Forward/Center 3-Point Attempts vs. Offensive Efficiency

It’s the preseason and an annual ritual around this time of year for all teams is rhetoric about how a player/team has made certain adjustments/improvements heading into the new season. A particularly common variation of this that is becoming more and more common is some version of, ‘Look out! Big Man X has been given the green light to take more 3-pointers.’

Like I said, it’s a pre-season tradition. Already this season we’ve heard this type of rhetoric come out of Brooklyn about Brook Lopez, Memphis with Marc Gasol, and Los Angeles for Blake Griffin. There’s even been talk about young Karl Anthony-Towns expanding his range. Hell, Atlanta is even talking about Dwight Howard taking more jump shots.

In Brooklyn, new head coach Kenny Atkinson is planning on bringing some of that Hawks style of play to the Nets, and that translates to Brook Lopez playing more on the perimeter (via NetsDaily.com):

“Offensively – I think it’s with all of these guys – become even more efficient than you are. Taking better shots, getting to the rim more, mixing in some 3-point shots to balance your game,” coach Kenny Atkinson said when discussing how Lopez can improve. “We’re going to challenge to improve in those areas and again that fit our style of play and we do believe that he can take another step.”

In general, the belief that more 3-point shooting on the team level leads to more efficient offense is becoming commonplace. But the hidden assumption I find in all of this push for centers to take more and more 3-pointers is this, ‘Regardless of percentage, taking more 3-pointers leads to more efficient offense.’

This made me curious, so I crunched a few numbers and came up with the graph below charting the amount of 3-point attempts by a team’s forwards and centers against their Offensive Rating (all numbers via nba.com/stats).

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Before I get into any conclusions here I want to mention a couple limitations of the data.

  1. I have found it difficult to find the right data set here. There’s no well-presented way to see what position a player is playing in a particular lineup when they take the 3-point shot.
  2. Because of this, I am including all small forwards. A more exact data set would likely only include small forwards that play the 4 position and only include the 3-pointers they take when playing there rather than all of their attempts.
  3. I thought it made more sense to include small forwards than to stick to traditional power forward and center types, since more and more teams are running out small ball lineups across the league. The data is over-inclusive, if anything, which I think makes sense in this case.

Taking a look at the chart, here are my initial observations:

There Does Not Seem to Be A Correlation

Maybe more data or more accurate date is necessary. But, looking at the chart, it very clearly does not indicate any correlation with flat out 3-point attempts from the forward/center positions and offensive efficiency.

Three of the four top offensives in the league, the Warriors, Spurs, and Thunder are within the bottom half of the NBA in the amount of outside shots they ask their big men to take. That is a most interesting observation particularly of the Warriors, a team that is defined by its 3-point shooting and a symbol of the small ball trends around the league.

But when you stop to think about it, players like Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala, although threats from outside, are not taking large amounts of outside shots. They typically play off of the sharpshooting guards to seek out better shots within the offense.

On the other hand, teams like the Magic, Pistons, Celtics, and Knicks, all offer their big men plenty of opportunity to take outside shots, certainly within the top half of the league in that category, but that has not necessarily translated to top offenses in the league. And within Brett Brown’s historically bad offense in Philadelphia last season, there was room for their big men to take plenty of outside shots.

The Cavs Already Weaponized Kevin Love

For all the talk about how the Cavaliers utilize Kevin Love, and despite the poor efficiency LeBron James shot from outside last year, the Cavaliers are clear outliers here. They are pushing the boundaries on how many outside shots they expect their big men to take and have reaped the rewards of that.

The Cavaliers as an entire team were in the top 5 in 3-pointers made and attempted last year and Kevin Love took almost seven per game according to Basketball Reference. Later in the year, they worked Channing Frye into the rotation and he was taking more than four per game with this team.

Pairing all that shooting (don’t forget J.R. Smith) with Kyrie Irving and LeBron James makes for one of the NBA’s most efficient offenses. No surprise here.

Will Teams Improve Offensively With More/Better Outside Shots From Big Men?

Two teams to keep an eye on from an offensive standpoint may be the Clippers and the Celtics.

For the Clippers, a team that is already established as a perennially elite offensive unit, could an uptick in Blake Griffin’s ability to take and make outside shots translate to them becoming even more dominant offensively?  If so, would this type of improvement allow the Clippers to finally break the glass ceiling that seems to hover over this team?

For the Celtics, a team that already asked their big men to take plenty of outside shots, will adding Al Horford to the mix allow them to improve their overall offensive efficiency?  Last season, Jared Sullinger took over 100 3-point attempts. Any self-respecting Celtics fan will tell you that they cringed each and every time. But at 34% last season on over 200 attempts, Horford provides league-average outside shooting in addition to his many other more impactful traits.

Kenny Atkinson Will Be Looking to Transform the Nets

The Nets and Hawks were on opposite ends of the spectrum with the amount of 3-point shots they asked their big men to take. As Atkinson has professed, we may need to expect that to change.

But Brook Lopez has never taken 3-point shots in his career before. He’s 3-31 from outside in his career according to Basketball Reference. Brook is a skilled player and an adequate mid-range shooter. It’s fair to expect that he’ll be much better than that even over a larger sample size this season. But it’s also fair to expect that he would likely still be a below average outside shooter.

So in some ways, the Nets will be a sort of experiment for this sort of mindset. Will the mere threat of below average outside shooting by Brook Lopez allow Jeremy Lin to get to the basket at ease? Is it beneficial for a center just to take outside shots even if they aren’t a consistent knock down shooter?

The limited data says maybe not, but many coaches around the league are saying, ‘Yes!’.

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