As its young players develop, Milwaukee is betting on the 3-pointer

(Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)
(Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

When Magic Johnson couldn’t get along with Paul Westhead at the start of the 1981-82 season, the Lakers bumped out Westhead and promoted assistant Pat Riley to take his job.  Riley led an immensely talented Los Angeles team — with young Magic, prime Kareem, Norm Nixon, Jamaal Wilkes, and 30-year-old Bob McAdoo — to a title six months later.

Back then, the three-point shot was both an underused weapon and an underdeveloped skill. Magic Johnson led the Lakers that season with 29 three-point attempts.  He made six.  Michael Cooper tried 17 and made two.  Under Riley’s guidance, the Lakers attempted 92 threes and made 13 of them (13.8%).

Thirty years later as the team president of the Miami Heat, Riley had to figure out how to tweak his roster as his team prepared to defend the first title of the LeBron Era.  His solution? To add more three-pointers. He finagled free agent Ray Allen from the Celtics, adding the league’s all-time greatest marksman to a deep group of shooters.  The Heat took 1809 three-pointers and (rounding to the nearest percent) hit 40% of them.  In Game 6 of the Finals, Allen hit the three that resuscitated their title hopes from the dead.

Seven times during the regular season, Riley’s Heat had more threes in a single game than Riley’s Lakers accumulated over the course of an entire season.

Of course, the single most important ingredient to the Heat’s second championship was the presence of an uber-superstar: James.  But sitting not far behind that, perhaps even second, was their long-distance prowess.

The three-point shot factors more heavily into NBA success than ever.  Pat Riley knows that.  And if his offseason moves are any indication, Bucks general manager John Hammond recognizes it too.

John Schuhmann made some keen observations on the connections between three-point offense and overall offense in a terrific blog post over at  Inspired upon reading it, I wanted to do a similar study with a couple of minor adjustments.  First, I wanted to factor in three-point defense, which figures to be equally important as the offense.  Second, I wanted to look at wins and losses — in both the regular season and postseason.

Both making AND taking three-point shots is important.  Based on 2012-13 shooting percentages, the average two-point shot scores 0.96 points, and the average three-point shot scores 1.08 points.  So across the league as a whole (and Monta Ellis, you are not allowed to use this to defend your shot selection), threes are more valuable shots than twos.  But taking threes and being accurate at them is even better.

Below is a crude metric devised to measure teams effectiveness or impotence on three-point shots for the past season.  For each team, take the three-point percentage on offense and subtract the percentage yielded on defense.  Then rank the 30 teams from 1st to 30th.  Then do the same with the number of threes taken — offense minus defense.  Similarly rank the teams from 1 to 30.

Being accurate is more important than being voluminous.  It’s nice to take more three-pointers because they’re more valuable on average, but if you’re not making them, they’re useless.  (I know this fact from my weekly failed exploits at pickup basketball.)  Therefore, count accuracy three times as much as volume:  multiply the ordinal for 3FG% times three, then add the one for 3FGA.

The result is a weighted overall score for the effectiveness of a teams’ three-point game on both ends.  Ties go to the more accurate team.  Because it’s based on ordinals, smaller is better.  For example, the Heat had the second-best accuracy mark and the 12th-best volume, so their score is 3(2) + 12 = 18.

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The trend is staggering:  Good teams rise to the top, with best teams at the very top almost in perfect pecking order.  Bad teams at the bottom.  Of course, there are exceptions:  the Bucks are high at #11 and they weren’t the 11th-best team.  Ditto for Washington.  Denver won 57 games, but they sit in the bottom five.

Overall, though, here’s a stat that predicts the various degrees of success of the league’s 30 teams reasonably well despite largely ignoring rebounds, blocks, assists, free throws, steals, and turnovers. It’s completely based on the three-point game and that alone.

Interestingly, these regular season numbers were also a remarkable predictor of playoff success.  Of this year’s 15 postseason series, the higher-ranked team in this index won 13 of those series.  The two exceptions?  The Pacers over the Knicks and the Grizzlies over Thunder.  Oklahoma City built up strong regular season numbers with Westbrook, then lost him to injury.  The Knicks held a small edge over the Pacers from three in the regular season, but that margin evaporated when Jason Kidd disintegrated to the tune of 12.0% FG shooting in the playoffs.

