You’ll Never Believe the One Crazy Trick Your Subpar NBA Team Could Use to Become a Contender

Brandon Knight isn't the world's best three-point defender, but he never lacks for effort. (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
Brandon Knight isn’t the world’s best three-point defender, but he never lacks for effort. (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

Five, ten, thirty years ago, the world was a simpler place. Titles were titles, tidy encapsulations of stories. When the lead story of a newspaper read, “British Troops Encircle Capital”, the words summed up an entire story in four words.

Now, thanks to Upworthy, Buzzfeed, Distractify and the like, titles have been replaced with nebulous mini-paragraphs that protect the essence of the story like a closely guarded secret. YOU MUST CLICK THIS LINK!  If you get the entirety of the story from the title alone, there’s no click and the whole process of writing was a failure.

But, Dear Bucksketball Reader, I really wanted you to click this link. You probably already know that three-point shooting is a big deal in the NBA, but it’s almost certainly even more important than what you thought.

How important is three-point shooting?

Important. Really important. It’s one of the single most important factors that separate the good teams from the bad ones.

To get the full effect, consider the three-point shot from both sides of the ball: offense and defense.  For each of the NBA’s 30 teams, take their three-point shooting percentage on offense and subtract the corresponding percentage on defense.

The San Antonio Spurs led the league in this shooting differential with a mark of +4.5%. They won 62 games. The Philadelphia 76ers finished dead last with a net percentage of -5.8%. They won 19 games. Now use this net percentage on the x-axis and plot it against wins on the y-axis for each of the league’s 30 teams. (Click image to expand.)


Now draw an imaginary vertical line just to the left of the Bulls and the Hawks and you’ve separated the good-to-excellent outside shooters from the poor ones.  Without exception, the teams to the left of that line stink. You can write it out axiomatically.

Teams that shoot 1% or worse than their opponents on three-pointers are below-average teams overall.

(You can argue that the Charlotte Bobcats played well on defense. You can also say that they smartly used Al Jefferson‘s post game as a centerpiece on offense. But in the end, they just weren’t a real contender. As a case in point, consider that the Bobcats were so desperate for shooting that they traded for Gary Neal and Luke Ridnour, two guys who had disappointed the worst team in the league.)

The converse of our axiom isn’t necessarily true; it’s possible to win the season-long three-point battle and fail. The New Orleans Hornets and Los Angeles Lakers did exactly that. Both had extensive problems other than shooting.

To get geeky on the numbers, consider the correlation. Correlation is a number that ranges from -1 to +1, with +1 reflecting a perfect positive linear correlation, one that shows that as the x-value goes up, the y-value goes up accordingly.

Three-point shooting differential had a more positive correlation with wins (0.698) than did rebounding rate differential (0.417), turnover rate differential (0.173), or free throw rate differential (0.458). Simply put, three-point shooting was a better predictor of success than any of these other factors despite accounting for roughly one of every four NBA field goal attempts.

Naturally, the correlation between effective field goal percentage (eFG%) differential and wins was even higher (0.854), but that takes into account every shot on both ends of the floor.

Correlation isn’t necessarily causation. Winning the three-point battle may not be the root cause of success, but instead it could be one of a number of factors that good teams do well. But wins and threes are inherently connected and it’s virtually impossible to have one without the other in the NBA in 2014.

Where does the Bucks’ three-point game stand relative to the rest of the NBA?

With just 15 wins, the Bucks dragged themselves into last place in the league standings.

Despite finishing last in the standings, the Bucks didn’t finish last in a lot of statistical categories. The 76ers had the league’s most inept offense (96.8 points per 100 possessions). The Utah Jazz had the flimsiest defense (109.1 points per 100 possessions). The Lakers were the worst rebounders by a large margin (45.6% of all rebounds).

The one area where the Bucks finished 30th out of 30 teams? Three-point defense. They allowed their opponents to make a generous 38.2% of their three-point attempts.

I asked Larry Drew about the Bucks’ struggles to defend the three-pointer, and I asked him what they could do to improve. His response:

We just have to defend the three better, you know. Our coverages have to be better than what they were. When we talk about rotations — whether we’re in rotations or not — or we talk about how we defend a pick and roll, coverages have to be better to where were not allowing people to just sit back and lace it up. In most cases when we get in trouble, we get in trouble because of a breakdown, and it’s just something we have got to get better at.

