Spurs vs. Rockets (follow up from Jan. 7, 2017)

April 29, 2017 by J.H. Yeh

Back on January 7, 2017 I did an analytical research on the San Antonio Spurs and the Houston Rockets’ shooting tendencies. In that research, I broke down how the Rockets were taking high volume of 3s while intentionally avoiding taking mid-range shots because those type of shots are deemed “analytically undesirable” — or inefficient. On the other hand, the Spurs were taking the most mid-range shots and very few 3-point shots but they were extremely efficient in making all types of shots. The result was both teams were winning — but did so in drastically different fashions.

Attached below are the original tables I created back on January 7th. The yellow highlights denote top 3 in the league ranking while the rosy red highlights denote the bottom 3 in the league ranking. You can also read the Jan. 8 full article here.



And little did I know three and a half months later these two teams would wind up against each other in the Western Semi-Finals and I thought it’d be interesting to re-visit the table I created back in January. Below are the updated tables of both teams’ shooting tendencies as well as the league ranking. I scaled left, right, and above the break 3-point shots to two decimal places for better accuracy. These tables reflect the shooting tendencies of the 2016-17 regular season.






Note how the Spurs are still taking very few shots in the restricted area and from the above the break 3. In addition, the Spurs overall also take very few 3-point field goals (all ranked in the bottom 5). Interestingly, the Spurs take average amount of corner 3s (compared to the rest of the league) which shows that most of their own 3-point attempts come from the corners. Despite seemingly going against modern analytics, the Spurs are very efficient in every zone and such impressive result is much attributed to their effective ball movements which yield to more uncontested shots. As manifested on the table, the Spurs are highly efficient across the field and no field goal percentage is ranked lower than the ninth place.

The Rockets, however, intentionally (or analytically) take a lot of shots from the 3-point territory while deliberately decreasing shots from the mid-range in an effort to out-shoot and out-gun their opponents. The result is forcing the opponents to keep their defenders honest by spreading the defense and allowing for more drives and cuts to the baskets for more easy 2s — which explains why not only the Rockets were taking the most 3-point shots, but they were also taking a lot of shots in the restricted area (ranked 4th in the league). On the down side, despite taking a lot of 3s and going against the mid-range, a lot of 3s that the Rockets took weren’t the best shots in terms of shot selection and timing (clock management). As a result, the Rockets have modest 3-point percentage from different zones (left and right corners and above the break) and is averaging 35.7% overall — which is the league’s average 3-point percentage. Aside from that, a contributing factor that causes such modest 3-point percentage despite putting together one of the best 3-point shooting team is the massive amount of 3s the Rockets took. The more 3s a team takes, the more likely it is going to drive down the overall shooting percentage. Attempting a league record 40.3  3-point field goals per game (Cleveland Cavaliers are second at 33.9), it is expected to see a decrease in the Rockets’ 3-point percentage. Regardless, taking large amount of shots is merely a contributing factor since efficient shot selection — which the Rockets sometimes lack — primarily dictates the shooting percentage.

Now with that in mind, let’s sit back and enjoy the game. It should be an exciting series!


— J.H. Yeh

(all tables are created by me, and all sources of stats are courtesy of NBA.com’s player tracking as of April 29, 2017)

PS: I did not include the playoffs performance for either team because the sample is too small at this time

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