Why teams don’t overly invest on mid-range experts?

January 2, 2017 by J.H. Yeh

On December 15, 2016, the Houston Rockets set a trio of NBA single-game 3-point records in a comfortable 122-100 win over the New Orleans Pelicans as the resurgent Rockets reached new records for 3-pointers made (24) and 3-pointers attempted in a half (31) and in a game (61). In addition, the Rockets now have attempted 40-plus 3-pointers in four of their past five games and 12 times overall this season and that ties the NBA record for most games with 40-plus 3-point attempts in a single season, which the Rockets also set last season.

To be honest, I’m not surprised by this achievement. And I’m not surprised either this record was set by the Rockets, either. And moreover, I won’t be surprised if Rockets will achieve similar 3-point related records future down the road. And I’ll get back to this later.

For those who are unaware, the Rockets are one of the most analytic-savvy teams, led by the MIT-educated GM Daryl Morey, who has backgrounds in computer science and statistics. Morey, who was the pioneer in implementing analytics to NBA games, asserts the two zones that can maximize the returns are the restricted area (right below the basket) and the three point territory, and therefore, he concludes that it is paramount to take full advantage by shooting 3-pointers. Conversely, he also argues that the shot that gives the least returns is the mid-range, the region between the paint and the 3-point arc. As a result, Morey contends that teams should maximize its cumulative points by shooting more 3-pointers and taking less shots from the mid-range. Confused? Here’s why:

Really simple math. Imagine you are at a sports betting event that costs $1 each time to bet and place the wager. And there are two teams in this activity: Team J, a good team with experienced players, and Team H, a young team with talented but inefficient players. Team J is better because it has veterans, and therefore you earn $2 for each time Team J wins. On the other hand, Team H is a raw team and you earn $3 each time when the youngsters upset the veterans. According to team records, Team J has a winning percentage of 50% while Team H has a winning percentage of $35. Other factors excluded, which team would you place your bet on if you’re only betting once? And which one team would you bet on if you’re betting 100 times?

In the short run, or if you’re only playing just once, it may be better to be conservative by placing your bet on Team J since it is more likely to win even though you don’t earn much. However, in the long run, or if you frequently invest on a team, the answer is Team H. Looking at the probability of winning, in the long run if you place your bet on just only Team J, then you will earn nothing in return since you spend $1 to bet each time on a team that has a winning percentage of 50% and you earn $2 on each time the team wins. In the long run, both returns and your investment cancel out on each other. For instance, if you spend $2 to bet Team J on two games, then Team J will win once, in which you’ll earn $2. And if you spend $10 to bet Team J on 10 games, then Team J will likely win five games according to the statistics—which will give you $10 as the reward. If you continue betting on Team J, since it has a 50% chance of winning, eventually your cost (long run investment) will equal to your returns (money reward).

Now let’s take a look at Team H. Obviously it wouldn’t make much sense to people and outsiders to place the $1 wager on the developing team if you’re only betting once. However, since Team H has a winning percentage of 35% and you receive a return of $3 each time the team shocks the experienced Team J, it would be wise to invest on Team H. If you spend $1 each time on a team that wins 35% of its games against its savvy opponent and you can earn $3 each time the team wins, you will actually earn a small return in the long run because the team wins slightly more than one out of three games and you can pocket 3$ each time the team wins. For another word, the break even point is 33% and as long as the team maintains a winning percentage over 33%, you will make a small profit which can turn into a significant amount of money if you continuously place bet on Team H.

Conclusively, if you’re only betting once, you’re better off with selecting Team J, and on the other hand, you will earn a small profit in the long run if you’re placing your bet on Team H. Let’s translate these bets into NBA games. You will win a few games if you focus on shooting 2-point field goals. Conversely, if you invest on shooting 3-pointers, then this can pay off in the long run if you do this for 100 games. 100 games are the approximated number of games very good winning teams play in a season because they usually go deep into the playoffs by advancing into the third round and the NBA Finals.

This is the logical explanation behind Daryl Morey’s basketball philosophy, which translates to his vision and his way of building teams. The Houston Rockets is the pioneer in analytics and their games can be viewed as the future norm of how NBA teams run their offense and construct their rosters. Below is a table of Houston Rockets’ mid-range and 3-point attempts versus the league’s average. I also included the five years before Morey’s hire as the General Manager just to have a better look at how Morey changed the Rockets’ playing style — and subsequently the rest of the league. All statistics are as of January 1, 2017.

