In a league that is ever progressing towards breaking down every imaginable analytic stat on the face of the earth with probabilities, equations, theorems, logarithms and everything else you would find in your typical 1500 SAT class at MIT, it’s hard to find where the true value rests in overall development and growth of franchises.
Why are some organizations "The Spurs" while others are consistently finding themselves scratching their head, back at the drawing board in the draft lottery year after year? Do they need more analytic-brainiac, number-crunching teams on staff to break down the amount of breaths taken by a player during transition situations in the first half of Wednesday evening games? Does that resonate with players and the coaching staff to help develop the overall product on the court?
After all, the overall wins vs. losses product on the court comes down to one main thing – the overall ability of those players. And ever increasingly that glaring ability is the ability to shoot a high percentage from beyond the arc. Some teams have figured that out. Others, well, not so much. (Lakers fans, you might want to stop reading here.)
When new Lakers coach Byron Scott was asked about his philosophy on three-pointers, his response was, "I don't believe it wins championships. (It) gets you to the playoffs." Seven of the past eight NBA champions led all playoff teams in three-point attempts and makes. Sorry Jack Nicholson, you’ll be on the golf course come June.
Let’s take a deeper look behind the scenes and figure out the success formula that allows organizations to thrive or to shrivel. And I’ll give you a hint – it doesn’t have anything to do with an Einstein formula or the Pythagorean Theorem.
You always hear it on ESPN when a player declares early for the draft – “He should stay in college, he needs more time to develop his skill set.” That’s just their way of saying, “Stay, please! The college basketball product is losing all of its top talent to the NBA.”
Truth be told, players get more in-depth, personal, and focused skill development in the NBA. But are they actually getting the right type of development to increase the bottom line – wins? At the end of the day, that’s all that matters. That’s what drives the bus, that’s what pays the bills for everyone in the organization.
So how do you maximize player development and wins? It’d be great if everyone could recruit a Big Three, but that’s not realistic. There are organizations in Minneapolis and Milwaukee after all. And LeBron James wasn’t born in either of those cities. The answer is actually much more simple than you would think. Here’s the equation: focus on the most important skill + commitment to maximizing that skill at the highest level + instill the mindset of always improving throughout the entire organization from top to bottom = more wins, more success, and more Spurs Basketball.
That leads us directly into example A : Spurs shooting coach Chip Engelland, the man behind the scenes that makes the Spurs engine go. Chip is widely regarded as one of the top shooting coaches in the game and rightfully so.
As an example case study, let's look at Kawhi Leonard.
Leonard was drafted based on his athleticism, and defensive ability. Not his ability to shoot and be a main contributing factor on the offensive end. Among the 17 wing prospects in the 2011 draft class coming out of college, Leonard was 15th in points per possession, 16th in points per shot on jumpers, 15th in points per possession on isolations, and dead last in adjusted field goal percentage.
He shot just 32 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers and 28 percent on pull-ups. Leonard went from a 25 percent three-point shooter from the college line to now a reliable 38 percent three-point shooter from the NBA stripe. Yeah, I think that might just have something to do with Leonard hoisting the NBA Finals MVP trophy this past June.
|Player||College 3P%||Pro 3P%||% Improvement|
Chip’s work speaks for itself. Tony Parker, who came into the league unable to knock down a mid-range jumper, has now been transformed from a career Rondo-type player into one of the best mid-range shooting point guards in the league. Tiago Splitter, Marco Belinelli, Danny Green, Gary Neal, the list goes on and on. Chip is why the Spurs are able to draft anyone with potential and know for a fact that they are going to develop him into a reliable shooter. A high-level shooting coach is a great weapon to have in a league that is becoming more and more a three-point shooting league.
Defenses that play against 38 percent and higher three-point shooting teams have to cover on average 30 percent more of the court than they would against a team that shoots 35 percent or lower from behind the arc. That’s a huge difference in only three percentage points. This can equate to more open cutting lanes, driving lanes, bringing shot blocking bigs away from the hoop, and keeping defenders honest in help and pick-and-roll rotations. This was extremely prevalent and clear during last years NBA Finals as you all are well aware.
