Welcome to the first installment of The Professor’s Corner here at Pounding The Rock. I’m very excited to be part of the team on the site I have actively read for years. I’ve been a Spurs fan for over two decades and been a general basketball fan for far longer. I am, indeed, a professor. Specifically, I’m a professor and Department Chair. I’ve spent my full career at a Historically Black College/University (HBCU) in North Carolina. I study Physiology and teach students associated with the Allied Health professions.
The goal for this column is to bring this wonderful fan base consistent analysis of our favorite team from the perspective of data visualization. I hope each post brings us a slightly new viewpoint of the Spurs and the overall NBA. Going forward I sincerely hope these columns bring you unique enjoyment and insight as you visit this fantastic site.
The Spurs have a median offensive rating of 109.2 and are ranked 18th in the NBA. Their median defensive rating is 109.2 and they are ranked 18th. In comparison to the league (light grey lines) the Spurs are in the middle pack on both sides of ball. Recently, the Spurs produced an excellent offensive outing against the Jazz (4th best of the season) and the 5th best defensive outing against a flat Clippers team. Overall, the Spurs have a better offensive team but a less stingy defensive team in comparison to my preseason expectations.
Spurs vs. Opponents
In a recent, wonderful, win in Utah the Spurs out-Coltraned the Jazz by shooting more three pointers than the league leader in three point attempts the last 2 seasons. The Spurs shot 41 3s vs 37 attempts from the Jazz. This was NOT an expected outcome. Why? To understate, shooting lots of 3-pointers has not been a Spurs’ calling card...nearly ever. This was such a unique data point that I wanted to address this visually. While looking at this chart let’s ask the question: “Should the Spurs shoot more 3-pointers?
This chart displays the 3-point rate (number of 3-pointers per 100 shots) vs. accuracy (%) for each NBA team. The colors represent 3-point shot quality—how far away the shooter is from the nearest defender (lighter color is higher quality). Notice that the Spurs take 3-pointers at the lowest frequency in the league (they are at the far left of the chart), with just 32 of every 100 shots coming from behind the 3. Contrast that to the Timberwolves, Warriors, and Jazz that all take over 45 3-pointers per 100 shots.
Here’s some solid news: the Spurs are ranked ~14th in the league in accuracy and, this is an eye catcher, they lead the league in 3-point shot quality. Therefore, the Spurs take very smart shots and hit them with a slightly above-average precision.
That’s good, right? Eh…kinda. Here’s the catch.
The accuracy is elevated by the shot quality. Since shot quality is so high, the Spurs should theoretically lead the league in 3-point accuracy. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. Despite limiting themselves to only the smartest long-range shots, they’re hitting with mid-pack accuracy.
Let’s play D & D: Dejounte and Doug
Dejounte is shooting 34.7% from behind the arc (league average is 34.8). Solid. But digging deeper we find that he shoots 38.3% when “open” (4ft or more from the nearest defender). Also solid. Here’s the kicker, Dejounte is 0 for 14 when shooting contested 3-point shots this season.
Yes…breathe and take a moment to let that wash over you.
The league median for contested 3-pointers is only ~27% (minimum of at least 5 attempts taken this season, n = 154 players), but that’s much better than 0%. Why is Mr. Murray’s contested accuracy so low? ‘Cause he’s a normal human being! Contested 3-pointers are very difficult and only certain players (superstars) can hit them. Luckily, only 11.6% of Dejounte’s 3-point shots are contested.
How about Doug McDermott? Doug shoots 39.5% from behind the 3 (hence the 3-year $41.25 million contract). Additionally, Doug currently shoots a league-leading 50% on contested 3s (minimum of 10 attempts this season). Okay Doug, we see you! Two seasons ago, Doug shot a fantastic 47.7%, 43.3%, and 39.5% on Wide Open, Open, and Contested 3-pointers, respectively (hence, big contract). Although 50% for contested 3-point shots is not sustainable, Doug will remain one of the best tough shot takers in the NBA. But wouldn’t it be better for Mc-Contested-Buckets to shoot fewer of those? Of course, but he can’t. Why? ‘Cause he’s a normal human being!
