Can the midrange game survive?

Everyone knows by now that mid-range shots are inefficient. The Rockets in particular have taken this idea to heart. Just 15% of their shots come from mid-range (I’m defining mid-range here as more than 8 feet from the basket but inside the 3pt line). For comparison, the Blazers shoot nearly 36% of their shots from mid-range. Great defenses like Indiana’s try to force mid-range shots.

But here comes the backlash. Zach Lowe, Seth Partnow, and Benjamin Morris all suggest that the mid-range game has a place. As I understand it, These are their primary arguments1:

  1. Sometimes, a 2pt shot is all you have, and when that’s the case, you want to be good at making them. All things equal, an open 2pt shot is better than a 3pt shot with Tony Allen all over you.
  2. Defenses will adjust.
  3. Not everyone has the personnel necessary to take only 3s and layups.

I don’t have enough data to crack this question and I suspect no one does–there aren’t enough teams employing a Rockets’ style offense to make sweeping judgements about them. This post is more of a first cut at examining the data and making some tentative observations.

Offensive Rating vs. Midrange FG%

Midrange volume and FG%

The graph above shows offensive rating plotted against midrange fg% for all 30 teams this season. There’s an upward slope but that’s obvious: hopefully teams that shoot better have a higher offensive rating (and good mid-range shooting is probably correlated with good 3pt shooting). The circles are scaled according to how often the team takes 2pt shots and while there’s not a lot of variability, you’ll see the clear outliers. Houston takes few 2pt shots, and is terrible at hitting them, but still has a high offensive rating. You can also see that a number of teams manage to be good without taking many 2s. The Suns, Spurs, and Heat stand out.

This isn’t very satisfying as a summary of what’s going on. What I’d like to do is quantify the ability of a team to take and make shots from all over the court. One way to think about this is to measure the standard deviation in number of shots taken in different places. Let’s say we just look at close, mid, and 3pt shots. If a team takes say 40%, 20%, and 40% of their shots in these 3 categories, the standard deviation is about 11%. If a team takes 30%, 40%, and 30% in these categories, the standard deviation is about 6%. So a low standard deviation indicates a much more even distribution of shots. The graph below takes that standard deviation over 17 regions on the NBA court for each team, and plot it against offensive rating, with the color of the circle representing the team’s average FG% across all locations (red=good FG%, blue=bad FG%).

Offensive Rating vs. Standard Deviation of Shot Attempts

Offensive rating vs standard deviation of attempts

There’s a lot going on in this graph but bear with me for a second. First, the correlation is positive, which means that teams with less range tend to have better offensive ratings (remember, a higher SD means shot volume in the regions is further apart). If you look at the left side of the graph, you can see that this is because teams with lots of range tend to be poor shooters. That’s not entirely because they are taking more long 2s than other teams. Remember the Rockets are taking a huge number of 3s, a lower percentage shot than most mid-range shots, but still have a strong average FG%.

Most of the really good offensive teams are in the top center of the graph. These teams have range, but not too much, and are very strong shooters (evidenced by mostly purple and red dots). What’s interesting to me though is the cluster of teams in the top left corner of the graph. These teams take shots all over the court and have offensive ratings of 105 or better. Moreover, these teams are not particularly good shooters. Portland is 14th in FG%, the Knicks are 20th, and the Raptors are 23rd. These teams all shoot a lot of 3s, but they are active from other parts of the court as well.

It’s hard to say much from 30 data points in one season. Certainly the graph above reinforces the point that there is more than one way to win. Despite my biases, I am starting to wonder about the value of the mid-range game. Point 2 in defense of the mid-range game, that defenses will adjust, is not that convincing to me. Teams have been knowledgeable about PPS for a while now and the 3 is still a great shot. The Rockets literally can’t make a 2. If defenses could really take away the 3, you’d think Houston would collapse, but we don’t see that happening. I feel like we really need to see more teams adopt a Houston-like strategy before we can say more about this.

  1. I suppose I should mention my bias upfront: I am a huge fan of the mid-range game. I love guards who can drive to the hoop, then stop on a dime and pull up. It’s beautiful.
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