Due to simple arithmetic (3 > 2) and the geometry of a basketball court, the corner three has become a pivotal shot in the modern NBA. The corners serve as efficiency hotspots and focal points of offensive and defensive schemes. In a “make-or-miss league” we understandably fixate on whether teams are making or missing, but where those shots are taken can be more important in the long run.
As I perused team shot profile data from the last few years (you know, as one does on a Saturday night), I noticed an interesting trend. For the Miami Heat, an unusually high proportion of their shots were coming from the corners. Over the last five seasons, no team has taken a higher percentage of its three-pointers from the corners than the Heat.
This has remained consistent despite drastic changes to Miami’s roster, and the pattern has continued into this season. The Heat are tops in the league this year with nearly 30 percent of their treys coming from the corners (via Basketball-Reference). How are they doing this?
To give you a frame of reference, here’s what the last five seasons of data look like in terms of overall 3-point attempts and the percentage of those 3s that came from the corners.
The first takeaway? Man, the Houston Rockets are playing a different sport. By the raw numbers, the Houston Rockets have attempted ~400 more corner 3s than any other team during this time period, but that’s because they’ve bombed away from deep like nobody else.
The second noteworthy conclusion from this graph is that the Miami Heat clearly place a priority on corner 3s over above-the-break 3s. They rank 2nd in corner 3-point attempts despite ranking 19th in overall 3-point attempts. Comparing Miami’s total 3PA rate against their corner 3PA rate highlights the role of shot selection, scheme and philosophy in this trend.
Head coach Erik Spoelstra clearly has some part to play in this corner fetish, but Miami only became a corner-heavy team in his third season (2010-11). That happens to coincide with the arrival of a certain member of basketball royalty: LeBron James.
James has long been one of the league’s leaders in generating corner 3s thanks to his vision, cross-court passing and the attention he commands from opposing defenses. It’s possible that James’ presence on the team naturally made them a group that created corner 3s in bulk. On the contrary, perhaps the arrival of James (or more specifically, the shooters that came with him) finally gave Spoelstra the personnel he needed to unleash his preferred style of play. After all, this corner habit has persisted even as all the Heatles left South Beach.
Regardless of whether the primary initiators of Miami’s offense have been LeBron James and Dwyane Wade or Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters, the Heat are playing a similar style in terms of forgoing above-the-break 3s in favor of corner looks. When I turned to the film, I noticed two factors that contribute to this phenomenon.
Filling the Corners in Transition
Miami gets a lot of open corner 3-point attempts in transition because the players are diligent about sprinting hard and being precise in their corner spacing. It’s now common to see players running to the 3-point line in transition instead of to the hoop, but most players space to the wings.
The Heat make a point of stretching the defense by spreading the floor to the corners. Defenses then face a choice of stopping the ball or staying close enough to corner shooters. That’s often a lose-lose scenario, and the Heat frequently get wide open corner 3s as a result.
This is incredibly simple, but Miami does it as well as anyone due to the team’s discipline and exemplary conditioning. As soon as the Heat get the ball, they make you defend them. If you’re lazy, indecisive or mistake-prone, they’ll make you pay. If you’re any of those three things in transition defense, it will very frequently result in a corner 3 for Miami.
Attacking With the Drive
When you watch Miami’s offense, you can’t help but notice how much pressure they put on the defense with their perpetual motion machine of relentless driving. The Second Spectrum data provided by NBA.com tells us the Heat have averaged the second-most drives per game over the last four years1.
By attacking so frequently off-the-bounce, the Heat force defenses to make rotations which eventually leads to kickout passes and clean looks from downtown. The numbers behind their driving habits reveal the nuance to Miami’s off-the-dribble aggression.
They rank dead-last with only 46 percent of their drives resulting in a shot. Conversely, they’re among the league-leaders in proportion of drives ending with a pass or assist. The combination of driving volume and a tendency to look for passes instead of shots means the Heat are creating more drive-and-kick opportunities than anyone else in the league.
Miami doesn’t drive with a brute force approach hoping to get shots at the rim. Their drives are controlled, and the end goal is often to induce help rotations by the defense instead of getting all the way to the rim. The Heat players are ready to capitalize on those rotations with crisp ball movement, and the product is frequently a clean look from the corner.
This kind of drive-and-kick attack will generate 3s all over the court, but Miami players are restrained when those spot-up opportunities go to above-the-break shooters. If the defense closes out too aggressively, Heat players are ready, willing and able to attack the scrambling defenders, get to the middle of the floor and look for open corner shooters.
The fact that they create an abundance of corner 3s isn’t a cheat code2. It doesn’t magically turn them into a good offense (they’ve been a below-average offense for the last 4 seasons). But when you watch the Heat play, you can get a sense of how well they’re operating by looking at their corner production.
Their recent road demolition of the Minnesota Timberwolves, for example, saw them post one of the best offensive games of the season from any team (per Cleaning the Glass). That was a corner-heavy night for the Heat:
It’s clear Miami preaches the value of the corner 3, but their method for creating those opportunities is rooted in discipline and precision. Heat players know where they should be on the floor, whether it’s in half-court offense or a fast break. Their players understand how Coach Spoelstra wants to attack with side-to-side ball movement and drive-and-kick basketball that builds on every advantage and puts pressure on the defense. When the offense is humming, you’ll normally be able to tell by watching the corners.
1. The Second Spectrum data on NBA.com/Stats only dates back to the 2013-14 season, hence the 4-year time period. No. 1 in drives per game over this window? The Philadelphia 76ers.^
2. Over the last 5 seasons, corner 3-point attempt rate bears only a mild positive correlation (r = 0.189) with offensive rating. Overall 3-point attempt rate bears a stronger correlation with offensive rating (r = 0.439).^