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Outside the Box Thinking on 3-point Shooting and the Spurs


The 3-point shot is of extreme importance in the Spurs' offense; we all know that. There's a reason why PATFO keeps bringing in 3-point threats: floor-spacing is a requirement for the type of drive-and-dish, pick-and-roll heavy offense the Spurs use. With that in mind and with the help of some great articles, let's explore what makes for good form on a 3-pointer, why Danny Green will likely keep his percentage where it is, and how preventing 3s helps with defensive rebounding.

Recently, our fearless leader J.R. Wilco e-mailed me a link to a very interesting article by Zach Lowe in which he discussed how a new technology is providing front offices with new information, including data on 3-pointers. Things like form, arc and consistency can be tracked. The article is really interesting, but two Spurs-related excerpts stood out to me. The first is this one:

Guys hit only 31.2 percent of threes that peaked between 16 and 17 feet, and percentages got much worse as heights reached extremes on either end.

This isn't surprising. Line drive shot attempts generally just don't work, and guys typically add a bit of extra height when pressured - meaning the shot is already relatively low-percentage.

But there are exceptions - proof that guys can scrape the edges of this range and succeed if a certain technique works for them. Ray Allen's attempts, for instance, reached an average peak height of just 14.69 feet, and he's probably the greatest three-point shooter in league history. Of all shooters who attempted at least 40 recorded threes, only Kawhi Leonard's shots had a lower average maximum height.

Kawhi's case is really strange in that his shooting improved dramatically over the season, even if his form only saw minor tweaks to these untrained eyes. Leonard's corner 3s were a little flat to start the season and his stroke seemed different from mid-range. This inconsistency on his form seemed to continue throughout the season, but then Leonard's 3-pointers started to fall. Now, it's possible that Kawhi's misses were really low and that his average is skewed by that, but Leonard still seems to shoot a little flat. It's unfortunate Lowe doesn't expand on Kawhi because it would be really interesting to see if his form is consistent or his makes are higher, but knowing that Ray Allen is not struggling even if his shot is flatter than recommended suggests that Kawhi could continue to hit at a high clip.

The other excerpt refers to Danny Green. Again, Lowe:

Allen is an outlier, but the trajectory data also provide a clue to his success: Both his makes and misses reached an average peak height of exactly 14.69 feet, a nice bit of consistency and proof that Allen's borderline obsessive-compulsive work routines (and "borderline" is generous) work well.

Allen's perfect make/miss alignment is unusual, but not unbelievably so. The average shot height difference in max height between makes and misses was about half an inch, with misses trending higher in the air than makes. Kevin Martin and Chase Budinger also recorded perfect make/miss matches last season, and Danny Green, Linas Kleiza, Kyle Lowry and Kevin Durant both had make/miss gaps of about one-tenth of an inch.

Now that's consistency, and it explains why every time Green pulls the trigger it looks like it's going in. My biggest concern with Danny Green and the contract extension the Spurs signed him to was that, early in the season, Green had games where he shot the ball great and others where he went 0-5 from deep. The easiest explanation was that his form was not consistent and his makes were somewhat fortuitous. Learning that his form is among the more consistent in the league is reassuring and makes me confident in his ability to keep his percentage in the high 30s or low 40s.

Speaking of Green, racm linked to an interesting article by Kirk Goldsberry on the corner 3 in the fanshots sections. In it, Goldsberry provides some interesting stats about why the corner 3 is one of the best shots available.

About 1 of every 16 of NBA field goal attempts is a corner 3. League-wide they go in about 37% of the time, which is the highest percentage of any 3-point shot. This is due to the fact that the 3-point line is closer to the rim at the corner than it is anywhere else; it's easier there. However, that's not all; due to the nuances of court spacing, penetration, and collapsing defenses, teams also tend to get open shots in the corners a lot.

From that article, we also learn that Danny Green is the 8th best shooter from the corner attempting at least 80 shots with a 44% efficacy. The Spurs are the 6th best team from that spot, and they attempt the second most shots from there in the league, at 6.73 per game.

Yet not only Green excels from the corner. Kawhi Leonard, for example, was much better shooting the corner 3 (47%) than from other spots (30%) during the regular season, yet he took fewer shots from there. If he improves his shooting from other places or simply cuts down on wing 3s, Kawhi could be an even better marksman.

Of the Spurs shooters, the only one who was worse from the corner is Gary Neal. Green and Leonard were considerably better from the corner, while Ginobili and Bonner were slightly better. In the playoffs, corner numbers tend to hold since those shots are usually open. Bonner and Green did see a pretty significant decrease in "above the break" 3-pointers, which suggests they are good at hitting open shots and not so much when they are contested. Again, this is all conjecture at this point.

The last article about 3-pointers is actually about rebounds. This is another Goldsberry article that focuses on determining where a rebound will fall according to where the shot was taken. You should check it out because, while there's nothing Earth-shattering about it, it's really interesting. This is the excerpt about 3-point shots:

3. There is a direct relationship between shot distance and rebound distance. The longer the shot attempt, the further away from the rim the rebound is likely to occur. The corresponds with the idea that 3-point shots often result in "long rebounds".

The one thing that bothers me about the otherwise great Spurs defensive rebounding is that the guards weren't getting those long rebounds often enough. The Spurs were 10th in the league in opponent 3-pointers and allowed a slightly above average percentage from deep. When you add a few offensive rebounds allowed after 3-pointers to those not-so-stellar stats, it's clear that one of the aspects in which the Spurs should improve is 3-point defense.

4. In the NBA, 3-point shots are much better options than midrange shots for 2 reasons: 1) The decreased FG% is more than compensated by a higher reward in terms of points per attempt, and 2) not only do made 3-point shots obviously result in more points, missed 3-pointers are more likely to result in offensive rebounds than missed midrange jumpshots. Midrange jumpers kill possessions more and result in points less.

That is especially interesting for the Spurs because, while offensive rebounding is not an area of focus, the extra possessions players like Leonard and Blair provide are really valuable. As Goldsberry explains, the 3-pointer was already consider a better shot than the long two because of the extra point that more than makes up for the lesser accuracy; if rebounding opportunities are scarcer after a mid range jumper, it makes even more sense that the Spurs emphasize not taking those on offense and allowing them on defense. The Spurs might suffer when the mid range shooter is hot (Ibaka 11-11), but they are willing to take that chance by denying the 3-point shot and the subsequent offensive rebounds.