Noah Brier | December 9, 2021

The Midrange Edition

On shots, analytics, and strategy

Noah here. For a bunch of years now, modern wisdom in the NBA has dictated that the only two acceptable shots for a team to take are layups and threes. This trend began in the mid-2000s but is most strongly associated with the partnership between former Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey and former MVP James Harden. Wherever it came from exactly, the Harden/Morey Rockets became the face of the analytics revolution that took over basketball and drove everyone to play faster and shoot more threes.

The logic is pretty simple and, to be honest, it’s somewhat surprising it took the NBA so long to catch on. Because shots behind the three-point arc are worth more, the expected value equation is fundamentally altered in their favor. While they might be harder to make, a three-pointer shot by a player who averages 35% from behind the arc has a higher expected value than a two-pointer shot by 52% shooter. Similarly, anyone who has ever played basketball can recognize that a layup offers the best odds of making a basket. While there’s clearly a lot more science behind it, the basic math is, well, basic.

And every team followed suit. The story of basketball over the first two decades of this century has been a consolidation of strategies.

Why is this interesting?

It doesn’t seem to be true anymore. Over the last few seasons, the relationship between winning and shot quality has been tumbling to the point that it now looks like there’s no relationship at all

From Zach Kram at The Ringer

How could that be? First off, the analytics people won. You can see by the shot distribution chart above that the NBA bought into the strategy of layups and threes to the point where it became ubiquitous. It makes sense that as an approach becomes widely adopted it would cease to provide the same sort of value. At some point, everyone was playing a mirrored strategy to their own, just with different players on each side.

What’s more, when strategy is no longer a differentiator, other factors grow in importance—in this case, the quality of the players on the floor. There’s always been a funny anomaly in the NBA’s analytics revolution: superstars. While most teams were urging their players to shy away from taking midrange shots (the area of the floor that isn’t quite a layup and not yet worth an extra point), superstars like Kevin Durant and Chris Paul kept taking and making, the now-shunned shot. According to Zach Kram at The Ringer, who wrote an excellent piece on this shift in style, “In the 2020-21 season, only 16 players took at least three long midrange shots per team game, according to NBA Advanced Stats. But they were almost all elite players—12 of the 16 were All-Stars within the past two seasons—and capable from that spot, combining for 45.4 percent accuracy.” The midrange is now almost exclusively patrolled by the best players in the world—a group of guys for whom normal laws of physics and analytics no longer apply.

Part of what makes sports fun to me is that it’s a fairly pure exercise in this sort of strategy. Teams are heavily incentivized to win (mostly) and you can see trends sweep leagues and also how counter-trends push back. In moving all-in on this style of play, a space was left (both literally and figuratively) for the best to shine. The narrative of the last decade of the NBA has been about the analytics folks versus the eye-test purists. Armed with reams of data, it seems like the analytics people did such a good job that they may have just turned the league back over to the purists. (NRB)

Ad of the Day:

When Daryl Morey left the Rockets, he ran an ad in the paper thanking the fans, the team, and James Harden. (NRB)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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