Scoring Efficiency, LeBron James, and You

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In the last week, Kirk Goldsberry of Grantland has written two excellent articles on the complex nature of shooting statistics in basketball. In the first article, Kirk dismembers the notion that field goal percentage is an indication of good shooting and provides an alternate way of looking at shooting ability that focuses on how many shots a player takes, where he shoots from, and how his shooting accuracy at those particular distances compares to the league average. He called his new metric ShotScore, and showed how it ranked LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Steph Curry ahead of the field. The second article looked at the worst players as ranked by ShotScore, basically who shot the most while scoring least efficiently compared to league average as weighted by the distances of their shots. Those players include high scorers like Russell Westbrook, Monta Ellis, and Greg Monroe.

I recommend actually reading Goldberry’s pieces because the breakdowns are interesting and more nuanced then I described above, and I really want to expand on a point Kirk makes regarding players’ roles in the worst shooters article. He writes:

Back in the 2002-03 season, a young Tony Parker attempted 243 3-point shots; a decade later, during the 2012-13 season, Parker only shot 68 3s. Parker and the Spurs recognized that not only were these shots not very effective (31.3 percent for his career), they also introduced a huge opportunity cost. Every time Parker shot a 3, it meant he wasn’t attacking or playmaking. The new and improved Tony Parker doesn’t take those 3s himself, he helps create them for guys like Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, and Matt Bonner.

Role matters! Thank you, Kirk for bringing this up. So many statisticians believe the numbers and forget to look past them to figure out HOW the numbers come into being. Kawhi is a good three point shooter. Part of the reason he is good at it is because he shoots open three point shots, and they are open because the defense is reacting to Tony Parker carving it up on the pick and roll. So the question becomes, if the roles are reversed and Kawhi is drawing double teams off the dribble or in the post, does Parker have the ability to hit an open corner three often enough for that to be a good use of a possession. Parker’s 3 point shooting percentage doesn’t really tell us this because he is the one who draws defensive attention, so most of the 3 pointers he attempts are not the wide open catch and shoot variety.

When we look at Kobe Bryant‘s three point shooting percentage (33.9%), it is surprisingly low. How many cross over stepback threes have we seen him drill? He’s an awesome shotmaker. In fact he may be the best player ever to grace the court when it comes strictly to burying a jumper under tight defense. But he’s not especially efficient. This gets to role of course in that he takes tough shots because it’s his job to take tough shots and his teammates’ jobs to hit open shots when he draws double teams. It also speaks to shot selection. Kobe chooses to take tough covered shots and is criticized (often with good reason) for doing so to the detriment of his team. If he only took wide open shots that someone else created, he would likely shoot very much better. I would wager that Bryant could very easily become an effective 3 and D player if that was his entire job. However, part of the reason the Lakers’ offense functions at all is because defenses know that Kobe will take covered shots and hit them at a better than average rate. So they double him in the pinch post or the short-corner or even all the way out on the perimeter, and that opens things up for the rest of the team. If defenses didn’t believe the Kobe would shoot those difficult midrange shots, then many of the higher efficiency three point shots and interior opportunities that his teammates get would never be available.

One reason for LeBron’s historically amazing 2013 efficiency is that he knocked off taking tough shots. Everything is right at the rim or from deep, and having watched about 100 nationally televised Heat games last year, we can all recall how he got those good shots. Driving lanes were open because the Heat played without a center most of the year, stationing Chris Bosh out at the three point line to empty the paint, and threes were open because Eric Spoelstra had the team taking advantage of transition opportunities. LeBron shot better largely due to shot selection rather than some dramatic change in his form or ability. That’s not to say James wasn’t amazing. He was and has been for about a decade. But part of the reason he shot so well this past season is that he was able to play multiple roles for the team that set him up to succeed instead of only operating as the point forward that he has always been previously. We saw the Pacers and Spurs force LeBron to take contested shots in the post by eliminating fast break opportunities and refusing to double him, and his efficiency and the Heat’s efficiency both came back to earth.

My takeaway from Kirk’s excellent articles was that we need to examine scoring efficiency for individuals with the same scrutiny that we do for teams. Where is a player shooting from? How is he getting his shots? Why does the coach want him taking these types of shots? Sometimes in the case of superstars like Kobe Bryant, the reason he doesn’t limit himself to wide open set shots is obvious, and we can make the case based on his shooting form and his more efficient seasons and playoff runs, that he has the skillset to be an efficient shooter but the responsibility to create rather than to shoot. With a guy like Tony Parker (or Russell Westbrook) that might not be the case. His form and his history do not necessarily indicate that more opportunities to make open deep shots would actually lead to a significant uptick in percentage of shots made at that range. The question of who is efficient is not the same as asking who is a good shooter.

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2 Responses to “Scoring Efficiency, LeBron James, and You”

  1. boyer Says:

    Kobe might take a few too many tough 3’s, but he usually does with good reason. The main times he does this is either when he’s hot and made at least 2 in a row, his team’s offense other than him is struggling(so often the best look he or anyone else gets is a quick 3), or else his team is behind by a decent amount late in the game and the only chance at all of winning is for someone to take a quick 3, albeit a low % 3. If you take out just the latter, I bet his % goes up by at least 3-4 points.

    Also, you have to consider that defenders defend Kobe much more closely than any other player. He’s rarely open even a little anywhere on the offensive end. Whereas, I see guys like Lebron often wide open from 3. When you’re more open, your % will increase. While this partially means Lebron is a more dangerous driver than Kobe at this stage of their career; FG %, eFG%, Goldberry’s stats, or anything else won’t necessarily show us who is the best shooter. This seems like a stat that’s moving in the right direction. There’s still many more variables involved, but it’s probably more relevant than FG%, etc. The most important thing, and you touched on, is what is the role of each player on the time, not looking at some # in a spreadsheet.

    • jpalumbo Says:

      For sure. If defenders didn’t respect Bryant’s deep jumper so much, he’d have more opportunity to shoot open ones.

      Jason Palumbo

      Sent from my iPhone

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