The perceived battle between the ‘analytics’ and ‘old-school basketball’ people – whatever those labels mean – has been one of the defining storylines of the past few seasons in the NBA. And the culminating points of those discussions have often been either about pace or three-point shooting.
Now I’m a math guy and will admit that deep dives with advanced statistical tools into different areas of NBA basketball can lead to some rather out-there conclusions, ideas and hypotheses, but the effectiveness of three-point shooting just isn’t one of them. NBA players shoot mid-range jumpers (and surprisingly, basically all shots out of three feet) and three-pointers at almost the same rate, even with the added distance, and if shooting 40 percent from mid-range means an expected value of 0.8 points per possession, it’s 1.2 points on three-pointers.
Whenever players can shoot a three-pointer instead of a long two, they should. Offenses should be incrementally improved to create and encourage the more efficient looks.
The NBA has been rapidly moving towards an emphasis on spacing, and as more players who can shoot from distance come into the league league-wide, three-point attempts are going to continue to go up. In fact, this season three-point rates are up over 30 percent from the start of the decade. At some point, you’d expect defenses to catch up and three-point frequency to stabilize. If the defense knows you only want to shoot threes or get to the rim, they can gear their defenses around those concepts, right?
However, we’re probably not that close from that inflection point. As a piece of counter evidence, though, the league is currently shooting 34.2 percent from the three-point arc, the lowest mark since 1998-99.
Three-point attempts have steadily risen over the past 35 years, but perhaps more interesting is the number of 6-foot-10 and over players who have started shooting threes more recently. The group of big men taking four or more three-pointers per game or shooting over 36 percent is skyrocketing right now.
The league has now around 20 legit big men who are volume shooters from beyond the arc, up from an average of 10 just 6-8 years ago, and four times the amount in the mid-90’s.
Today’s NBA is a pick-and-roll league, and the introduction of big men who can shoot from range increasingly on almost every team is fundamentally changing how teams approach guarding the pick-and-roll. Recently, it’s been a trend for big men to “contain” the action by standing around the foul line when the screen is set to discourage dribble penetration.
This turn is meant to limit the amount of help teams have to give and allows the defense to stay in control of the possession. Particularly on side pick-and-rolls where teams try to force baseline, a three-point shooting big man is a nightmare.
Big guys who can shoot are a major reason why switching has become such an important part of every NBA defense, particularly in the playoffs, when teams have time to scout and prepare for each other.
Teams have started adjusting in smart ways and now it’s becoming increasingly important for players to have multiple skills and ways to beat their guy – for a big man posting up smaller players, and for a guard to get to the rim and finish over length or shoot an open three-pointer if the big man sags.
For wings, shooting is just as important, and players can quickly become unplayable if teams aren’t forced to defend them (again, something that increases in value during the playoffs). The Grizzlies were up 2-1 against the Warriors in the playoffs before the Dubs basically ‘solved’ the Grizz by putting Andrew Bogut on Tony Allen and punting on guarding him.
Creating high-quality looks possession after possession in 24 seconds is difficult, and the best way to do that is by forcing help and putting the defense at a disadvantage. Driving to the rim and posting up are two common ways of doing just that, but if you don’t have spacing it may not matter who’s going to the rim.
Andre Roberson doesn’t shoot open corner three
In the clip above, Andre Roberson gets as wide open a three-pointer as an NBA player will ever get in a game. He passes up that shot and moves the ball for a contested wing three. Imagine if Danny Green was in that corner. First of all, Russell Westbrook may not have to pass the ball because his man can’t come over from the weakside corner to help, and if he did, the coach would pull him immediately. Second, if some form of help comes it’s three points, book it (or if we’re being super analytical something like 1.72 points).
This simple possession and drive change significantly just because of who is standing on the court. The box score may just show a missed three-pointer for some random guy who was forced to shoot, but the process of creating that shot is far more complex.
Basketball is pretty cool, huh?
These are some of the ways good shooting from each position affect the game, but there’s a completely different level of trouble a shooter can create. There’s only one player who can do this, however… and that’s Stephen Curry.
What makes Curry so dangerous, beyond being the best shooter in the world, is that he has the correct combination of a) a lightning quick release and b) ability to shoot off-the-dribble, off picks going in either direction at a rate that destroys your defense.
Curry is a game-plan killer, and that defense I mentioned earlier about dropping to the foul line to contain? You can’t do that against Curry. He’ll shoot every time he’s open and it’s over. Nearly every NBA team now plays a conservative style of pick-and-roll defense, and in my opinion it’s the best and smartest way to defend, but all that goes out the window against Curry. You have to bring your big up, which most lumbering centers and power forwards don’t really want to do, and it’s almost impossible to switch onto Curry without being put on a highlight reel. Every option is terrible, but at the very least, don’t do whatever DeAndre Jordan thought was a good plan here.
Curry’s pick-and-roll pull-up three
Shooting from further and further out has changed the game already in some significant ways, but the change is just beginning.
Imagine the next generation of shooters inspired by Curry and Damian Lillard, watching and mimicking their shots. Soon, it’s possible that being able to shoot is a requirement at every position and we’re quickly seeing the proliferation of shooting among young bigs – Meyers Leonard and Kristaps Porzingis being prime examples. Teams will have to adjust – both on offense and defense.
Mika Honkasalo is an NBA writer, geek, chart maker and most of all fan. He studies computer science and works in software development and business analytics. His writing can be found at Nylon Calculus and Vantage Sports, and you can find him on Twitter @mhonkasalo.