Why Are NBA Analytics and Mid-Range Jumpers Fighting Each Other?

Twitter is an interesting world.

The long-time debate regarding analytics informing shot selection jumped to the forefront once again on Tuesday, as two drastically different worlds chimed in from their respective camps. Matt Moore, (also known as Hardwood Paroxysm and a writer for the Action News Network), responded to a video debate about Zach LaVine and the mid-range effectiveness posted by ESPN’s Rachel Nichols.

Then Kevin Durant, one of the best mid-range shooters of our time, responded with his take on the situation.

The debate escalated from there:

…to this:

There’s nothing new about this debate, and both sides of it seem to be as exhausted about defending their position as ever. Some coaches and players within the NBA rely on the three-point shot or mid-range game to different degrees, embracing the modern analytics movement or sticking to their intuitive sense that only they know their game and how to use it best.

In a group chat between myself and twelve other Division III assistant coaches, this debate continues to rage on, with a few who insist the data informs what shots should be taken, and others believing skill and effectiveness is the driving force behind it.

Neither is wrong.

To be honest, even I’m still torn on this debate to a certain extent. While not a proponent of mid-range jumpers on a large scale, they do have a place in the game. The shot can be impactful when the focus on who, when and why the shot should be taken.

In an attempt to paint the picture of what those scenarios are and how the conversation about mid-range effectiveness is understood, let’s play a game of “Mythbusters” with analytics, two-point jump shots and the public discourse surrounding both.

Myth: Analytics Proponents Want Players to Shoot Zero Mid-Range Jumpers

November 24, 2018; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant (35) shoots the basketball against Sacramento Kings forward Nemanja Bjelica (88) during the first quarter at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Those who are particularly good at mid-range jumpers feel attacked by a movement driven by numbers and percentages trying to dictate when and where they shoot from.

Understandably so. But there is a misconception that analytics mean mid-range jumpers should never be taken.

The point of studying shot usage, impact and using shot charts is to understand when the optimal shots come from each location, who should be taking them and why they are being taken.

Points one and two, the when and who, are dependent on flow of the game. That was a point Durant made, and it’s a valid one: There can be a time and a place for mid-range jumpers, rather than complete eradication of their usage. While mid-range scorers like KD feel attacked, they shouldn’t feel like they or others are being instructed to never shoot them.

If they are, then what we have here is a failure to communicate.

There are instances when Durant and I agree wholeheartedly with his commentary: That is, about players turning down wide-open mid-range jumpers in favor of contested shots elsewhere. That may be where much of the outrage comes from.

This shot, taken by Grant Williams of the Boston Celtics a night ago, is one of those instances where an elbow jumper is clearly the best shot on a possession:

I certainly get why Durant’s upset if someone would discourage this type of shot (though that’s not to say Moore or anyone else that is reputable, is doing so). The lack of other options means he’d be a fool not to.

But the phrasing is kind of the point here. There should be other options we look for first.

So instead of focusing on the who or when, let’s talk briefly about the why. Why are mid-range jumpers taken? Why is any shot taken? The easy answer is this: it’s the optimal shot for the optimal person at the optimal time.

Now think about that statement through the lens of a coach, who is tasked with designing an offense that leverages the strengths of their players and scores as many points as possible. They want to encourage spacing on the floor that spreads out the defense and allows scorers to make their optimal shots comfortably and without interference.

The assault on high-volume mid-range shooting comes from a nuanced point of view of overall offensive design, looking at the big picture for the team. It’s more about properly spacing players around the line as a way for opening up the rim than it is about discouraging people from shooting to their strengths. More on that later…

Myth: The Guys Calling for More Threes are Numbers Nerds Who Never Played Basketball

Jan 24, 2018; Dallas, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard Chris Paul (center) head coach Mike D’Antoni center Clint Capela (15) and guard James Harden look on during a break in the action from the game against the Dallas Mavericks at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

If it were only so simple.

There are plenty of reputable current and former players pioneering a three-point-heavy style of basketball and working to limit the mid-range jumper. Mike D’Antoni, head coach of the Houston Rockets and one of the foremost thinkers when it comes to space-and-pace offense, played for the San Antonio Spurs and spent three years in the ABA before an impressive thirteen-year career in Italy.