A shooting coach can add the value on average of 5-7 percentage points, equaling 3-5 points per game on average. Unless your team wins every game by 10 or more, you might want to pay attention here and take note. With all the analytics running rampant, the most basic economic theory continually goes overlooked – opportunity cost.
Case Study No. 2 – Blake Griffin. Similar to what Chip has done for the Spurs, Bob Thate (pictured above with Griffin) and Dave Severens have done for the Clippers. Griffin came into the league basically as an athlete, a human highlight. In Griffin’s first two seasons in the league, 67 percent of his shot attempts were within 3 feet of the hoop, basically due to the fact he didn’t have any consistent range on his jump shot.
Last season, that number was well under 60 percent. He has become an efficient force not only being able to bring his defender away from the hoop but also in pick-and-pop situations. This development further enhances the game of the best ball screen point guard in the league – Chris Paul. Griffin’s points per possession of 1.42 and his PER of 23.9 are both Top 10 in the league.
The development of Griffin’s shooting ability has turned him into a legitimate MVP candidate and the Clippers into a consistent title contender. It also helped turn the worst franchise for decades into one of the hottest franchises in sports ($500 million valuation that sells for $2 billion).
Progressive organizations are beginning to catch on to how important and how much added value a shooting coach can bring to a team. The Magic have brought on a great shooting coach in Dave Love, Memphis snagged another big-time shooting coach this offseason in John Townsend, Golden State has a shooting coach guru/one of the best assistants in the game in Ron Adams (pictured aboved with Bulls legend Scottie Pippen) and in my opinion Minnesota made the best franchise-improving move in years – hiring one of the elite shooting coaches in the game, Mike Penberthy. What was once thought as an impossible task (Ricky Rubio consistently knocking down a jumper) is beginning to look like more and more of a reality with Penberthy’s intensive work with the player who is on pace to be the worst statistical shooter of all-time.
That will change, trust me on that. When you look at Minnesota’s core group – Andrew Wiggins, Rubio, Zach Lavine, all are under 25 years old. An entire franchise, millions of dollars, the livelihoods of many, all resting on the shoulders of these three. Oh, and they can’t shoot the basketball? Yeah, I think it might be an important factor with that much invested in them. Issue addressed, Penberthy will turn Rubio and the T-Wolves shooting woes around.
So why are there still teams out there like the Lakers that don’t believe in the extreme added value of a shooting coach? [Editor's note: Ed Palubinskas took a position as shooting coach to Shaquille O'Neal with the Lakers for the entire 2000-01 season.] Blunty put, here’s your answer: in a world of direct pinpoint stats, there is no analytical statistic to show exactly how much a shooting coach is helping each player. We live in a league of black and white, no in-between. A league where more faith is placed on a computer chip than in character, skill development knowledge, proof through hours of sweat, and personal relationships.
Through all my years of working with players and helping them develop their careers, here is one thing I have learned in every single situation: personal attention and visible growth in a relational, trusting situation builds confidence 100 percent times better than showing a player an analytic statistic. And no matter what walk of life you are in, especially the NBA, confidence is everything.
Then there’s the question of great shooters as coaches (Jeff Hornacek in Phoenix, Steve Kerr in Golden State) – can’t they turn their players into great shooters? Sure they can. But then comes the question of time allocation. Should they be spending their time in shooting development or running the team preparing for the nightly opponent on the 82-game season marathon-grind? In professional baseball there are specific coaches for hitting and pitching, the two most important aspects of the game. So it seems obvious to have these skill coaches, right? Shooting is what scores points and scoring points is what ultimately wins games, right? I’ll let you answer that question.
Imagine you have just invested $10 million into something has a 50/50 chance of either making you the next hot commodity in your industry or costing you your job and giving you the permanent laughingstock label. Would your hedge your bet and ensure your investment turns out on the positive side of that 50/50 conundrum? Or would you would leave it up for chance and hope for the best?
Seems like an obvious choice, right? More and more teams have begun to realize the correct answer, and will continue to if they’re truly committed to franchise success. The wave of NBA shooting coaches is coming. Even Jack Nicholson might develop a jumper.