Pacers coach Frank Vogel’s decision to sit Roy Hibbert for the last defensive possession of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals was perhaps the most infamous substitution in NBA playoff history. Immediately after LeBron James’s left-handed layup in overtime ended that amazing game, the hoops Twittersphere began second-guessing Vogel’s late-game tactics; many were quick to criticize his final lineup and that gaping, Hibbert-shaped hole in the restricted area.
The Heat needed two points in two seconds, a tall task for any basketball team. Fortunately for Miami, it had LeBron James on the roster, and the most efficient shot in the entire NBA this season was a LeBron James close-range shot. During the regular season, James made a staggering 72 percent of his 637 close-range attempts. If Miami could find some way to get James a shot near the basket, it would have a decent chance of winning the game.
Less than 90 seconds into Monday’s Game 4 between the Bulls and Heat, something seemingly uneventful happened. Dwyane Wade had just received an entry pass down on the right block, where he was doubled by Nate Robinson and Carlos Boozer. Joakim Noah was also interested in stopping Wade, and he had strayed from Udonis Haslem to camp out alone at the crown of the restricted area. Suddenly, one of those non sequitur whistles sounded and play abruptly stopped.
Joakim Noah was called for defensive three seconds, which results in a technical foul. This call established early on that the refs were not going to tolerate Noah’s cheating toward the basket, thus denying the Bulls a vital tactical advantage.
The October trade that sent James Harden from Oklahoma to Texas has been dissected a thousand times by a thousand people. However, the trade is particularly relevant again today; 87 games later, Harden is leading his Rockets squad to a potential upset over his former team. Sure, the Westbrook injury changed the series — and the entire Western Conference playoffs, for that matter — but an upset in this series would still be a huge moment for Harden and the Rockets.
While it’s obvious that Harden has made the Rockets a better basketball team, it’s also important to recall that eight months ago we had little idea how Harden would react to his new environment. After a few years in OKC, we knew he could be Ginobili, but it was unclear whether he could be Parker or Duncan. Though it was apparent that Harden would be the primary scorer for his new team and his volume would surge, it was anybody’s guess as to how he’d perform.
Well, the volume surged, and he’s performed extremely well. He took 17 shots a game this season after only attempting 10 per game last year. He’s also proven that he is a superstar-level player who deserves a max contract, and he’s got one of the more interesting and unique games in the league.
A couple of weeks ago I was listening to Grantland’s own Jonah Keri talk about some Reds pitcher who had “lost velocity” on his fastball. As he spoke, I wondered what the NBA equivalent of this would be. Baseball has radar guns that reliably identify a downturn in pitching ability; we don’t have that instrument in the NBA. It’s not as easy to detect performance declines in basketball.
If there’s one theme that’s dominated the last few weeks in the NBA, perhaps it’s the immemorial relationship between age and decay. The NBA season is long, basketball is grueling, and old guys break down. The league is full of aging superstars who are always a tweak or aggravation away from street clothes.
The below graphic shows every shot attempted in the NBA during the regular season.
NBA players attempted 201,608 field goals this season; they made 91,282 of them. In other words, the league shot 45.3 percent from the floor. These are pretty standard numbers for a full 82-game season, but there were two noticeable trends in NBA shooting patterns. First, compared to last year’s shortened and condensed season, the league was more efficient on offense. The 45.3 field goal percentage was a slight increase from last year, when the league made 44.8 percent of its shots.
One of the basic tenets of basketball is that some shots are easier than others; a layup is easier than a half-court heave. However, it turns out that the relationship between shot distance and field goal percentage is more complicated than you might expect. Although it seems logical to assume that there is a direct relationship between shot distance and field goal percentage, this is not true. In fact, one of basketball analytics’ inconvenient truths is that many 3-point shots have higher average field goal percentages than many 2-point shots, and many of the league’s lowest-percentage shots occur much closer to the basket than you might think.
One of the things about sports analytics these days is that, while combing through and analyzing massive amounts of performance data, you come across “findings” that are unexpected or surprising. Without ever watching a game or studying film, you discover things you never knew about a player or a team. Occasionally these findings are so unbelievable you are forced to somehow validate them. You say things like “That can’t be right” and look for opportunities to confirm.
So far this season, the Nuggets’ Danilo Gallinari is shooting 42 37 percent from behind the 3-point line. This is kind of impressive, although unremarkable by itself, but when we account for shooting angles, something more noteworthy is revealed. First off, Gallinari shoots 3s from all over. He’s pretty active in the corners and at the top, but he’s most active along the wings; this season, well over half of his 3-point attempts have come from the wings, where he’s gone 41-for-123 (33.3 percent). Again, this is unremarkable. However, breaking it down further reveals Gallinari is much better from the right wing than the left one. In fact, of the dozens of players with at least 50 attempts in each of these zones, Gallinari is the best from the right wing (28-for-53, 53 percent), and the worst from the left (13-for-70, 19 percent).
The two most fundamental components of spatial analytics are distance and direction, but too often we neglect the import of direction in even our most “advanced” NBA metrics. The case of Gallinari reminds us why that is limiting. By lumping all of his 3-point attempts into one convenient distance-based bin obscures a key bit of information about his game.