Perhaps it’s not surprising then to see the results of the same process applied to two-point shooting.  If you find a team ranked high in twos but not threes, you’ve likely stumbled across a regular-season tiger destined to get a spanking in the playoffs when defenses become hyperaware of limiting easy opportunities.  Denver Nuggets?  Los Angeles Clippers? Memphis Grizzlies? Check. Check. Check.

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While the Bucks were nicely proficient at the three-pointer last season, Hammond faced a huge chore this past offseason.  In a league where the shot’s importance rises yearly, he was faced with a roster overhaul where only his only reliable shooter under contract for 2013-14 was Ersan Ilyasova.  Ellis, Mike Dunleavy, J.J. Redick, Marquis Daniels, and Beno Udrih were all leaving or already gone, and Brandon Jennings’ restricted free agent status left his return up in the air.

Despite the pending changes, he restocked the cupboard and then some.  While opting for players whose personalities would result in a more stable locker room situation, he managed to add six competent shooters to the roster — all of whom shot better than Ellis did last season.

Amazingly, there are now five players on the Bucks who attempted more three-pointers last season than Ilyasova and a sixth who was only two behind him. (For more on the Bucks’ new shooters, see this article by Alex Boeder.)  They may not all get the same minutes that they did last season — expect Ridnour to take the biggest hit here — but they will certainly get close and they’ll be shooting in the process.

Question marks remain.  Do the Bucks have a point guard who can slash and kick the ball out to a shooter?  When will Delfino be healthy?  Can Butler maintain his improved shooting of the past three seasons at age 33?

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But here’s one aspect the Bucks’ offense that should undoubtedly improve: floor spacing.  The Bucks devoted a lot of minutes at small forward to Luc Mbah a Moute and Daniels.  Not only did those two post bad shooting numbers, but they put them up with defenses virtually begging them to take jump shots.  Delfino and Butler are their polar opposites.  Take a look at Ersan Ilyasova’s numbers with and without part-time starter Daniels on the floor with him.  Ersan’s greatest asset is obviously his skill at being a shooting power forward, a stretch-4, but that edge is negated when the small forward next to him isn’t a stretch-3.  That won’t happen this season.

The theme of this offseason has been the future. Additions of Brandon Knight and Giannis Antetokounmpo and the vaulting to the forefront of John Henson and Larry Sanders have made that immensely clear. But the Bucks are never a team without a focus on success in the present as well. As Milwaukee waits for the fruits of its youth movement to ripen, the organization has taken steps this summer to finding a way to compete on an uneven playing field. Without a superstar, the Bucks will have to find another way to prove wrong prognosticators.

Last year the Bucks bet on the development of Jennings and Ellis. This year, the Bucks are attempting to smarten up and play the outside shot, where the odds may be a bit friendlier.

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  1. no matter what, the Bucks are going to be a more reliable 3-point shooting team and a better perimeter defensive team without Brandon and Monta.. I mean they have to be, right?

  2. A good point made in the article was the ability to draw and kick. Even good shooters struggle shooting threes off the bounce or late I the shot clock. While Ellis was awful shooting from deep, his draw and kick game created many good opportunities for others. Jennings did much the same. I don’t know that the Bucks have that kind of facilitator this year.

    • Ellis did this but no Jennings didnt really draw and kick that much. Teague would have been perfect but I think knight will do alright.

      • agreed. this was the only reason I thought that bringing back Ellis could work for the Bucks if he was to be our PG and PG only — where he focused solely on facilitating the ball through breaking down defenses and attacking the rim (his true strengths); however, that was during the season last year and well before I discovered that there were team chemistry issues between him and other members, plus his attitude toward the team and city. I don’t think the Bucks have anyone who can do either of those things reliably now, though hopefully Brandon Knight can improve in that regard through hard work and good coaching.

    • In keeping with Buck Nugget, it does seem like guys in the NBA are much better 3-point shooters when they are unguarded at the arc and a teammate kicks the ball out to them — no dribbling, just a straight-up long jumper. This also seems to be better for the flow of the offense, that is when the 3-pointers come after a pass or two (or off a fastbreak). All of this emphasizes the role of the facilitators, notably LeBron, but most of the time a point guard.
      So the Bucks have added O.J., Carlos, Luke, Gary, Brandon and Caron as high-volume 3-point shooters — and that really seems like about three too many — but no true point guards to distribute the ball. With Brandon as a trainee at the point, with Ish gone, with Nate merely an apprentice, with Luke solid, with Gary perhaps pretty good — what we have is a whole lot of question marks and mediocrity at the position of floor leader and facilitator. Yikes!
      Counting our rookies, there are a whopping 11 new guys on the Bucks this season. How many teams in the history of the NBA have had that kind of turnover? Generally, how do teams do when they add about half that many new players? How are all of these new guys supposed to have any chance to fit in with each other, to become a team, without a couple of savvy specialists at point guard to lead the way? I know I keep bringing this up — so what am I missing?

