That faint thumping you hear in the distance, that subtle vibration of the cement and carpet beneath your feet; it’s me once again pounding the drum of shot-selection. Over the past few weeks I’ve brought a few different pieces on the topic here to Hardwood Paroxysm, all built around Expected Points Per Shot (XPPS). If you have not yet been introduced, XPPS is a metric that measures the quality of shot distribution. It is built around the expected values of shots from different locations and rolls the shot-selection of a player or team up into a single number. For context, the league average is 1.047.
XPPS takes its expected values from leagues averages. But because players constantly over and under-perform league averages we also look at Actual Points Per Shot. The difference between the two, is a measure of a player’s shot making ability. Last time we looked at the effect a few different players have on the shot-selection of their teammates. Today I want to share a few shot-selection vignettes, stories of players who have learned specific lessons and are using them to make the most of their offensive opportunities.
‘Can’t Make Them . . . Don’t Take Them’
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist | XPPS 1.093 | Actual Points Per Shot 1.060 | Shot Making Difference -0.033 |
Coming into his rookie season, the biggest question mark in Kidd-Gilchrist’s offensive repertoire was his outside jumpshot. Those concerns have proven to be well-founded as he’s shooting just 25.0% from outside of 8ft. However, Kidd-Gilchrist has demonstrated remarkable restraint and recognition of his own weaknesses – those long-distance shots make up just 28% of his non-turnover offensive possessions. At this point he has posted an XPPS of 1.093, well-above the league average of 1.047. Just 38 players in the league have played at least 750 minutes this season with a shot selection that efficient (XPPS > 1.090). That list of 38 is split fairly evenly between big men and backcourt players or wings. Most of the wings on this list derive their efficiency from a reliance on three-point shots. However, Kidd-Gilchrist is on an island by himself in that just 2.1% of field goal attempts have come from beyond the three-point line. Of all the players on that list of 38, the one his shot selection most closely resembles is Joakim Noah.
In the long-term, a shot distribution of that variety will be an enormous limiting factor. Kidd-Gilchrist’s ability to reach and push through his ceiling will almost certainly be determined by whether or not he can develop a consistent outside shot. At some point moving towards that goal will require him to begin taking and (initially) missing large quantities of jumpshots. But in the meantime it’s refreshing to see a rookie wing, one selected at the top of the NBA Draft, not fall prey to the lure of shot attempts and the pressure to assume offensive leadership. The shots Kidd-Gilchrist is taking this season require much more effort and patience to attain than simply pulling up for a jumper anytime the mood strikes. That a rookie, especially one on a struggling team, would show such a fanatic devotion to playing his role and inhabiting his strengths is truly unique.
‘These Are Better Than Those’
Marcus Morris | XPPS 1.086 | Actual Points Per Shot 1.067 | Shot Making Difference -0.019 |
Last year was an extended struggle for Marcus Morris. He couldn’t crack the Rockets’ front-court rotation and in the 125 minutes he did make it on the floor, Morris forced shots at a prodigious rate. The fact that he took 54 shots in 125 minutes is not quite as unforgivable as the fact that 40 of them came from outside the paint, where he shot just 27.5%. With Omer Asik entrenched in the middle, ability to provide floor spacing from the power forward position is the key to minutes this season and Morris has made some big changes to earn himself a share of those minutes.
First off, Morris is making shots. His Actual Points Per Shot this season has climbed to 1.067, after working out to a basement scraping 0.696 last season. In addition to confidence and repetition, he has made himself a more efficient scorer with a much improved offensive balance. Instead of the nearly 3-to-1 ratio of shots outside and inside the paint he put together as a rookie, Morris now sports a much healthier 1.6-to-1 ratio. Last season, the dreaded mid-range jumpshot constituted 42.6% of his shot attempts. This season it’s been just 15.4% of his arsenal. Morris has also clearly learned some lessons of basic efficiency from his teammate James Harden. Most of those mid-range shots that seem to have disappeared, have really been moved a step or two back, behind the three-point line. Last season, three-pointers accounted for 31.7% of shot attempts, this season it’s been 45.8%.
All of those changes add up to an XPPS of 1.086, well above the league average. His percentage on corner threes is just 29.7% and he’s making just 65.6% of his free throws, accounting for the slightly below-average production as compared to his shot selection. But overall Morris is shooting 37.0% on three-pointers for the season. Consistent rebounding and defense are still concerns, but in terms of understanding his role in the offense and where his shots should be coming from, Morris has come light years from where he was as a rookie.