D’Antoni’s predecessor in Houston was NBA Hall of Famer Kevin McHale, a notorious interior scorer, who also found value in working with and considering analytics-based approaches. NBA champion and long-time NBA veteran Shane Battier embraced data enough to now be a featured panelist at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference each year.

There is far more behind this movement than just data geeks and businessmen crunching numbers and relying on the opinions of those who never played basketball at a high level.

MYTH: Three Points is Better Than Two, But Two is Better than Zero

Apr 13, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward Kobe Bryant (24) tries to drive against Utah Jazz guard Shelvin Mack (8) in the first quarter at Staples Center. Bryant concludes his 20-year NBA career tonight. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s the point Rachel Nichols mentioned initially in her tweet of the segment on The Jump. A lot of advocates for the mid-range will make this point, and its theory is based on logic, albeit some that’s incomplete in its analysis.

There’s a generally accepted principle within this debate that is hard to dispute: the farther back a shooter moves, the lower his chances are of making the shot. Layups are easier to make than elbow jumpers, which are easier than half-court heaves. It’s a pretty intuitive concept, so it receives little pushback or mention within this context.

Mid-range defenders will pull this into the debate by mentioning that if it’s a low percentage shot, it shouldn’t be taken. If you miss 66 percent of your three-point attempts, but only 55 percent of your elbow jumpers, you’re more often ending up with zero than you are with anything.

To a certain extent that is true, but it’s flawed logic because the shots aren’t valued the same. That’s where analytics, or at least an understanding of value, comes into play.

Think of it this way: you’re given $5 to grow a garden of fruit or vegetables. The cost of seeds that you would plant are all $1. Each pack of apple seeds brings about four apples, whereas each package of oranges seeds will bring three oranges.

On its base, if you wanted to get the most fruit, you would spend all $5 on apple seeds. But what if the cost you could sell the fruit at was different?

If you only sold each apple for $2, but each orange sold for $3, that would change which seeds you purchase and grow. Each dollar you spend on a pack of seeds for apples yields $8: four apples at $2 each. But each dollar spent on oranges yields $9, or three oranges at $3 each.

The exact same numbers and scenarios present themselves with jump shots.

Apr 19, 2019; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) shoots against Indiana Pacers forward Thaddeus Young (21) during the third quarter of game three of the first round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

As we literally compare apples and oranges, the return on investment is what should drive your investment, not the sheer volume of what you produce.

For a long time, basketball has been focused on volume and not on efficiency or a high return on investment. This should be simple math and problem-solving⁠—equations that are done in schools across the world.

In sports, it gets somehow labeled as “analytics” because of the depth of data that goes into informing these numbers.

Mainstream statistical outlets contribute to this misconception. They are still concerned with field goal percentage as an indicator of success and ignore something like adjusted field goal percentage (aFG%), points per possession (PPP) or points per shot (PPS). ESPN and the like don’t do a good enough job educating on why those metrics matter, so the needle towards enlightened thinking about shot selection doesn’t change. PPP is what allows us to know the fruit that each seed will bear.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban does a great job outlining analytics and definitions in this twitter thread. It’s worth a click:

There’s also a misunderstanding about what analytics are.

It’s meant to be used as a predictive model, admitting the outcome isn’t known. With a large enough sample, we can use data to guess what a shot’s value will be, but no one is ever certain when they release a shot that it will go in. So the “two is greater than zero” argument only looks at three-pointers as having a probability of missing but not mid-range jumpers.

If the shot clock on a possession is down to one and the ball is in my hands twelve feet from the rim, I’m shooting a twelve-foot jumper. In that lone scenario, two is better than zero precisely because those are the only two options that remain. If a three-pointer is available, the addition of a third option makes it far more complex than 3>2 but 2>0.

Myth: Great Mid-Range Shooters Need to Stop Taking These Shots

Mar 30, 2019; New York, NY, USA; Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade (3) goes to the basket against New York Knicks forward Luke Kornet (2) and guard Dennis Smith Jr. (5) during the first half at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

As with any fundamental concept, there is an exception to the rule.

Let’s go back to the PPP example we used in the previous section, which is informed by an individual shooter’s strengths from different ranges discussed initially: Dwyane Wade is a 12-time All-Star, making twelve consecutive appearances at the February weekend. During those twelve years, Wade shot 28.4 percent from three-point range. Bear that out on a PPS basis, and every three-pointer he shot, he could expect to score 0.852 points.