      • You’re not missing anything. If you look at the teams with the best three point percentages, they either have a point guard who can get into the paint or a player that demands double teams. Those players create spot up three opportunities, and the Bucks don’t have any of those players on their roster. I expect many of the new Bucks to see a dip in their 3pt % this year because they will have to work much harder to get clean looks.

        • That being said, even though we don’t have anyone who can reliably drive and kick out to open shooters (besides maybe Ridnour to a degree), the Bucks have one ace up their sleeve with Ersan.

          Like mentioned in the article, part of what made last season difficult for Ersan was the fact that nobody at the small forward position could keep defenses honest with their jumper, something that has been rectified with Butler and Delfino (and even Giannis if he sees any playing time).

          I agree, though: chances are, percentages will drop. Just hopefully not so drastically if what I said turns out to be the case.

          • Are you guys looking at a different list than I am? James is a great distributor/ driver, true. So is Parker. However, nine teams in the top half of this list either have guards that don’t penetrate all that much or have points just as questionable as Knight.

            Kidd didn’t penetrate at all last season (too old). Nor did Felton (too slow). The Knicks were an outstanding three-point team still.

            George Hill assisted on less than five shots per game last season in Indiana. Not a world-class assist guy.

            Stephen Curry, while a fantastic shooter, does not drive. Too small. Too frail. Too injury prone. A look at his shot chart confirms.

            Lillard was a bit better than that offensively, but turned it over more than Knight did last season (3.0 – 2.7), while shooting a metric ton of long-distance two’s.

            Washington was missing John Wall for half the season (maybe more). They had no one– and I mean no one– that could drive. dish. Or do much of anything, really. They were still a good three-point squad.

            Nobody would confuse Darren Collison (who lost his starting gig halfway through the season), Jeremy Lin (who’s unpredictable, at best), or anyone the Kings or Bulls put out there as anything resembling a quality draw-and-dish point guard. Yet all three teams were solidly above average in terms of three-point shooting.

            Knight’s more than capable of being one of the guys who initiates an offense.

            To put it another way, Knight led a team with very, very few other shooters to a ranking of`18th in the league in 3-point shooting. Add actual good shooters in Mayo, Ilyasova, Butler, and the Bucks might just turn into a great shooting team.


            In looking at the list again, the main worry Milwaukee should have this season is the need for a true post player willing to pass out of a double team. Look at that list and notice how almost everyone of the teams at the top has at least one bellweather post guy (or a guard that’s willing to post a lot) surrounded by shooters.

            Miami has LeBron.
            San Antonio runs its offense through Duncan.
            The Knicks have ‘Melo.
            The Pacers have West and, to a lesser extent, George and Hibbert.
            The Blazers have Aldridge.
            OKC has Durant, the C’s had Garnett and Pierce.
            Even Golden State posted Lee.

            What does Milwaukee have?

          • We did have Mike Dunleavy last season at the 3, but if this team plays well together they might all benefit from this new roster.

          • @Scrap Irony – You hit it on the head with your second part of your comment…

            The Knicks had a player who obviously demanded double teams – C.Anthony

            The Pacers had P.George and R.Hibbert who at times required double teams too, plus D.West could pull rim defenders out of the paint creating additional floor space.

            The Warriors have S.Curry who is simply an outlier b/c he’s ridiculously good at hitting outside buckets in iso situations. Then on top of that they have K.Thompson who’s a lengthy sharp shooter and D.Lee who’s a huge inside scoring presence that can draw additional defensive attention which creates floor space at the perimeter.