 

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The years before Morey’s hire, the Rockets had been above average in 3-point attempts, and their mid-range attempts were mostly just below the league average (except for one season). This, however, saw a continuing drop in mid-range attempts during Morey’s tenure — a strong manifestation that he is letting his basketball philosophy felt in the games by increasing 3-point attempts and diminishing mid-range attempts (while shots taken beneath the basket remain about the same). The 2009-10 season was the first time an NBA team was taking more 3-point attempts than mid-range attempts. That Rockets finished 42-40 under then-head coach Rick Aldelman. Despite finishing just barely above .500, that Rockets team would go on to serve as the pioneer of modern basketball game. The Rockets would continue such trend by by shooting more 3-pointers than mid-range shots for the past four seasons (the shaded seasons denote the year when they shot more 3-pointers). Overall, they have seen success as the team had four straight winning seasons and finished strong with 54 and 56 wins in 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons. Interestingly, these two Rockets attempted less than 10 mid-range shots per game — another NBA first to do so.

With that being said, Morey contends that teams can win games (and championships) by heavily favoring the 3-point line over mid-range jumpers and this explains the reason behind the Mike D’Antoni hire — which was initially met with mixed reactions from the fans. For people and fans outside of the analytics community, this was viewed as a questionable hire as D’Antoni saw little success during his last two tumultuous stops in New York and Los Angeles. However, for Morey, he saw this as the perfect setup not only because of D’Antoni’s fast-paced offense that involves shooting a lot of 3s, but also due to the fact the Rockets finally have the right roster and personnel to implement such playing style. The result? Surprisingly and perhaps not so surprisingly, a 29-9 finish heading into the New Years. With just single-digit win to cap off 2016, the Rockets are clearly one of the title contenders this season. Thanks to D’Antoni’s offense operating under current NBA ball game, the team is shooting an absurd 38.5  3-pointers each game while attempting just 7.3 mid-range shots — both are league records and this just shows how Morey’s analytical findings are starting to pay off.

The table below is D’Antoni’s coaching tenure and his respective teams’ shoot point attempts. All of D’Antoni’s teams (except for the 2003-04 Suns when he took over mid-season) were attempting way-above league average 3-point field goals as his teams during his 13 seasons attempted an average 7 more 3-point shots than the league average. The Suns and the Rockets saw success because they are playoff ready teams whereas the Nuggets and the Knicks were in re-building years while the Lakers were haplessly marred with injuries and an unfit roster.

 

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Additionally, the table below shows the number of 3-point attempts and 2-point attempts. Notice the increase in 3-point shots taken while 2-point field goals are seeing a continuous drop because less and less mid-range shots are being taken since those types of shot are viewed as less desirable. Due to teams shooting 3-point shots, the total field goal attempts see a steady increase as the pace of the game is getting faster since shooting 3s usually don’t involve wasting too much time on the shot clock — unlike the old-school basketball games, where teams usually spend considerable amount of time swinging the ball into the paint. As the numbers suggest, today’s NBA game is played very differently from how it was played 20 years ago.

 

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D’Antoni truly revolutionized and cast a tengible influence on how basketball is being played today. His Rockets team is taking this approach to another level by taking 45% of its field goal attempts outside the 3-point arc. This approach is paying off and it further solidifies Morey’s philosophy as well as proving to others that hiring D’Antoni was the right choice.

In today’s NBA,  the league is shooting an average of 26 3-pointers, or roughly 31% of their overall field goal attempts — a far cry from how basketball games were played 20 years ago when teams only attempted 18% of their shots beyond the 3-point line, the introduction of analytics has started to impact the game at an unprecedented level. As a result, this explains why more and more coaches are intentionally bad strategically running their offense through perimeter shooters, which explains why old-school players who specialize in mid-range jumpers such as Carlos Boozer and Monta Ellis are seen as less valuable in the eyes of today’s NBA front office. Teams don’t utilize mid-range to win games and such trend is starting to be picked up by other teams in the last four years.  Furthermore, this can also be attributed to Chicago Bulls’ struggle as the team’s starting guards, Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade, and Rajon Rondo, are all poor 3-point shooters (Butler has the highest 3-point percentage of the three in 33%), and three players produce most of their points by shooting jump shots. Unsurprisingly, with no perimeter threats coming from those three players who all play huge chunks of minutes, the Bulls are currently dead last in 3-point attempts (taking just 19.8 shots) and are in a downward tailspin as the team has lost seven of its last 10 games.

Conclusively, with modern teams emphasizing on floor spacing by shooting 3-pointers and the current generation of players growing up shooting 3s, this explains why front offices don’t overly invest on mid-range shooters and are instead building teams around players who can knock down 3-point shots. Moreover, this also goes on to reflect on contemporary basketball games as coaches  tactically avoid running offenses that take mid-range shots.

 

 

— J.H. Yeh

(all graphs are created by me, and all sources of information are courtesy of NBA.com and BasketballReference.com as of December 26, 2016)

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