If you’ve been following the NBA closely, you’ve probably noticed a trend among analysts and writers (and the nerdier fans) of increased attention paid to the preferred shooting locations of the game’s top players. Part of that reflects the growing emphasis on scoring efficiency and the hoopla made over “Moreyball” in Houston (Rockets GM Daryl Morey’s take on Moneyball), but it’s largely due to the awesomely useful stats that new-ish technology has made available to anyone willing to look. Thanks to powerful cameras installed across arenas by SportVU, we can mess around with detailed data about players that would have taken ages to compile with the naked eye (with much less accuracy) if they could be compiled at all. Check that shit out.
Unsurprisingly, this does wonders for breaking down the tendencies of each team. For my money, the simplest and most telling information are the detailed shot charts, which show how much each team shoots from each point on the court and how often those shots find the bottom of the net. You can learn a lot about each team’s offensive and defensive philosophies, strengths, and weaknesses based on that alone. The eternal stat-nerd dream of being able to win arguments about sports without ever watching the games is one step closer to being a reality. (for reals though, watch the games, guys – it sounds more legit when you’re talking about the defensive attention Kyle Korver commands when there’s a Hawks game playing in background, anyway)
But what good are all these fancy stats if we don’t use them to make sweeping generalizations about players and teams, right? The people demand rankings and color-coded graphics and I’m here to help. So… what teams take the best and worst shots, and what does that mean, anyway? I’m glad you asked. Our friends at basketball-reference.com offer a number of tidy ways to parse these shooting charts by distance and shot type and I’m going to focus on four areas in particular.
The good: shots at the rim and corner threes.
Shots at the rim needs little explanation; they’re the most reliable shots in the game, plain and simple. But why corner threes, specifically? A lot of analysts emphasize the efficiency of three-pointers due to the simple fact that the shot is worth 50% more than a two-pointer and teams tend to make them at a rate less than 50% worse than they make twos. They’re not wrong, but all threes are not created equal. Corner threes make up almost a quarter of all threes taken this season and the average team converts them at a blistering 39.4%. (all numbers used in this post are taken from basketball-reference as of 1/12/15) That means that all other threes are made 33.7% of the time. While that technically corresponds to a 2PT% of just over 50, they tend to be rebounded by the offense less often and farther from the basket than most attempts from two, and they result in shooting fouls much less often. Really, outside of the corner threes don’t tend to be that great a shot. And it’s no mystery why corner threes are made more often; it’s the shortest distance from three-point-land to the basket and the favorite position for outside shooters to run to for open looks.
A couple things to note in the charts below: “% of 2PA” = the percentage of all two-point attempts that were shot within three feet of the rim. “% of FGA” = the percentage of all field goal attempts that were shot from corner three. “FG%” = the percentage of the shot attempts in question that are made successfully. I chose to limit shots are the rim to 2PA (two-point attempts) because in today’s NBA, the variance in three-point attempts is pretty huge and I mainly wanted to contrast shots at the rim with considerably less efficient two-point jump shots. It will surprise few that Houston, a team consciously designed and instructed to shoot from the game’s most reliable spots, tops both lists.
So how does this align with offensive success? Surprisingly, when it comes to shots at the rim, the offensive ratings (ORtg: a fairly accurate estimate of the number of points scored per 100 possessions) of the top 10 and bottom 10 are nearly identical. That is partly because the 76ers are in the top 10 and skew the results significantly with their historically bad offensive rating, which is 13 points below the league average, (no other team is more than 5 below) and partly because few teams shoot a dearth of shots at the rim. The wisdom of taking shots near the rim has been ingrained in basketball minds for a long time.
As you can see, the variance of corner three attempts is much greater, with Houston taking a mind-boggling 13.2% (or a little more than an eighth) of all their shots from the corner and the Hornets putting up less than a third of that. Here, the top 10 post an average ORtg of 107.8, and the bottom 103.8. Of course the 76ers fall in the bottom this time, but even with their 93.2 removed entirely, the average is still just below 105. The difference is not huge but it it’s there. Seven of the ten top teams have above average ORtg and seven of ten bottom fall below. There’s a definite issue with sample size, but it seems to make sense that corner threes would correlate more strongly with positive offensive efficiency than shots at the rim. Beyond the great percentages associated with corner threes, a high number of attempts from the area suggests good ball movement as good offenses often try to catch defenses out of position with quick rotations to the corner. A good transition offense will also often find a lot of open looks from there as well as shooters trail defenders preoccupied with the ball-handler. And teams that shoot more threes in general tend to do so at the expense of long twos, which brings us to…
The bad: long/mid-range shots (two pointers 16+ ft. from the basket) and short/mid-range shots (shots 10-16 ft. away).
The mid-range shot has been a popular object of hate in recent years, and with good reason. Long twos offer all the negatives of threes – they’re low-percentage, difficult to rebound in good position, and they draw few shooting fouls – without the benefit of the additional point. The shorter jumpers don’t fare much better; the court becomes more congested and the open spots less reliable, and shot blockers are in better position to help contest. While it’s true these shots help spread the court and can be effective decoys that lead to better shots, the average team shoots almost 30% of all their attempts from mid-range and converts them just 40% of the time. It’s no wonder Morey and Houston avoid them like the plague. (fun fact: Aldridge shoots over one more mid-ranger a game than the entire Rockets roster). As you might imagine, there is a lot of overlap with the “good” lists, just with the positions swapped:
As with corner threes, there is a good amount of variation here with familiar faces rounding out the extremes. Once again the asshole 76ers, who are pretty much not a real team, try to ruin things for the good guys, but the green percentages still correspond to an average ORtg about 1.5 points higher than the red. It makes sense that offenses which shoot 30-40% of their shots from the least efficient area of the court would be less efficient in general, but the gap is relatively small.
In fact, the results of these charts in general seem to be less damning than one might expect. Sure, the 76ers are in the “good” three out of four times, but they’re just one team. Shouldn’t the average gap between the top and bottom teams across the four charts be more than just a bit above 1.5 points? Does this mean the ills of bad shots are exaggerated? Maybe not. These charts tell us more than just the offensive philosophies these teams employ; they might tell us something about the quality of player as well. The 76ers and Rockets don’t only not shoot mid-range shots because they believe they’re bad shots; if you look at the field goal percentages listed on the charts, you’ll see they both are legitimately awful from that range.
Beyond the obvious conclusion that it is never a good thing to bad at something, it seems very reasonable that there is inherent value in offensive balance. It’s not a coincidence that the teams that shy away from the low percentage twos the most are two bad offenses (Philly and Detroit) and one mediocre offense (Houston). While almost no teams hit mid-range shots at an objectively good rate, these shots can still net positive results even when missed. Good midrange shooters command respect from defenses and big men who can stretch the floor bring defenders and rebounders away from the basket and cause match-up problems. The threat of mid-range jumpers alone yields more opportunity for fakes and deceptive ball movement that can ultimately end in a shot at the rim or a three in the corner. Near the end of the shot clock or on big possessions when defenses tighten up, mid-range shots may be the only shots defenses are willing to surrender. Overly simplistic offense just makes things easier for defenses.
While the 2014-15 Lakers and Knicks should probably be used as cautionary tales for future offenses who like the mid-range a bit too much and I really do believe the Rockets are a glimpse into the future of basketball, I doubt even Morey himself would argue that the utter lack of production from mid-range and complete reliance on shots at the rim and corner threes are a good thing for his team. As offenses evolve and players and teams become increasingly aware of how their shots impact scoring efficiency, expect to see successful offenses follow the tenants of Moreyball but with more restraint and an eye towards balanced offense.