Is it just me or is that something of a ‘meh’ explanation, especially considering that over the past four seasons under Scott Skiles the Bucks ranked 7th, 2nd, 16th, 8th in defensive three-point percentage — and Skiles amassed those rankings with stalwart defenders like Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis manning the perimeter?

The schemes need to get better. The intensity needs to get better. The Bucks double the low post too much and sag off shooters to give help in the paint, and they do it to a degree that is imprudent. Making matters worse, their rotations to patch the gaps behind them when they do double/help are impotent.

Let’s turn to to examine how the Bucks fared at limiting threes as a team with each perimeter player on the floor.

Screen shot 2014-05-06 at 8.27.35 AM
The Bucks defended threes much better with their rookies on the floor, especially Nate Wolters, who challenged jump shots better than any other Buck all season long. Let’s take it one step further and look at the Synergy numbers on each of the Bucks as individual defenders.

Screen shot 2014-05-06 at 8.18.02 AM


O.J. Mayo and Wolters fared nicely on shooters, but Khris Middleton and Brandon Knight struggled dramatically, both in the percentage of shots that went in as well as the frequency with which they allowed those shots (3FGA per minute).

Ridnour and Caron Butler were predictably terrible. Both stubbornly refused to step out all the way to the perimeter to challenge shooters.

As for the power forwards, yes, power forward three-point defense matters. More and more teams employ stretch-4 forwards. Ekpe Udoh and John Henson used their long wingspans to dissuade threes better than Ersan Ilyasova (bad) and Jeff Adrien (worse) did.

Going back to Knight for a moment, how exactly did shooters manage to hit 45% of the three-pointers that they took over Brandon Knight? That’s an unthinkably high number. He needs to stay home more and double less.

As mentioned above, field goal percentage differential correlates to winning much more than turnover percentage does. Forcing turnovers is great, but it’s not worth it when it results in scads of open threes.

Middleton is also getting lost on defense far too frequently. Here’s an example of a play where Middleton loses track of his own man without gaining any other advantages.

Once the pass is made, Middleton tries to get back into the play, but he’s misused his energy — channeling his intensity long after the critical play has already been made. No amount of hustle is going to help him contest a shot from 20 feet away.

But the Bucks needed Middleton on the floor. Going into the 2013-14 season, it seemed like the Bucks had amassed a group of marksmen, seven shooters who combined to make 798 three-pointers in 2012-13 on 38% shooting from long range.

But the paper tiger folded. Ilyasova, Knight, and Delfino got hurt right from the start of the season. Butler and Ridnour yielded more threes than they could make. Gary Neal clashed with Larry Sanders and rarely passed the ball. The Bucks needed threes and those threes had to come from someone.

Enter Middleton.

Despite the issues on defense, Middleton was a terrific shooter on the other end. His jump shot was buttery smooth from November to April. According to Grantland, Middleton made a better percentage of his threes from the left wing than anyone else in the NBA.

So Middleton must play and Brandon Knight should too. However, the Bucks have to re-commit themselves to a defensive scheme that denies threes. The impetus needs to come from either Larry Drew or from a push from upper management channeled through Drew.

The NBA is a three-point shooter’s league in 2014. Let opponents have a field day out there and it’s a certainty that you won’t win.

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    • That’s a really good point. When people/experts/media argue about which of the non-Embiid players is best, they always base the rankings on offense. Then they say that Wiggins has the best defensive potential — and usually they say he has that by a large margin.

      I’m all aboard the Wiggins train.

      • I feel Wiggins and Giannis would be like Larry Johnson and Jamaal Mashburn. I would not want to risk the future of the franchise on two athletic based players ‘praying’ for the next Jordan/Kobe. I’d go back to Australia where there’s a freakish athletic point guard with the ability to collapse a defense. With the potential to be a freakish defender at the point or a very solid defender at the 2 maybe even three against 3 guard teams. I’d roll the dice on the point guard. It’s honestly what the bucks lack most, a guard that can do what Ramon Sessions did, times ten. Dante Exum is that guard.

        • And if I were not in love with Giannis’ potential I would certainly have taken Michael Carter Williams first in this passed draft. Then I would pair him with Jabari Parker, Carmelo with a primed Jason Kidd instead of AI would have won a championship. I think MCW is the next Jason Kidd.

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  2. I do like that headline and it worked on me!

    The article is very well written and enlightening also.