When “3s And Layups” Goes Wrong

Critics of NBA aesthetics often say that the league has degenerated into a dumbed-down version of basketball where the only thing that matter are “3s and Layups”. And to a degree, they’re right—add in free throws to the mix and you’ve got the essentials of efficient basketball, which can be statistically measured and which have time and again borne out that those elements are the best way to score points.

And since you can’t win if you don’t score more points than your opponent (duh), it stands to reason you want to maximize your efficiency.

Granted, the critics of aesthetics have a point. Much like how Major League Baseball has suffered from fan apathy due to the perception that everything’s all launch angle and “three true outcomes” (a walk, a strikeout, or a home run) and nobody can bunt or hit to the opposite field against a shift—stuff they teach you how to do in Little League—the NBA has degenerated in the minds of those lapsed fans into the two elements of All-Star Weekend. It’s all dunk contests and three-point contests with little actual “basketball” being played.

Granted, if what you want are midrange jump shots, maybe you should try watching the Missouri Valley Conference in college, or any of the other Midwestern mid-majors where 44-42 games aren’t out of the question.

And if you want isolation ball, I’m sure there’s a bunch of it on Hardwood Classics on NBA TV.

But anyway, the point here is that in general, teams that play the most efficient form of basketball—threes, layups, and free throws—win the most games.

Through games of March 11, seven of the top 11 teams in 3-point attempt rate have winning records.

But the stats get murkier when you start talking about the layups and free throws part of “3s and layups.”

After all, of the top seven teams in free throw rate, only two—the 76ers and Jazz—have winning records.

And as for layups, the best statistical proxy we have for that is shots between 0-3 feet from the basket, as calculated by Basketball Reference, and only two of those top seven teams—the Cavaliers and Grizzlies—are above .500.

The final dagger in the heart of this idea that just because you do the most efficient things on the court doesn’t mean you’re going to win?

The Houston Rockets, the worst team in the league, are fourth in 3PAR and tops in FTR and 0-3 foot attempt rate.

Because there’s another side to 3s-and-layups ball. Namely, shooting a bunch of those shots doesn’t do you a lick of good if you can’t make them.

The Rockets are 17th in eFG% thanks to a woeful 34.3 percent clip hitting the long ball, ninth-worst in the league. They get to the line, but they can’t shoot from there (a league-worst 71.0 percent.) And when it comes to finishing on those 0-3 foot shots, they’re just 14th.

That’s part of why the Rockets are 27th in Offensive Rating. They do everything you’re supposed to do, but they do it so poorly that they still can’t score any points that way. Throw in an atrocious 116.5 Defensive Rating (worst in the league) and Houston’s minus-9.0 Net Rating is the worst in the sport.

Want another example of a team that does things “the right way” but can’t do a thing with their statistical theoretical advantage?

Well, let’s leave the warm Gulf Coast behind for the Pacific Northwest, because the Portland Trail Blazers are your Exhibit B.

The Blazers are 25-40, and while that’s even in the loss column with the 27-40 Pelicans for a spot in the play-in games, it’s still the fourth-worst record in the West and seventh-worst in the entire league.

Portland is seventh in 3PAR, seventh in FTR, and 11th in 0-3 foot rate.

They’re also 23rd in eFG%, 17th in free throw shooting (76.3 percent), and dead last in make rate from 3 feet and in (just 62.5 percent.)

Once again, that’s enough to tank an Offensive Rating—the Blazers have the sixth-worst offense in the league. Throw in a putrid defense—only Houston is worse—and if anything Portland might not even be as good as that 25-40 record. Woe betide the NBA if Portland rallies, sneaks into the 10 spot, and actually makes the playoffs while winning less than 35 games. They might well end up the worst team since the 1988 Spurs (31-51) to play in the postseason.

The Rockets and Blazers are prime examples of how just because the NBA is a 3s-and-layups league, it doesn’t mean you’re going to be successful by simply attempting lots of 3s and layups. You still have to make them, and perhaps more importantly than that, you still have to play defense.

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