NBA: The Fate of the Mid-Range Shot

You could sit down with a pen and paper all day and compile reasons why the NBA is a far superior type of basketball than the NCAA. Emerging as one of the top explanations would be the use of analytics.

The NBA is a business, and the economical decisions have to consider multiple aspects. Analytics serve as a strong aspect to base your roster spending on when building a team. The same can’t be said with the collegiate game, since coaches are just focused on recruiting the best raw talent, regardless of number crunching.

There are numerous angles to the new analytic-based movement general managers are driving. In fact, there are so many different types of player research that it would take days to list. Front offices are discovering new, more efficient ways to mold a team, and even serving as advisers to how their players need to perform.


Mar 2, 2015; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban argues a call in the second quarter against the New Orleans Pelicans at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Serving as a top role in analytic findings is the mid-range shot.

What used to be the only way you could use the outside attack — because there was no 3-point line — is now fading off into the shadows as the “most inefficient shot in the sport.” Now, some general managers are robustly enforcing the use of mid-range jumpers. The new-age, intellectual guys are sprinting towards 3-pointers, free throw attempts, and layups.

It’s the fuel that keeps them smiling, and the NBA’s old-fashioned style is moving from the “endangered” stage, to “extinct.”

Or …. is it?

Geezers out there, still trying to get over the fact that it’s no longer the 1980’s, may have a small point:  Players aren’t ready for the comprehensive change to eliminate the mid-range shot. While growing up and learning the game, do people honestly believe coaches are going to tell young players, “Remove the mid-range shot from your arsenal?” That’s the concept that gets lost, since it’s hard for professional players to go away from the style they grew up practicing.

The NBA still has teams that won’t transfer into the analytic age. This season, there are quite a few organizations that still fully believe in the mid-range shot:

* This represents field goal ATTEMPTS. Teams in bold are currently above the 30-win mark (Click image for full table)


There’s the first half of the league. Now, a glance at the second half:


When gauging the amount of mid-range shots a team takes, it’s important to calculate the density, which means how many shots they take from a certain area relative to how many total field goals they attempt.

This season, teams that have attempted a substantial amount of mid-range shots haven’t fared very well. Teams that have a mid-range density of greater than 30 percent (teams 1-6 in the chart above) have a combined record of 124-224 (.335) and an average record of 21-38.

For the top 10 in mid-range density this year, the total record is 249-339 (.423), with an average record of 25-34. The only title contender that takes close to 30 percent of their shots from mid-range is the Clippers. Majority of that is due to Blake Griffin‘s boost in confidence from 15-20 feet out. Throughout last summer, he worked on his mid-range jumper–shooting form, footwork, and balance–in order to become two-dimensional. Griffin accounts for 7.8 attempts per game from mid-range, with he and Chris Paul combining for 13.8 shots per game from that zone.

The Clippers and Blazers are the two examples of teams that benefit from the mid-range attack, while the Wizards have regressed this season due to mid-range overkill.

Meanwhile, looking at the bottom of the league in mid-range density reveals a brighter picture.

Of the bottom 10 teams this season in mid-range density (20-30), seven of them have racked up 30+ wins. The bottom 10 have a combined record of 346-296 (.539). That’s a substantial difference from the top 10 teams, and the results can’t be argued.

Is the Mid-Range Frequency Decreasing?

We really haven’t been exposed to these type of analytic-driven general managers for too long. Daryl Morey was hired by Houston in 2007, but really hasn’t had the ideal roster to show off the new movement. Led by a wild, bearded superstar, the Rockets are the illustration of how things are changing.

It’s accurate to believe other playoff teams are pushing hard to mirror the same technique. Slowly, but surely, the amount of mid-range attempts is decreasing on a league-wide basis.

Last season (for all 30 teams), the average percentage of field goals taken from mid-range was 26.8 percent. Thus far into the 2014-15 season, the average percentage is 26.3 percent. That does show a bit of a drop-off, but it’s not to the extent analysts make it out to be.

Last year, seven teams finished with a mid-range density of over 30 percent. This year, it’s down to six teams, as progress is slowly being made.