These Are Even Better Than Those
Quincy Pondexter | XPPS 1.107 | Actual Points Per Shot 1.121 | Shot Making Difference +0.014 |
For the past several years the Memphis Grizzlies have had an incredible offensive advantage on the interior with the frontcourt tandem of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. However, that advantage has frequently been strangled by the inability of the Grizzlies’ backcourt to space the floor. Without consistent outside threats, opposing defenses are able to collapse into the lane swarming Randolph and Gasol and rebuffing penetration attempts by Mike Conley and Rudy Gay, all without fear of repercussions. In his 1002 minutes last season, Pondexter was definitely part of the problem. He took almost as many mid-range jumpshots as three-pointers (55 to 71) and finished the year having made just 30.1% of his three-pointers.
This season Pondexter has refined both his shot selection and shot making. His XPPS is up to 1.107 about the same as Shane Battier’s 1.118, and his Actual Points Per Shot is considerably higher than Battier’s 1.080. The biggest improvement has not just been moving mid-range shots out past the three-point line, but also refining his three-point selection. On average, a corner three-pointer is worth 1.157 points per shot, where an above-the-break three-pointer is worth 1.048. If you stretch that out over 100 shots, it’s a difference of 19 points, significant to say the least. Of Pondexter’s 78 three-pointers this season, 62% of them have come from the ultra-efficient corners. On those 48 corner three-pointers, he is shooting 47.9%. Pondexter has been out since the end of December with a sprained knee, and the Grizzlies can’t get him and his floor-spacing back soon enough.
Just Because I Can Make Them, Doesn’t Mean I Should Take Them
Chris Copeland | XPPS 1.075 | Actual Points Per Shot 1.160 | Shot Making Difference +0.085 |
Like Pondexter and Morris, Copeland has fought his way into his team’s rotation with better-than-expected scoring efficiency from the outside. A 28-year old rookie, Copeland has shown a smooth stroke and, through 340 minutes this season, is shooting 45.5% on mid-range jumpers and 38.2% on three-pointers. What makes Copeland so special is that mid-range jumpers make up just 20.8% of his non-turnover offensive possessions, where the league average is 29.6%. By comparison, three-pointers make up 34.6% of Copeland’s non-turnover offensive possessions, where the league averages is 18.1%. That works out to an XPPS of 1.075, well above average, and a mark he is out-performing by an average 0.085 points per shot.
It’s an easy argument that Pondexter, Morris and Kidd-Gilchrist shouldn’t be taking mid-range jumpshots, since they don’t make them very often. But Copeland is a very solid mid-range shooter and still demonstrates a terrific amount of restraint. Even though he’s proven to be a capable mid-range shooter, those shots are still a much less efficient offensive option. This season he has made 15 of 33 mid-range jumpers for an average of 0.909 points per shot. On three-pointers he’s made 21 of 55, for an average of 1.145 points per shot. Even above-average mid-range shooters provide less-efficient scoring on a per-shot basis than average three-point shooters. For a rookie, especially one who may be down to his last chance to carve out a niche in the league, shots are a lifeline. Often we see players in his situation greedily gobble them up in a desperate grab at impact. But Copeland has displayed a razor sharp focus on efficiency and in doing so has probably earned himself an NBA roster spot for as long as his body can sustain him.
All The Marbles
James Harden | XPPS 1.126 | Actual Points Per Shot 1.170 | Shot Making Difference +0.044 |
Everytime I look at these XPPS numbers, I inevitably find myself staring at James Harden. 24 NBA players have played at least 1000 minutes this season with a Usage Rate of more than 25.0%. Of that group, only Kevin Durant and LeBron James have a higher Actual Points Per Shot. None has a higher XPPS.
Durant’s incredibly efficiency is a product of his length, quickness, instincts and that beautifully smooth jumpshot. LeBron’s efficiency is a product of his unique combination of brute strength, transcendent athleticism and understanding of the physical laws of basketball. Harden can claim no similar scaffolding to his offensive performance. His efficiency is not a product of any underlying structure, it is the structure itself. I don’t know if he was gifted with this cloak of efficiency, or if it’s a learned compensation strategy. But the fabric of it is every bit as unique as what LeBron and Durant have.
Just 18.0% of Harden’s shot attempts this season have been mid-range jumpshots. While the league average is 29.6%, average for the group of high-usage scorers to which Harden belongs is actually much higher – 33.1%. Together 72.6% of Harden’s shot attempts come either at the rim or from behind the three-point line and about one out of every five non-turnover offensive possessions he uses results in a trip to the free throw line. Every hesitation dribble, every exploitation of the league’s traveling rules, every step-back three-pointer and every presentation of the ball on a drive to the rim, with an implicit invitation to reach in and foul; these are all real-time examples of Harden pushing pulsing, throbbing life into his skill-set with the fluid of efficiency. If you watch him long enough you can almost see the outer edges of his body dissolve into Matrix-like streams of statistics. Again, I don’t know if James Harden was born a natural scorer, but he certainly plays one on TV.