But Wade was also one of those elite mid-range scorers that Durant is hoping does not go extinct. During that same span, he shot 39.0 percent from between ten feet and the three-point line. With that bearing out two points per shot, his expected PPS would be 0.78 points per shot as a jump shooter.

Basketball is more complex than simply stating “the PPS is higher from three, so he should shoot more threes.”

If Wade attempted a higher percentage from deep, it’s possible his three-point percentage goes down, devaluing that shot in his arsenal. If he’s solely responsive to the numbers, his shot variation will change greatly based on hot and cold streaks.

The mid-range pull-up is heavily influenced by a player’s ability to get to the rim. If Wade is feared as a driver, teams will give him more cushion when he bounces, so he can create more space for a high-level jumper. In evaluating the effectiveness of the mid-range, how a player scores at the rim also must factor into the equation.

Wade, during those All-Star years, shot 66.6 percent at the rim and 51 percent from two-point range overall. If both are subtracted from the equation and not considered at all, almost every player would be told to stick to three-pointers at all times. But if you are just a shooter behind the arc, you place little threat on the defense to be a scorer at the rim.

The context is important in both, and for guys that are good enough at the mid-range to make a percentage that forces defenses to guard them there, the residual effects are higher shooting at the rim for them and cleaner three-point looks for their teammates.

Analytical results help inform the theory behind what a player should do based on their strengths. Dwight Howard isn’t out there jacking threes; he hasn’t proven he can make them at a high enough clip to be entrusted with such a role. But when building someone’s game from the ground-up and trying to get them to be an elite shooter, the three-point line is mathematically where those skills should start.

A huge reason for that has to do with spacing the floor around the top scorers.

If James Harden is surrounded by players who only shoot effectively to mid-range, think about where the four defenders not guarding Harden will stand. They collapse the lane, not fearing other Rockets that drift towards the three-point line. Now, Harden’s game is handicapped.

Apr 16, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) dribbles the ball during the third quarter as Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) defends in game one of the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

He is going to have driving lines to the rim cut off, and the mutually agreed-upon highest-percentage shot (at the rim) will disappear.

Shooting threes has a residual effect: It forces help defenders to venture farther from the rim, thereby opening up more attempts at the rim⁠—and a higher likelihood that those shots go in. Those shooters have to be efficient enough from behind the arc to warrant attention, which is why such a premium has been placed on shooting in skill development areas. By default, that devalues the mid-range game.

What’s quizzical to me is why great scorers like Durant feel threatened by this concept.

If anything, the recognition that he’s a great mid-range shooter is a compliment. To my knowledge, no coaches he’s played for have tried to steer him away from taking them. But because others are told to shoot more threes, Durant has more room to operate, more space to launch his mid-range jumpers and a higher opportunity to get to the rim. Elite mid-range scorers should want their teammates to be great shooters and buy into this frame of thinking.

Myth: There Needs to Be A Winner In This Debate

Oct 9, 2019; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine (8) shoots against New Orleans Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram (14) during the first half at United Center. Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Joseph Joubert, an eighteenth-century philosopher and moralist, once said: “The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress.”

In that vein, the debate around shot selection is intended to breach middle ground of a mutual understanding about what the optimal way to play basketball could or should be. Basketball is a game that is entirely influenced by a human element, meaning data and numbers can only extend so far in how they predict outcomes. The rest needs to be done by the kids, men and women that take the ball and try to score because of it.

Unfortunately, what we’ve seen are two different trenches being dug, and dug deeper as time goes on. Perhaps there’s a metaphor for society at large hidden somewhere in here, but who knows.

As we become more firmly entrenched in our values and beliefs, we’re missing the areas where our debates overlap and can inform our own way of thinking. Kevin Durant and Matt Moore weren’t far off in what they were discussing, they just didn’t know how to answer the questions asked by the other or likely enter the discussion with an open mind.

You’re supposed to reach a mutual understanding when you engage in a debate. Otherwise, you both lose.

Be open to embracing the other’s point of view and perhaps you’ll grow your philosophy from there. I know I have through rigorous debate with other coaches and basketball minds from all walks of life.