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Monday, January 25, 2021

The Evolution of the Usage of the Three Point Shot, Part IV

In The One Number That Explains the NBA's Three Point Revolution, Ben Cohen arbitrarily asserts that the one magic number is 40%. Until the 2017 NBA season, no team had attempted at least 40% of its field goals from beyond the three point arc. Last season, nine teams exceeded the threshold Cohen deems to be significant, and in the early portion of this season nearly 40% of shot attempts in the NBA are three pointers. It is undisputed and obvious that the number of three pointers attempted by NBA teams has been increasing at a rapid rate for quite some time, but Cohen does not even attempt to explain why 40% is more significant than 35% or any other number. This is not like breaking the sound barrier, or approaching the speed of light, two numbers that have physical significance in terms of the experience of an object moving at those speeds. 

Cohen then jumps from his arbitrarily selected number to a broad conclusion unsupported by evidence: "The result is that it's increasingly difficult to beat a barrage of 3-pointers with anything but three pointers. There's almost no way to keep up otherwise." If that statement were true, then all that a team would have to do to win an NBA title--or at least contend for an NBA title--is to make more three pointers than all of the other teams.

However, the numbers show that three of the teams that advanced to the NBA's version of the Final Four--the Conference Finals round--last season did not finish in the top 10 in three pointers made per game. The L.A. Lakers--who won the 2020 championship and look like they have a good chance of winning the championship this season as well--ranked 24th in three pointers made per game last season. The Miami Heat, who lost to the Lakers in the NBA Finals, ranked sixth in three pointers made per game last season. The other Eastern Conference Finalist, the Boston Celtics, ranked 12th, and the Western Conference Finalist Denver Nuggets ranked 24th. 

Cohen's statement is thus demonstrably false; the NBA's top four playoff finishers last season figured out how to outscore and outperform teams that shot more three pointers than they did. Moreover, the teams that shot the most three pointers were not a particularly successful group. The Houston Rockets ranked first and they lost in the second round. The Dallas Mavericks, whose chief "stat guru" is quoted by Cohen, ranked second and they lost in the first round. The Milwaukee Bucks ranked third and they lost in the second round despite having the services of the reigning two-time regular season MVP. The Toronto Raptors ranked fourth and they lost in the second round. The New Orleans Pelicans ranked fifth and did not qualify for the playoffs. The Utah Jazz ranked seventh and they lost in the first round. The Minnesota Timberwolves ranked eighth and they had the second worst record in the Western Conference. The Brooklyn Nets ranked ninth and they lost in the first round. The Portland Trail Blazers ranked 10th and they lost in the first round. Thus, the 10 teams that made the most three pointers per game last season included two teams that did not even make the playoffs, four first round losers, three second round losers, and one NBA Finalist.

In the 2020 playoffs, the Heat, Celtics, Nuggets, and Lakers finished 8th-11th respectively in three pointers made per game among the 16 postseason qualifiers. 

The explosion in three point shooting does not correlate with winning, let alone cause winning. A large number of NBA teams have hired "stat gurus" who think similarly and who have similar cognitive biases, and this is one reason why so many teams are shooting so many three pointers. Every team is shooting a lot of three pointers, and many teams are shooting more three pointers than they probably should, but just shooting a lot of three pointers has no demonstrable positive impact on winning. 

It is smart for a team to acquire three point shooters to spread the floor, creating space for drivers and post up players, but it is not smart to abandon whole swaths of the court by deeming any shot taken from those areas to be inefficient. There is no doubt that during the first few years after the NBA added the three point shot teams took a while to figure out how to leverage the rule to their advantage, but the notion that all a team has to do to win is shoot more three pointers is incorrect. 

As is often the case, the very people who claim to be making data driven conclusions are in fact ignoring what the data shows, because the "stat gurus" not only often misinterpret the numbers but they do not understand--or simply disregard--factors that are not easily quantifiable. For example, it takes a lot of energy for three point shooters to fire up a high volume of shots while also having to run up and down the court and guard opposing players, who are often bigger (teams that shoot a lot of three pointers are often playing some version of "small ball"); if I play one on one against a bigger player who I cannot guard in the paint, I may win some games just by making so many three pointers that he cannot make enough two pointers to keep up. However, unless I am in much better condition than that bigger player, the physical demands of guarding that player and fighting that player for rebounds will wear out my legs, which will in turn lower my shooting percentage. If I cannot compensate by getting some easy baskets and/or getting enough defensive stops, my three point efficiency is going to decrease while my larger opponent is still going to be able to make a high percentage of his inside shots. The NBA game is more sophisticated than recreational league basketball, but the fundamental principles remain true: a strategy that is too heavily reliant on three point shooting is a high variance strategy that is unlikely to produce sustained success.

Don't misunderstand: I love the three point shot, as anyone who has played basketball with or against me will readily attest. The three pointer is without question a valuable weapon, because of the simple fact that each three pointer made is worth 50% more than each two pointer made--but that one simple fact is not all you need to know to win a championship--particularly at the highest levels of the game; at lower levels of the game a lesser team that shoots a lot of three pointers may outduel a more talented team that is not as technically efficient defensively as they could or should be, in part because the games do not last 48 minutes and the seasons do not last 82 games plus four rounds of best out of seven playoff series. 

Many commentators keep pushing the narrative that basketball has entered a new golden age of small ball and three pointers, blissfully ignoring that the Lakers won the championship with a classic, old school recipe: (1) a big man who dominates defensively, rebounds well, and can score at will in the post, (2) a versatile "midsize" player who can score, rebound, pass, and defend, and (3) a collection of role players who collectively provide defense, rebounding, and timely scoring. 

Winning teams play consistent defense, they control the paint at both ends of the court, and they outrebound their opponents. A team that does not do those things well is not going to have much success; if a team excels tremendously in one or two categories then it may survive a slight weakness in another category, but just jacking up three pointers with little regard for defense, paint presence, and rebounding is not a championship recipe, as repeatedly demonstrated by the Houston Rockets during the Daryl Morey/James Harden era.

Previous articles in this series:

The Evolution of the Usage of the Three Point Shot

The Evolution of the Usage of the Three Point Shot, Part II 

The Evolution of the Usage of the Three Point Shot, Part III

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:38 PM



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