The answer to a winning season is simple. Doug should take more open 3-point attempts and Dejounte should take zero that are contested. That would be wonderful, but also not likely. Why? Simply because Doug McDermott isn’t fast enough to get open that often against NBA defenders and Dejounte is fast enough to safely have the ball often and therefore is occasionally required to take hard shots. Harsh, but largely true. If Doug was fast enough he would be 2008 Ray Allen, paid 2.5x more money, and be the Spurs best player. In contrast, Dejounte is the Spurs best player, but they’re a team below .500.
There are only so many open 3-point shots in an NBA game and the rest are contested. What’s interesting about this surge in 3-point attempts is that teams know it’s still better to take more whether or not they’re contested. This shakes many of us to the core of our basketball foundations. If you’re older than Ariana Grande, and I am by nearly 2 decades, you were raised on a strict code to ONLY take 3-point shots when wide open; players that broke this rule would sit on the bench. Imagine what it’s like for Coach Popovich, VALIANTLY older than Ariana Grande, to force himself to revise his belief system about what is a good shot. Overall, this is complicated issue, and we’ll address it more in a later post, but the premise is this:
3s Beget 3s: A Theoretical Framework
Taking more three pointers requires teams to spread the offense and make more long-range attempts available to more players (see spread 4s and 5s). This has been done (see 2014 NBA champions). Defenders closing out to contest 3-point attempts, or fake attempts that result in a pass to the next shooter, are pulled away from the center, thus improving spacing. But layups/dunks are still ideal so the defender must recover back to the center or to the next shooter. If repeated consistently, defensive spacing devolves, since defenders are scrambling to rotate. Consequently, since you must take shots, to verify you’re a “threat” and merit defensive rotation, shooting more 3-point attempts forces defensive rotations and increases the number of OPEN 3-pointers available in a game.
Should the Spurs take more 3-pointers? Yep. Will they? Also, yes. But the Spurs have always been about measured competence. They’re clearly not rushing into this. Furthermore, via the 3pt Rate & Accuracy chart (see above), you can see that there are good teams (Suns & Bulls) shooting a low frequency. And there are also non-contenders (Magic, Thunder, & Blazers) that shoot at a high rate from the outside. Carelessly launching bombs isn’t the cure. With that all said, I believe there are 5 title contenders and 3 of those are in the upper right quadrant of the chart (Bucks, Warriors, and Jazz).
Player Check In: Lonnie “Sky” Walker IV
Not liking Lonnie Walker IV would be very strange. Work ethic, personality, and the overcoming of adversity all reserve us a warm spot in our hearts for him. Add in that rocket-boosted left leg achilles/soleus/gastrocnemius plantar flexion chain and we’re all in…until you spend a couple seasons watching jumpers clank off the rim. But maybe the Times are a Changin’? The chart below displays a 5-game rolling average of Lonnie’s true shooting percentage over his last 90 games (pink line). League median  for those that have played at least 250 minutes is the axis intersection (horizontal light-pink line). Please note I chose the minimum 250 minutes to compare Lonnie to other rotational players. Why? Because the Spurs won’t offer a decent contract unless he’s a rotation player in the league.
This chart displays true shooting percent and usage percent. Lonnie has shown a gradual increase in usage (dark-gray straight line; league average is ~19.5 for rotational players—light-gray horizontal line). This often results in decreased shooting accuracy since the player is asked to take harder shots. I’ve noted 3 of these stretches with blue, double-pointed arrows on the chart. Frankly, few athletes tolerate this form of stress test. Overall, Lonnie has spent limited time above the league median in true shooting. But there has been a recent positive trend. In the last 15 games there’s been a massive increase in shooting accuracy despite an upward nudge in usage.
Ask 10 people and they’ll have 10 different takes on the Lonnie’s future with the Spurs. My own answer to that question has changed often. Overall, in my opinion, unless a wing is a Matisse Thybulle-level defender, I can’t rationalize giving the next contract to 6’4” forward that doesn’t shoot league average in true shooting. Fortunately, there are more competent people making those decisions and we have nearly 50 games to learn more.
- When I post team rankings in offensive and defensive rating I try to use cleaningtheglass.com since it removes garbage time minutes. This is a subscription-based site. But, when posting most variables I try to use publicly accessible data.
- 3-point shot quality via bball-index.com is not a statistic available to the public without a subscription to the site.
- I use median values a lot. The median is the middle data point of a distribution (e.g. 13th from the bottom in a data set of 25 variables.) The advantage of a median, in comparison to the mean/average, is that it is less influenced by outliers.