Anyway, since we looked at the best shooters around the court space yesterday, it makes sense to look at the bad news today. And, while Gallinari does appear on this chart, he doesn’t deserve to be the focal point of a discussion about inefficient NBA shooting. Instead, I will devote that to the player who blends incredible talent and fan infuriation like no other; the guy who deservedly comes up every time we talk about players who are really active outside of their proper jurisdictions, that crazy sheriff down in Georgia — no, not this fella.
As spatial analytics slowly creeps its way into the NBA, we're beginning to evaluate performances and tendencies in new ways. Perhaps the most basic illustration of the virtue of spatial approaches applies to shooting. Although field goal percentage is concise and simple, and, as a result, has made its way into the parlance of basketball fans everywhere, it can also be a misleading judge of shooting ability; generally speaking, FG percentage ignores space and the basic basketball tenet: Some shots are easier than others. Layups are easier than half-court heaves, and players who thrive exclusively close to the basket are always the league leaders in FG percentage. Consider the top five all-time career leaders in FG percentage: Tyson Chandler, Shaq, Artis Gilmore, Mark West, and Dwight Howard. Now these guys are obviously incredible scorers, but are they great shooters?
One simple way to evaluate shooting in the NBA is to examine FG percentage in different court spaces. As of January 22, the NBA had made 44.7 percent of its 100,607 shots, but its shooting efficiency varies considerably depending on space:
The red zone is not a real place on any football field, and its prominence in football parlance is only limiting our understanding of the game. After spending thousands of hours of my life with Dierdorf, Buck, and all the other great orators of our time, it’s still unclear to me why everyone seems to think the “red zone” is an acceptable concept. Of course we all know this is the area within 20 yards of the goal line, but beyond that — what the hell? I guess it’s called the red zone because teams are more likely to accumulate points once they arrive there, but the placement of the red zone boundary at the 20-yard line has always seemed so arbitrary. Why not the 15? Why not the 25? Most NFL kickers can make 45-yard field goals on a regular basis, so why doesn’t the red zone start at the 28?
When we talk about the red zone, we’re talking about an over-hyped subset of playing space, but this idea of vague spatial zones is not unique to football. In our era of Google Maps and GPS, the understanding of space in sports remains almost foolishly antiquated; every sport is plagued by these kinds of vague colonies of playing space. Soccer has its “attacking third”; baseball has its “strike zone”; basketball has its “mid-range”; the list goes on and on. Some of the partitioning is imprecise, some of it is arbitrary, some of it is both. But, regardless, these divisions not only affect the way we talk about every sport, but perhaps more importantly, their ambiguity hinders the way we understand sports in general. It’s cool that pro wrestling has its Muta Scale, which is awesomely arbitrary, but other sports need some more legitimate scaling.
The good news is that we’re getting better. Recently, at the end of close NFL games, as a team is frantically driving toward a last-gasp field goal attempt, we've seen the television networks superimpose a red line at the edge of “field goal range” as a way to visually emphasize this key spatial threshold. This line is definitely “red,” but it's never placed at the 20-yard line — it’s always somewhere between the 30 and the 40. The field goal range boundary line is perhaps our best precedent for where a “red zone” might actually begin; after all, the line is placed at the estimated edge of the point-scoring zone. But, the field goal range line raises a broader question: What is the relationship between field position and scoring expectations in the NFL?
In the time of attack guards, small ball, and stretch 4’s, Big Al Jefferson’s game is unapologetically old school. He’s the kind of post player that was once so ubiquitous in the league, but now seems to be an endangered species. Like Adrian Peterson rushing as if it’s still the 1980s, Jefferson’s throwback style is strangely comforting to fans of a certain age, and the scarcity of those who play like him also offers commentary on the state of the NBA in 2013.
When you watch the Jazz offense trot down the court, chances are you will see Jefferson quickly assume his position in his native ecosystem, down on the left block. Simply stated, Al Jefferson loves the left block. If all the NBA players were on Foursquare, Big Al would definitely be the mayor of the left block. He has compiled a collection of effective pivots, drop steps, half hooks, mini-jumpers, “weezies,” and up-and-unders that are highly calibrated for the left side, not the right. This asymmetric love affair is so torrid that Big Al has become the most lopsided shooter in the NBA. No player in the NBA has a more asymmetric shot chart than Al Jefferson. Out of the 137 players who have attempted at least 200 field goal attempts this season, Al Jefferson is the most one-sided shooter.
On the November 7, 2012, episode of Pardon the Interruption, Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon interviewed Dork Elvis, a.k.a. Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey. During the interview, Kornheiser asked Morey the following questions: “Is there a specific statistic, Daryl, that you look for in a player that counts for more than any other statistic out there? Is there one thing that you might see that appeals personally to you?”
Morey hesitated, Kornheiser pressed, then Morey suggested that he loves guards who get to the rim: “We really like guys who can attack the hoop. Our point guard, Jeremy Lin, is a great example; so is James Harden. Point guards who are a little more traditional, a little more safe, and stay within their lane, I don’t think they impact winning as much as people think. I like having multiple attack guards and playing with pace.”
Good things happen when guards “attack” the basket. Aside from the obvious — layups and dunks — less apparent results like offensive rebounds, defensive fouls, free throws, and assists are also more likely to occur when attacking guards get near the hoop.