Lots of people have been losing their minds recently over Stephen Curry. This isn’t news. But the most recent mind-loss trend has been inspired by several instances where Curry has hit one of his long-range bombs by banking the shot off the backboard.
In addition to the typical reaction to any banked-in shot–a mindless ejaculation of “did he call it?”–Curry’s carom shots have caused many observers to act as if they had just witnessed a miracle on the level of the parting of the Red Sea, or a personal encounter with Bigfoot, or an alien spacecraft landing on the lawn of the White House. Their ecstasy derives from the idea that Curry’s bank shot prowess shows something almost impossible, or at the very least so difficult as to be an order of magnitude above what mere mortals can achieve.
There’s just one problem with this: it’s just simply wrong. A bank shot is easier than the straight in shot.
When I was young, I decided to lose a bunch of weight, and I chose shooting hoops at the park as my main form of exercise. I lost the pounds, but they eventually came back. What I also gained and never lost was the knowledge that came from going out onto a basketball court, day in and day out, and shooting, shooting, shooting.
At first I wasn’t any good at shooting the ball. No surprise there. Eventually, however, I started to find the range, and I did so by learning the angles and putting the ball in off the backboard. Why? Because–and this is the key–a shot off the backboard (depending upon the angle) is more forgiving than a shot directed straight towards the rim. Shooting the ball off the backboard, if you do it right, gives you a greater margin of error than trying to swish every basket.
For one thing, the square on the backboard gives you a more direct target to shoot for, a target that’s on a plane facing the shooter. It’s a more direct target than the circle of the basket, which lies on a plane perpendicular to your own orientation (and sits above your head). Once you learn the angles of the backboard square in relation to the hoop, you can put up a shot with a decent amount of leeway and still make the basket, even if your aim is a little bit off.
Plus, shooting for the bank forces you to get the ball up, and a steeper downward trajectory helps the ball get through the hoop easier. (The same thing applies if you shoot straight for the hoop but just get a high arc on your shot.) If you look at and move any round opening–like the mouth of a cup–and watch the opening’s apparent diameter change as you view it from the side vs. from straight above, you can see how the physics of this works.
Furthermore, putting the ball off the backboard, especially with a little “english” on it, takes some steam off the shot; it softens the ball’s approach to the rim, thus giving you a better chance to get the “shooter’s roll” if your shot winds up bouncing off the rim.
Put it all together and you arrive at a simple truth: bank shots are easier to sink than straight on shots, especially if your shot is flat and doesn’t get far enough above the rim. (This is why bad foul shooters should try to bank in their shots off the backboard, but that’s another matter…)
Now, having said that, most of Curry’s recent adventures on the court are indeed amazing, because he’s doing what he’s doing at the speed of the NBA against, probably, the best athletes in the world. And the shot he hit last night against the Mavericks, where he kissed the glass on a three-pointer from the corner over Dirk Nowitzki, was indeed a very difficult shot. And it’s fine to appreciate just how great Curry is. But when broadcasters lose their minds over every bank shot Curry sinks from behind the arc, they’re just making a spectacle of their ignorance about the game.