hoops Lab Mechanisms piece:
"“Reggie was the long-distance-version of the epitome of the shooting guard from the pre-Jordan era. His primary job was to SHOOT. Reggie didn’t handle the ball a lot, he didn’t rebound, he wasn’t much of a defender…his job was to shoot. He was, therefore, the leading scorer on his team while operating almost entirely off the ball. His very presence on the court, running off picks, had a great spacing impact that opened up the court for his teammates, but he wasn’t often the one directly creating the shots.Ray, on the other hand, was the long-distance-version of the epitome of the shooting guard from the post-Jordan era. His PRIMARY job was to shoot…but he also was expected to be able to run the offense, to be able to create his own shot off the dribble, to help out on the glass on occasion. That’s why I say that Ray was like Reggie with a hint of Jerry West mixed in, because he was a mega off-ball threat but he also created more for both himself and his teammates off the dribble. In fact, Ray’s ability to create and make high-efficiency 3-pointers off the dribble while in Milwaukee and Seattle was one of his more unique innovations to the game.”"
So, how did these difference translate to the court? Let’s take two approaches to estimate overall impact, one of them box score based (Win Shares per 48 minutes, multiplied by 100 for plot clarity) and the other non-box score based (On/off net +/- per 48 minutes, averaged by year).
On/off net +/- is only available since the 1993-94 season, but this time period would still cover eight of the 12 prime Miller seasons, including four of his five All Star appearances and all three of his All NBA appearances. This also limits our data on Michael Jordan (1996 – 98), Clyde Drexler (1994 – 97) and Joe Dumars (1994 – 98) while completely removing Larry Bird from the comparison.
This chart helps illustrate that lack of clarity around the question of which of Miller and Allen were better. Second Threepeat Jordan is still clearly on a distant island well away from any other shooting guard by either the box score or the non-box score approach, while late career Dumars measures clearly lower by both approaches. All of the other wings examined here are somewhere between those two poles. Miller measures better than Allen, behind only Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade of this group in Win Shares/48 minutes. Meanwhile, Allen measured better than Miller, and in the mix with any wing measured here besides Jordan, in on/off net +/-.
All told, while not fully satisfying, it ultimately feels right that there be no clear winner between Reggie and Ray. They were just too similar.
Be like Mike? Or be like Reggie and Ray?
Any basketball fan that lived through the Michael Jordan era must remember the “Be like Mike” campaign ad, with its catchy jingle and ubiquitous nature. And in the generation immediately following Jordan, it was very clear that the next wave of NBA wings did pattern their games more after him than after anyone else. Kobe Bryant, the closest thing we’ve seen to Jordan stylistically, took it so far as to mimic Jordan’s mannerisms and ways of moving around the court.
But if you look at the last five years of the NBA…most specifically, at the scoring numbers of the men that have finished first or second in each of the last five MVP votes, you might find that instead of Jordan, they have different role models. Let’s return to the postseason scoring efficiency vs volume chart above but add in LeBron James (2006 – 16), Stephen Curry (2013 – 16), Kevin Durant (2009 – 16), James Harden (2013 – 16) and Kawhi Leonard (2015 – 16). Only one player in this group plays shooting guard, but all of them are perimeter players.
Note their prime playoff performances as scorers cluster extremely clearly towards the Miller/Allen portion of the graph. None of them approach Jordan’s sheer scoring volume, but all of them make use of the 3-pointer to a larger degree than Jordan ever did and have produced scoring volume/efficiency numbers that most closely mimic what Reggie Miller and Ray Allen were doing in the generations before. Curry, especially, is almost right on top of his two predecessors in the “best 3-point shooter in the world” lineage.
So while we may not have a definitive answer for which of Reggie Miller or Ray Allen were the better player, there is no question at all that they were both pioneers that helped usher in the current era of high-volume, high-efficiency scoring from the perimeter. While Kobe and his generation grew up wanting to be like Mike, in a lot of ways it seems like the current generation of superstar perimeter scorers wants to be like Reggie and Ray.