Before I was curious about stats beyond the basic box score, I might’ve had some weird, possibly embarrassing opinions about the NBA when it came to players or strategy. One of them was that I thought mid-range jumpers were as efficient if not better than threes, like at all times. It didn’t matter how much time was left on the shot clock and if it came from a designed play or in transition, for a while I was definitely one of those guys who celebrated taking a few steps inside the arc to hoist a long two. Maybe that doesn’t sound too bad when I was drawing conclusions from the league a decade ago, when it wasn’t as efficient as it is today, but a decent chunk of that reasoning also came from watching players who were masters from that area of the floor, like Sam Cassell1.
Cassell made those shots between the restricted area and the arc look so easy, especially ones off the dribble. Sometimes he would drag a defender down to the left block with him and drain a fadeaway over his right shoulder, or use a post-up from further out as a decoy to set up a pick and roll. With a screen, Cassell could set himself up for a shot near either the left elbow or baseline, both of them usually hot spots each season. He was also great at pushing the ball, getting his defender to backpedal, and pulling up in transition for what now would look like a questionable shot. This would all be balanced with the occasional attack to the basket and, halfway through his career, the three-pointer2.
The peak of Cassell’s shooting was in 2004, his first season with the Minnesota Timberwolves and alongside that season’s MVP in Kevin Garnett. Cassell recorded career-highs that year in points per game (19.8), true shooting percentage (56.6), effective field goal percentage (51.7), three-point percentage (39.8), and PER (22.8)3, quite the accomplishments when the league-average scoring statistics that season dipped to where they resemble lockout-shortened ones.
There are a couple blue dots on that chart, but Cassell was largely good to great across the floor that season. He was actually above-average from each of NBA.com’s specific shooting zones, including the paint-non restricted area where he shot 16.6 percent better than the league average. His mid-range game wasn’t too shabby either, nine percent better than league-average on about 9.4 attempts per game4. For Cassell’s career, that accuracy from each of those two locations and how they match up with the rest of the league is typical, but he was just on another level in 2004.
What’s also noticeable is the amount of shots from the left side. Using NBA.com’s exact number of field goal attempts from their shot charts, Cassell often took over half his shots from that side of the floor with 2004′s rate being 54.85. For attempted threes, that number jumps to 60 percent, then to 80 when comparing left corner threes to those from the right side. That isn’t surprising for a right-handed shooter like Cassell, especially when it’s easier to find passing lanes when backing down a defender from the left side of the floor versus the right, but he was often an above-average shooter from the right side anyway.
For his efforts in 2004, Cassell was named to the only All-Star and All-NBA team of his career, the former being voted into the second team. It’s odd that he only went to one All-Star Game over his career, though, especially from 1998 to 2004 when he averaged between 18 and 20 points each season with a PER of 20 or higher, and played on playoff squads in each season except one: The 41-41 2002 Bucks who fell apart as the season came to a close. Cassell at least got voted in during his peak year, so there’s always that.
Looking back, it’s easy to blame him and the rest of the 2004 Timberwolves for why I once enjoyed the mid-range game as much as I did. Garnett and Cassell went 1-2 that year in total mid-range attempts with Sprewell ranking eighth, according to NBA.com, and as a team Minnesota took 3,231 shots from the “dead zone”, about 500 more than the second-place Orlando Magic. On the other hand, Minnesota also led the league in accuracy and weren’t the only team to ever make the long two such a large part of their game. It was an interesting way to build a team, one with so many players able to knock down that shot. I wouldn’t doubt that such a strategy could still work today with the right group of players, even though I’ve since eased up on how I view those kinds of shots.
You know what I still love, though? Cassell’s big cojones dance, a celebration well above the league average:
- Growing up (and still living) in Minnesota, Kevin Garnett is another great example. Shameless TNC plug: Jacob Rosen went into detail about that part of KG’s game and so much more in a shooting profile of his prime. ↩
- A little unfair to say he took that long since in 1996 and 1997 he took 3.4 and 3.6 threes per game, respectively, and made about 35 percent of them, but the arc was shortened those years. He took about one per game from 1998 to 2001 with little success before adding it back to his game in 2002. ↩
- For guards 6’3″ or shorter and at least 500 minutes played, Cassell ranked second in TS%, fifth in eFG%, fifth in 3PT%, and 1st in PER. ↩
- If you’re curious, Cassell’s peak mid-range attempts per game was in 2002 at 10.02 per. His peak attempts per-36 came in 2005 at 11.22. ↩
- The rate of total FGA from the left side peaked in 2002 at 64.5. ↩