            The Blazers have a serious inside scoring presence in L.Aldridge who creates additional floor spacing at the perimeter. They also have N.Batum who prior to his wrist injury was proving to be quite a dominate all-around player which required double teams to contain; though, after his wrist injury he started becoming more of a facilitator for the team, plus a 3 and D guy similar to what W.Matthews kind of was. Lastly, Lillard is simply someone who’s proved himself to be a star point guard in the NBA and as a rookie! He demonstrated that he had a very polished game and that he seemed to always play under control. He was very good with the P&R, proved he had a lethal shot (his aFG% was 56.2% and even more scary his aFG% for spot-up shots was 68.6%), had a variety of iso moves and step backs, plus showed he had the explosiveness to penetrate the lane where he had beautiful touch around the basket and used his body well to protect the ball. Checking his PP(poss.+assists)=1.265 which was in the 85th percentile of the league and his 2.2:1 Assist-TO ratio wasn’t very bad (in comparison B.Knight’s was 1.5:1 which was bad), basically D.Lillard is a major offensive factor that teams had to account for and don’t even try comparing Knight to Lillard b/c that’s a joke.

            The Rockets had J.Harden

            I’m sure the difference between no J.Wall and having J.Wall was pretty staggering for open looks, but the Wizards did find out that M.Webster was/is an incredible shooter regardless.

            I wonder what the splits would be for the Mavericks throughout the season.

            Oh and the Pistons did have Greg Monroe.

      • All of these replies are really good and appreciated.
        The comments by Scrap Irony raise the question: Is it really necessary to have a top point guard?
        I want to state first that I really like the statistical analyses, am truly impressed by them, and consider them important. This is sincere, and please keep them coming.
        However, after what I gathered last season from the Bucks, I think there are some intangibles that need to be taken into serious consideration. To me, neither Monta nor Brandon Jennings were true point guards in terms of their talents or temperaments. It just wasn’t their thing, whether because they wouldn’t or couldn’t in various ways and to various degrees. It doesn’t make them bad people or bad players, just bad point guards, or at best mediocre ones.
        Point being, I think you need a top point guard for more than just statistical reasons — need a guy who sees the floor well; who can dribble in and out of traffic; who can make the creative pass without overthinking the simple one; who has a pass-first mentality while still being an effective scorer; and, finally, who can lead the team on the floor, directing guys and inspiring a sense of order and confidence.
        To me, the Bucks sputtered late in games, and more generally late in the season, because they didn’t have a guy or two like this. Also, I think the whole team tends to suffer a lack of morale without good ball movement, and that individual guys are hindered from flourishing, including one of my favorites, Tobias. I could be wrong. Maye the era of the true point guard is over. Maybe team passing is more important, or something else, or a combination of things.
        I tend to go with my impressions and hunches with these things (and to rely on stat guys to help me in that area of the game). Based on limited viewing early-on, my eye-test told me that Tobias was a guy worth watching, that he was a rare guy who could hit a jump shot or create off the dribble, and that he had a good sense of the game on the court and worked well with teammates. I wasn’t sure, but it seemed so.
        My impression about Brandon Jennings is that he is not an especially good dribbler (bouncing the ball too high and fumbling it too often), and that he isn’t all that good at finding ways to get the ball to teammates in good shooting situations.
        Meanwhile, just from summer league, it seems like the unheralded Ish Smith has those skills to a much greater extent, and that in general he just might be more natural and effective as a point guard in the NBA.
        I might be way off with these amateur scouting reports (I also like Scott Suggs and Mike Bruesewitz) but regardless, the point is that things like this seem to transcend statistical analysis — to include the statistics but also go beyond them.
        This includes the role of the point guard. Any response from others welcome and appreciated.

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  4. Not a Bucks fan, but this summer a lot of interesting roads seem to be leading to Milwaukee. Despite the lack of that one good point, you have a lot of passers, which can solve the problem another way. Tony Parker isn’t really the best drive and dish guy, hidden by all the other good Spurs passers who go to work once he breaks things down; Knight can do the breaking down, at least. Butler might be the straw that stirs the drink, the lunch-pail leader a few of these guys need to ensure that they play team ball, make that extra pass, and free the right shooter. I’d be excited if I were a Bucks fan.

  5. Scrap Irony – nice work on analysis. Ekpe and the tube men need to figure something out or this team is going to look a lot like the last team.

  6. This confused me the first couple times I read it:

    “Seven times during the regular season, Riley’s Heat had more threes in a single game than Riley’s Lakers accumulated over the course of an entire season.”

    The Heat _made_ more threes in seven games than the Lakers did all season. I get it now.

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