Freelance Friday is a project that lets us share our platform with the multitude of talented writers and basketball analysts who aren’t part of our regular staff of contributors. As part of that series we’re proud to present this guest post from Austin Reynolds. Austin is a college junior who spends most of his time either watching sports or having bad opinions about them on the internet. He writes for Grizzly Bear Blues and can be found on Twitter @ReynoldsRant.
As the analytics movement is pushed further and further into the limelight, even the most casual NBA fans are beginning to understand the need for efficiency. They might not know the intricacies of a statistic like effective field goal percentage, but recognize that just as important as points are the field goal attempts it took to get them.
Many fans are also coming around to the idea that all shots are not created equal.
The basic stuff — corner threes are more valuable than those above the break, mid-range shots are inefficient, etc. I think they also understand that most players have areas of the floor that they like to shoot from the most.
What many people don’t think of is how those two concepts of efficiency and shot distribution are tied together.
A couple of weeks ago I was playing around with some stats in Excel when I got the idea for a chart that easily shows the relation between those two categories. The result is actually two charts, one that shows a player’s shot distribution percentages in the five major shooting zones compared to the league average, and another that shows a player’s points per shot from those same zones against the average. I’ve very creatively named it the Shot Distribution vs. Points Per Shot Chart.
The first player I tested this out on was everyone’s favorite three-point chucker, Josh Smith. I went into this one fully anticipating hilariously poor shot selection, and let’s just say I wasn’t disappointed.
Smith shoots three-pointers above-the-break with the same frequency as the league average player, but the points per shot he’s getting from that zone isn’t even in the same area code as the average. Perhaps even worse, he takes a high-volume of mid-range shots and once again is below league average in efficiency. In fact, Smith is below average from every single zone except the restricted area…where he actually attempts a lower percentage of his shots than the rest of the league. Smith could be the poster child for what this chart shouldn’t look like.
While these charts can reveal notable flaws or showcase strengths in a player’s shot selection, they can also show interesting trends for entire teams. One of the more intriguing team charts I found was that of the San Antonio Spurs. Spoiler alert: it looks a lot different than Josh Smith’s.
Every team in the NBA strives to have an offense like the Spurs, yet San Antonio shoots from the exact same spots everyone else does. Squint really hard and you’ll see that they trade some above-the-break three-pointers for corner three-pointers, but it’s so slight as to be nearly insignificant. Obviously the Spurs have an incredibly complex offensive scheme to get open shots, but solely in terms of the actual shot distribution they’re shooting the same looks the rest of the league does.
Everybody knows the Spurs are efficient, but it’s particularly impressive that they’re better than the league average from every single zone—especially above the break where San Antonio has the average beaten by well over a full tenth of a point per shot. This is almost definitely the result of those offensive schemes. With the constant ball movement and extra passes the Spurs almost always find the open man no matter where he is on the floor, and this chart is evidence that it works (if there was anybody out there doubting that).
Lastly, let’s take a look at what the chart of an elite mid-range shooter looks like. Courtney Lee was one of the best mid-range shooters in the NBA last season. Lee earned 1.01 points per shot from that area while the league average was 0.79. That is outstanding. With Lee a whole 0.22 points per attempt better than average from the mid-range you probably want him to take most of his shots from there right?
Uh… maybe not. Lee certainly subscribes to that idea, taking nearly 40 percent of his attempts between the paint and the arc. By doing that he’s doing what a smart player should do, which is play to his strengths, but look a little closer at the points per shot chart and you start to realize that while it’s an area Lee is strong in he’s actually getting more points per attempt from every other zone except in the paint outside the restricted area. Going to the actual data, Lee’s points per shot numbers are 1.01 from mid-range, 1.14 above the break, 1.10 from the corner, 0.72 outside the restricted area and 1.30 inside the restricted area.
We didn’t really need another stat to show that mid-range shots are inefficient, but something about seeing his chart extend so much farther out than the league average for mid-range attempts and it still being his second least efficient shot really puts things into focus.
As great as Lee is at the in-between game, he’d be better off shooting more three-pointers instead, despite him hovering right around the league average for those shots. Of course that’s assuming he’d still shoot the same percentage with a major increase in attempts, which may be unrealistic. Depending on the situation there are lots of times where mid-range shots are perfectly good shots, but the point is that if a player like Lee has a choice between taking an open three or stepping inside the arc they’re better off to just let it fly.