In fact, a lot of teams have actually shown a major decrease in the amount of mid-range shots they take. As you should notice, those who increased their density by a wide margin have actually turned into abysmal teams this year:

* This represents the change from the 2013-14 season, to the 2014-15 season. Again, those with 30+ wins are in bold (Click image for full table)

Mid-Density 1

Those are just teams ranking 1-15, sorted by largest increase. Now, here’s teams 16-30, showing those that decreased their mid-range production the most:

Mid-Density 2

The human eye will notice a lot more bold in the second image than the first. That’s solely because more teams are winning their share of games by reducing the amount of mid-range shots they take compared to last year. It’s also a pretty fair split between the East and West, with a mixture of both conferences trying to reduce their mid-range attempts.

Looking at the biggest discrepancies from both extremes, you get a handful of teams that are heading in different directions:

  • Lakers:  +9.2%  (16-42 record)
  • Timberwolves:  +8.1%  (13-46 record)
  • Heat:  +5%  (26-33 record)
  • Bulls:  -6.3%  (37-23 record)
  • Magic:  -7.9%  (19-42 record)
  • Cavaliers:  -9.4%  (37-24 record)

The oddest team on the list would be Orlando, as their dramatic change of style from last year isn’t producing a better team. It goes to show that it’s really not an exact science that lowering mid-range shots helps your team, but they could just be an exception. Orlando has fought through numerous injury bugs all year, and it’s likely just the result of having one of the youngest rosters in the league. You have to crawl before you can walk, and they’re taking the necessary baby steps with Channing Frye on board as a stretch forward.

The most interesting change from last year has been the Cavaliers, without hesitation. It’s actually amusing (and predictable), in a weird way.

Upon revamping their roster into the largest star-studded team this summer, Cleveland had developed a brand new methodology. Now, there was a system in place, after all those years of free-gunning with Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters in the backcourt. Everyone had to change their role, and this unit transformed into a top 3-point offense in the East.

All of a sudden, Cleveland started replicating exactly what Miami was from 2010 to 2013.  The refining of their offense from last year is just unbelievable. Below is the distribution of all Cleveland’s 8,054 points from last year:


Now, look at the major differences they’ve made since bringing LeBron James, Kevin Love, and head coach David Blatt on board. This is their distribution of the 6,248 points scored thus far:


Cleveland’s use of the 3-pointer has made a respectable jump, while their effectiveness and usage of the mid-range shot has taken the biggest hit.

With LeBron James, offense is supposed to come easier. The way he likes to play the game is rather simple:  Attack the rim at all costs (hence the larger percentage of points in the restricted area). Spread shooters across the perimeter, and continuing kicking out passes for his teammates.

By no means is Cleveland trying to “eliminate” the mid-range attack by intent.  It’s just something that comes natural with having LeBron on your team, as he values the “Houston attack.”  Layups, triples, and free throws. Those are the three main focuses of the Rockets’ offensive sets, and Cleveland is reverting to the same path. It’s a superstar’s way of playing, and it’s only going to grow more common in the future.

Miami ranked 24th overall in mid-range density last season, as they took just 23.9 percent of their field goals from the alienated zone. This year, they’ve ranked 8th overall, taking 28.9 percent of their field goals from mid-range.

Which major piece did Erik Spoelstra lose in the offseason?  Yeah, LeBron changes every dynamic.

The unknown is still hanging out there, though.  When will a team hell-bent on following analytics finally win a championship?

We’re not talking about the Spurs here. While they are totally in the new age of basketball, and R.C. Buford continues to be a genius running the team, they aren’t as reliant on numbers as Houston and Philadelphia have been.

Dec 15, 2014; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Injured Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (left) talks with general manager and president Sam Hinkie (right) before a game against the Boston Celtics at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The 76ers appear as if they won’t break through for a playoff run until I’m 85 years old. On the other side, the Rockets were bounced in the first round last April, by a team that lived and died by the mid-range shot (Portland!).

What we must conclude, as avid lovers of the sport, is that analytics aren’t everything. People make them out to be formulas that you must obey, and write on your chalkboard during pre-game and halftime speeches.

When, in reality, they are just a helping mechanism. Determining the value or nuisance of the mid-range shot is only a small, minuscule step towards helping a team succeed. People shouldn’t think that it’s chemistry or physics, where everything is a law of matter.

There are no laws in how to win in sports. Everyone has their own unique strategy.

But, there is one thing everyone can agree on. The mid-range shot is becoming more and more distasteful to those making free agent signings, coaching hires, and mid-season trades.

This could be the makeup for one crazy decade for NBA fans. The game is changing, whether we like it or not.

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