So We Killed the Midrange Jump Shot in the NBA. Now What?

In my article about Scott-Hollins Syndrome a few days ago, I sang the praises of the kinds of shot charts that the Bucks and Rockets are putting on the board these days, a ring of three-point attempts separated from layups and dunks by a no-man’s-land of empty space in the midrange, where be dragons.

There’s just one small problem with all of this. Namely, with the midrange shot more or less completely off the table, what does this mean for the two-sided flow of a basketball game?

Or, in simpler terms than that, what’s the defense going to do about it?

After all, what we’ve essentially created here is a situation where the defense always knows where the shot is ultimately going to come from. When the ball is in the midrange, the defense understands there’s at least one more step in the story before the shot ultimately goes up, and even if some enterprising offensive coach decided that he was going to give his guy the green light to shoot a long two to “keep the defense honest”, a defense will take giving up a midrange jumper over a layup or a three on every possession.

If you work the ball around the perimeter, you run the risk of the defense jumping the passing lanes, and once they’ve done that it’s a dunk fest at the other end of the floor as most of the steals come in open space with the thief’s momentum carrying him forward and negating the entire advantage of shooting threes in the first place.

It’s the same problem as would occur in football if every pass play came with an “if this is intercepted, it’s going to be a pick-six.” (and considering the NFL’s interception percentage and the noisiness of the data, imagine a team that had good defensive backs in that scenario. But I digress.)

The point of the question is to ask whether that kind of perimeter orientation shoots itself in the foot by killing its advantage.

The Golden State Solution

The Warriors accomplish this solution by using hard screens to run the shooter off the defense.

And sure, it’s easy to do this if you have Stephen Curry, but Steph isn’t the league leader in three-point percentage. In fact, he never has been. He’s a career 43.8 percent shooter from out there. Which is very good, but his own coach, Steve Kerr, shot a higher percentage (45.4 percent).

The point is that Steph has two moves, the rotation off the screen and the stepback, and in each case, he combines that with a quick release to get the shot up.

You can coach that. You can build a scheme around it.

Hell, the Warriors are hated throughout the NBA because everyone thinks their offense is nothing more than a bunch of moving screens and offensive fouls.

But the important part is it creates a drag on their turnover percentage. Yes, they’re consistently near the bottom in that stat across the league, and yes, it’s their Achilles heel, but it could be a whole lot worse…and they do lead the league in assists every year, so there’s still plenty of passing. They don’t commit as many turnovers as you’d expect from their offensive style.

The Oklahoma City Solution

The Thunder, who can’t shoot for beans, nonetheless still find a way to stay near the top of the league offensively (settle down, those of you pointing out they’re 0-4 and dead last in offensive rating this year. Four games. They were 7th last year despite having the corpse of Carmelo Anthony on their team, and Russell Westbrook dragged a G-League team to 16th in the stat in 2016-17.)

The Thunder have an integrated system of artillery fire and infantry combat.

Artillery fire, as in long but inaccurate shots.

Infantry combat, as in Steven Adams being the last of a dying breed of offensive rebounders who can then get putbacks.

Hell, Adams is so good at this that he even does a solid job accomplishing the feat on OKC’s chaotic driving offense that features a ton of war crimes masquerading as layups. This is from 2015, but really, it could’ve come from just about any play in Westbrook’s entire career:

The point here is that the Thunder operate on a principle whereupon they sacrifice one man to crashing the boards and get back with the other four to create defensive pressure and prevent those pick-six fast breaks.

And every year, the Thunder are in the top half in defensive rating (they’re 12th this year and have finished between 9th and 13th in each of the previous three years.)

The Detroit Solution

It’s easy to forget this, but a low post dominant two-point game can be every bit as efficient as shooting lots of threes.

Three is more than two, but hitting 58.1 percent of your twos (and the multitude of and-ones, offensive rebounds, and free throws that go hand in glove with banging bodies at the rim) is worth more, ultimately, than its equivalent of hitting 38.7 percent of your threes (and last year, Golden State, at 39.1, was the only team to hit that mark.)

Granted, the correlation between lots of rim work and free throws isn’t completely cut and dried, since the Pistons are 12th in free throw attempts per 100 possessions and 17th in free throws per field goal attempt (in part because they’re rotten at actually making them), but the point remains that their 2-point offensive rating is greater than the 116.2 that their pure percentage implies.

When you have Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin, you get to emphasize the inside game, and from there, you can get kick-outs to open shooters; Detroit has a three-point attempt rate (.330) almost as high as Golden State’s (.335, since the Warriors employ this strategy as well when they get guys like Kevin Durant into the lane and at the rim.)

And, surprise, Detroit’s hitting 37.6 percent of their threes, good for 12th in the league, and it’s not even their most efficient use of the ball.

Granted, balanced breakfast and all that, but it’s not like Detroit’s doing this because they can’t shoot.

Dwane Casey has figured out the modern inside-out game, and the important thing about inside-out play is that steals generated in no-man’s-land almost never lead to fast breaks because the guys out behind the arc get a three-step head start in the foot race back to the other end of the floor, where they can stop a break and prevent too much damage being done.

Detroit is 17th in defensive rating, and it’s a small sample size, but there’s value in it.

The Indiana Solution

Watch the way the Pacers attack the lane when their offense is clicking like it was in San Antonio on Wednesday night.

Domantas Sabonis trails Tyreke Evans down the lane, and despite the defensive presence, there’s just enough of a lane for Evans to find Sabonis for the throwdown.

And look where the other three Pacers players are. Thaddeus Young is trailing the play, while Cory Joseph and Doug McDermott are both set up in the corners, forcing the defense to respect the potential corner 3 and leaving more room for Evans and Sabonis to work.

In a perfect world, this is the way team basketball creates penetration.

And no, we don’t live in a perfect world; if you don’t believe me, look at a Pacers shot chart, especially when they lose, and see just how many open circles there are in the midrange, the result of aborted drives, pull-ups late in the shot clock, and just plain bad shot selection.

Which, in essence, gives us something else to think about.

You can drive the lane, create contact, and shoot a ton of free throws—James Harden has built a career on this.

But if you have an aborted drive, you need someplace for the ball to go or you’re just shooting trash midrange shots.

In Summary

There’s more than one way to solve the problem of an offense becoming too predictable as a result of “the NBA is just layups and threes.”

What’s more, the multiple ways are varied and interesting.

So in answer to the question of “now what?” posed in the headline, the answer to that is simple.

Enjoy offense being more efficient and the game more entertaining than ever before.

Was that so hard?