Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Amidst all the furor over Derrick Rose and his knee, a comparatively minor detail came out of the Chicago Bulls’ Media Day last week that — while it hasn’t been overlooked, exactly — could go a long way toward the Bulls’ chase for a title in 2014 and beyond: Taj Gibson has been working on shooting threes.
Christopher Cason of Examiner.com tweeted that Gibson has been working on three-pointers at the behest of the coaching staff. This was greeted largely with derision, at least on Twitter. But while Gibson said his long-range jumper is probably a year away, I hope he breaks it out sooner. Why? It all comes down to math.
The main criticism of Gibson’s quest to increase his range seems to be that he should be working on his midrange jumper, a closer shot that he would be more likely to make, or so the logic goes. And while that’s true — a 15-footer absolutely is easier to make consistently than a three-pointer — it ignores the larger mathematical context. That is, that 3 is more than 2.
One of the coolest things I remember reading about the NBA last season is this Zach Lowe breakdown of the way the Toronto Raptors use data from the SportVU camera tracking system they installed before last season. (The NBA has since announced that the cameras will be installed in all 30 NBA arenas in time for this season.) You really should read the whole thing, if only because there’s some really cutting-edge stuff in there that could push the league in some interesting directions, but here’s the part that I was reminded of when Gibson’s quotes came out:
For [Alex] Rucker and his team [of analysts], this [whether teams should shoot more threes] is a question that gets at the value of particular shots, the impact of the shot clock, and how coaches teach players. “When you ask coaches what’s better between a 28 percent 3-point shot and a 42 percent midrange shot, they’ll say the 42 percent shot,” Rucker says. “And that’s objectively false. It’s wrong. If LeBron James just jacked a 3 on every single possession, that’d be an exceptionally good offense. That’s a conversation we’ve had with our coaching staff, and let’s just say they don’t support that approach.”
To understand this particular argument, you have to get at the idea of “expected points” on a given possession. There are more esoteric ways to look at this concept, but the purest form of expected points is to look at a given player shooting from a given spot on the floor (we’ll ignore the defenders here, for the sake of simplicity).
For example, let’s say a particular player shoots 41 percent on two-point jumpers and 29 percent on threes. Obviously, he’s more likely to make the two-pointer. His expected point value from a possession where he shoots an 18-footer is 0.82 points, since he has a 41 percent chance of getting two points and a 59 percent chance of getting nothing. But that same player, shooting from 24 feet (a three-pointer) has an expected point value of 0.86.
That’s really just a long way of saying that — in the long run — that player is better off shooting threes than twos, even though we tend to think of 29 percent as a terrible percentage from deep. Ergo, the Bulls offense will produce more points with Gibson shooting threes as opposed to twos as long as his percentage on threes is anywhere near his percentage on twos.
Will it be? Hard to say. Gibson said he has a new form for his jumper, which — being specifically designed for the purpose — seems likely to aid him in his efforts to push his range out. The last two years, Gibson has shot about 33 percent from 16-23 feet, and he shot about 38 percent from the same distance in the two years prior to that. Presumably, that would dip a little bit as he moved further out, but here’s the thing: he could shoot 22 percent from downtown and produce exactly as many expected points as he would shooting long twos at 33 percent.
The coaches aren’t even close to being onboard with such a 3-happy philosophy yet. “To have guys who shoot 3s that can’t break that 35 percent break-even point, you have to really evaluate that,” Sterner says.
“You can shoot as many 3s as you’d like,” Casey says, “but if you don’t make them, that philosophy goes out the window. There’s always going to be disagreements. Analytics might give you a number, but you can’t live by that number.”
Casey is obviously right that DeRozan is a bad 3-point shooter. But the analytics team argues that even sub–35 percent 3-point shooters should jack more 3s, and that coaches should probably spend more time turning below-average 3-point shooters into something close to average ones.
“Player development and coaching are scarce resources,” Rucker says. “You only have so much practice time. At a very basic level, a guy going from 25 percent to 30 percent from 3-point range is far more meaningful than a guy improving from 35 percent to 40 percent from midrange.”
The divide touches both on player development and on the degree to which the limitations of personnel should guide how a team plays. In very general terms, coaches tend to see personnel as paramount and limiting, while the analytics guys — from an upstairs office, of course — are more comfortable allowing players to stretch themselves toward more mathematically sound decisions. In other words: Paul Millsap is 30-of-109 career from 3-point range? Who cares! Let him shoot, and shift some of his practice time toward a shot that doesn’t conventionally fit his skill set and build.
Substitute “Taj Gibson” for “Paul Millsap” there in the last paragraph (and also swap out “30-of-109” for “1-of-12” as long as you’re at it) and you’ve basically got the argument I’m trying to make.
Also, all math aside, think about it this way: If Gibson can make a few threes and get defenses to take even one single step closer to him when he’s spotted up in the corner, that’s HUGE for the Bulls’ offense. What do you think Derrick Rose could do with an extra step of space in the lane? He doesn’t need much of a hole to get to the rim, and that one step could make the difference between a layup – or a foul — and a turnover.
Anyway, it’s fun to have actual basketball to talk about again. 4 days until the preseason opener, 28 until the regular season, folks.