Death of the mid-range jumper…statistically speaking

Krossover recently attended a basketball clinic where former Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said the mid-range jumper was the worst shot a player can take, statistically speaking. It wasn’t the first time Van Gundy or other hoops aficionados have made such claims. Many analysts and coaches alike believe the mid-range game is going the way of the dodo bird (bad analogy I know…I just always wanted to use it). Take a look at this shot selection chart (courtesy of Kirk Goldsberry and Court Vision Analytics) for the entire NBA from last season:

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See all that green inside the line and outside the paint? Yeah that’s not good. It means those shots are not being made. But why aren’t players and teams taking more shots from the mid-range? Neil Paine, of Basketball-Reference.com, explained it best in a piece he did for ESPN Insider earlier this year:

If the average player makes 38 percent of his shots from 16-23 feet — shots that are still worth just two points — and 35 percent on 3-pointers, why not eschew the long midrange jumper entirely and instead take a shot that gives you an extra point? That’s essentially where the game is heading. In just six seasons, the league has gone from taking 26.9 percent of its shots from 16-23 feet to 24.5 percent. Simply, teams are learning to cut out the game’s least efficient type of shot.

Goldsberry’s chart backs up that claim for the entire league:

A closer look at the numbers reveals some interesting other findings. For example, the only place on the court where shots go in at least half of the time is near the rim. Despite what Dwyane Wade may say, outside of 7-feet, NBA shooting is a 33-40% endeavor.

Also, this year the league struggled the most from the inner midrange right-side baseline (graphic left), where collectively NBA shooters made baskets only 36.6% of the time. Some players obviously excel here – most notably, the left-handed Chris Bosh who hit 57% of his shots from this area this year – but as a whole, this was the least efficient area on the court this year.

But it’s not just in the NBA. The NCAA is seeing similar results and trends. In an ESPN article earlier this year St. Louis Coach Rick Majerus said “the midrange game is not part of college basketball anymore. It’s the long ball, the layup and then there’s very little in between.”

In fact, according to ESPN, the reason for this is that every team is taking more three pointers:

According to Synergy Sports Technology, just four D1 teams (Oklahoma, California, Austin Peay and Liberty) had attempted more than 200 jump shots between 17 feet and 20 feet, 9 inches in their half-court offenses through Feb. 21. By comparison, 176 teams had attempted at least double that amount from 20 feet, 9 inches and beyond, with Florida leading the flurry. No major-conference squad had tried (720) or hit (288) more threes than the Gators, and four of their starting five were averaging at least four attempts.

 

Take a look at this graph from Basketball Prospectus, which outlines shot selection in Men’s College Basketball from 2008:

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Once again, I’ll let Ken Pomeroy of Basketball Prospectus explain the data above:

Now for some explanation. The data behind the graph is nearly 4,000 games worth of charted shots over the past five seasons. This includes a total of 340,000 shots. There’s a lot of interesting stuff in the data, and the above graph represents a basic overview of it. The red line represents the average number of shots taken at each distance. Actually, that’s not precisely correct. There are some warts in the data, and it seems reasonable that the uncertainty of assigning shot location is, on average, greater than a foot. So the red line is the average number of shots within a foot of the charted value. The blue line is the percentage of shots that are made at each distance.

This is pretty fascinating. A lot of analysts lament the death of the mid-range game, and you can see that in this chart. Fewer than half as many shots are taken between 10 and 15 feet as are taken between 20 and 25 feet. What’s striking is that accuracy in the mid-range is less than it is for the closest three-point shots. One might ascribe the lack of mid-range shots to players being stupid, lazy or some other negative stereotype which gets associated with the modern game, but the conclusion could also be drawn that there’s more mid-range shooting going on than there needs to be. If a player can be as accurate from 20 feet, with a little practice, as he is from 15, then why practice the 15-footers if you’re just going to cheat yourself out of a point? Further evidence against the stupidity theory is the lack of shooting going on between 15 and 20 feet. Players and coaches clearly understand basic math.

If my drastic bold lettering didn’t catch your attention, let me try again. According to the numbers, a close three-point shot is more accurate than a mid-range jumper. So it’s pretty clear right? Statistically speaking, the mid-range shot is almost extinct. But how come it hasn’t died out completely? Well for one, it is a whole lot of space on the court. Superior one-on-one players will always feel comfortable taking those shots, no matter what the numbers say. It’s kind of like how “Hero Ball” will never die for various reasons. Well Pomeroy says another reason (and the most logical one quite frankly) the mid-range won’t go away is because great defenses will always be around.

“What I’ve learned is that the mid-range jumper is almost dead, but not totally. It has been kept on life support by quality defenses that force their opponents to take low-value shots,” Pomeroy says. “Teams that choose to take a lot of mid-range shots better be good offensive rebounders, because they are destined to rack up a low shooting percentage.”

It does seem to be a recipe for disaster. The worst team in the NBA last year, the Charlotte Bobcats, took more mid-range jump shots than any team in the NBA last year according to statistics accumulated by the team’s front office.

So is there a case for the mid-range game? Some people certainly seem to think so. In the very same ESPN Insider article where Neil Paine talked about it’s death, he also provided some hope:

However, there is some counter-intuitive evidence that players who have the mid-range jumper in their arsenal still help teams score more efficiently while on the court. Even after controlling for a player’s own rates of possession usage, shooting efficiency (as measured by effective field goal percentage, a stat that adjusts for 3-pointers being worth 1.5 times as many points as 2-pointers) and assists, the percentage of his FGA that came from 16-23 feet was actually a positive variable when predicting his impact on the team’s overall effective field goal percentage. That finding was also true when running the same test on team turnover percentage — the more of a mid-range game a player has, the more he helps his team avoid giveaways.Why might this be?

One theory is that merely having the ability to score from the mid-range opens the floor up for a player’s teammates. According to 82games.com, just as 3-point attempts per minute is a positive predictor of offensive impact even after holding all other stats equal, players who can knock down shots from 16-23 feet force the defense to respect them from more places on the basketball court, which in turn creates precious space for other players. There’s value in keeping the defense honest.

What Paine is saying is if your team has a player who thrives in those areas like Dirk Nowitzki, Carmelo Anthony, Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant and more then the team can play around with their shot selection a bit more. However, not every team has those superior players. Take high school teams for instance. Without all-star caliber players, those teams and coaches adopt a style that gives them the highest percentage shot.

Below is a shot chart from the recent Nike Peach Jam 2012. It’s a game between Team Texas Elite 16U and Houston Hoops 16U:

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Between both squads, they took a total of six shots outside the paint. And all of them were misses. So these kids are either staying in the paint or lobbing them up from downtown. It shows that even in high school, coaches are employing the power of analytics and getting their players to take the most statistically valid shots.

This means the next generation of NBA players may very well be a group of guys that do nothing but go for threes, easy layups and dunks. What happens then? Defenses will adapt and the stats will change, just like they have been for over 50 years. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

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