In the world of advanced metrics, no word compels visceral anger quite like, “Midrange.” It seems harmless enough, but the heightened emphasis on 3-point shooting has tarnished the reputation of a once heralded skill.
Thus, the shot which shall not be named has been rendered somewhat obsolete.
Or has it?
Teams rarely build an offensive attack around the midrange game in the modern era, which is a major reason why it’s been labeled as a lost art. The value of mid-range jump shots has been overtaken by that of the 3-point field goal, which is rapidly becoming the foundation for contemporary scoring.
On both individual and team levels, however, the midrange game isn’t dead; it’s simply evolved into something different than it used to be.
Advanced metrics aren’t needed to understand why teams have moved away from relying upon mid-range jump shots. By simply taking a few steps backwards, teams can shoot with roughly the same level of efficiency and go for three points instead of two.
Basic math says that’s the logical approach.
The misconception with midrange offense, however, is that it’s limited to jump shooting. The reality is, it includes operation from the pinch and mid-posts, facilitating from above the free throw line, and a variety of effective strategies for either getting to the basket or open along the 3-point line.
Even if one were to limit it to shooting, those who excel from midrange tend to thrive.
Individually, It’s Still a Valuable Skill
Players in possession of an elite midrange game have a unique tendency to emerge as stars in the modern NBA. 3-point shooters are the prized possessions, but being able to attack from 16-to-23 feet translates to great success.
In 2014-15, six of the Top 10 players in 2-point jump shots made were All-Stars, per Basketball-Reference.com. The exceptions—DeMar DeRozan, Monta Ellis, Markieff Morris, and Nikola Vucevic—are highly regarded in their own right.
DeRozan was an All-Star in 2013-14, for whatever that may be worth.
Four of those six players—Aldridge, Davis, Gasol and Paul—were All-NBA First Team or Second Team honorees.
Their success is about more than being able to operate from midrange, but that ability plays a massive role. Their in-between game opens up avenues for the pick-and-roll, 3-point shooting, and low-post scoring, amongst other facets.
Beyond the players is the undeniable presence of a reliable midrange game on NBA champion rosters.
It’s About Titles
The Detroit Pistons shocked the world by upsetting the Los Angeles Lakers and winning an elusive third championship in 2004-05. The team was built to play smothering defense, but its offensive attack was not to be ignored.
The powerhouses, such as the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s and Los Angeles Lakers of the 2000s, excelled similarly. Role players and other stars played vital roles, but Chicago was led by midrange master Michael Jordan, and Los Angeles relied upon Kobe Bryant‘s similarly deadly attack.
The San Antonio Spurs have won five championships since 1999 by playing balanced and adaptive basketball. A key to their success has been the uncanny ability to dominate the mid-range game, relying heavily upon the likes of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker to operate from said area.
The 2007-08 Boston Celtics were just as lethal with Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce working from 16-to-23 feet. Dwyane Wade, who made a living as a slasher and mid-range shooter, led the Miami Heat to a championship by doing just that in 2005-06.
In other words, the entire decade of the 2000s—and, when one includes Hakeem Olajuwon‘s Houston Rockets and Isiah Thomas‘ Detroit Pistons, the 1990s—featured a not-so-surprising trend: every championship team excelled from mid-range.
That truth was birthed in previous decades and still exists in the modern era.
Change of the Guard
As previously alluded to, the 3-point shot has emerged as one of the most vital assets in the contemporary NBA. Thus, teams have begun to shoot less-and-less from mid-range and more-and more from beyond the arc.
True as that may be, all six championship teams from 2010 to 2015 understood how vital the presence of a consistent mid-range attack truly is.
In 2010, the likes of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom led the Los Angeles Lakers to a second consecutive championship. Running the Triangle Offense, the attack was based primarily executed from the pinch post and below.
The NBA has changed dramatically since then, and that all started with the 2011 Dallas Mavericks.
Rick Carlisle led the Mavericks to an unforeseen championship by overwhelming teams with a nightly barrage of 3-point field goals. The likes of Jason Kidd, Peja Stojakovic and Jason Terry took turns scorching the opposition, posting three points at a time as Dallas worked its way to its first and only title.
At the heart of that run, however, was Dirk Nowitzki.
Nowitzki is known for his uncanny ability to shoot the 3-ball at 7’0″ tall, but his game is and always has been founded in the mid-post. His turnaround jump shot from 16-to-23 feet is the stuff of legend, and it’s what Dallas depended upon whenever the 3-ball stopped falling and drives to the basket were halted—two things that tend to happen during the relentlessly physical NBA postseason.
In other words, an NBA Finals run most commonly remembered for 3-point shooting was still built with a vital proficiency from mid-range.
The Modern Era
Since Dallas’ title run in 2011, a heavier emphasis has been placed on 3-point shooting than ever before. Nowitzki and the Mavericks proved that teams can win by valuing what was previously written off as gimmick shot.
It’s not surprising to know that there was at least one elite midrange playmaker on every one of those teams.
The 2011-12 and 2012-13 Miami Heat were led by Chris Bosh, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade—three kings of the in-between game. Bosh and Wade possess two of the best midrange jump shots in the NBA, while James’ attack was strong enough to complement his all-time power and penetration.
The 3-point shot was key for momentum swings against the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs, but Miami’s ability to score at will from midrange is what helped it maintain a championship pace on offense.
As for the Spurs, Tony Parker’s midrange game is heralded as one of the best of all-time. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili aren’t too far behind, and the likes of Boris Diaw and Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard have developed noteworthy skills, unto themselves.
Even the Golden State Warriors’ unparalleled 3-point shooting went cold in the NBA Finals until they found a way to operate from 16-to-23 feet. Andre Iguodala won Finals MVP on the strength of his defense, but he and Stephen Curry led Golden State to victory by finally discovering a rhythm from within the 3-point line.
3-point shooting is more efficient, defense wins championships, and ball movement is key, but being able to get a quick two points from midrange has salvaged more title runs than it hasn’t.
Focal Point? No. Vital Skill? Yes.
Given how important the 3-point field goal has become, it’d be difficult to justify building an offensive system around the mid-range area. 3-point shooting is an explosive skill, and getting to the basket is still the most efficient means of offense.
What happens in between, however, can dictate the championship odds for an NBA team.
The best of the best in the modern NBA have found a way to thrive from midrange. Their 3-point shooting, back-to-the-basket attack, ball-handling, and defense all come into play, amongst other traits, but the ability to create outside of the paint and inside of the 3-point line is nothing short of crucial.
It’s been the difference between gimmicky teams making deep runs and championship teams being crowned as they deserve.
Come the playoffs, referees tend to swallow their whistles and allow perimeter defenders to play with heightened physicality. Thus, players are picked up from deeper than usual, flirt with the hand-checking of old, and, when operating ideally, limit 3-point field goals.
Teams that can break a defense down and make plays in the brief openings from 16-to-23 feet tend to open everything else up and go deeper than those which can’t.
Outside of DeAndre Jordan, you won’t find a weak midrange game in the chain of All-NBA players from 2014-15. With an exception that’s yet to be found, you won’t find a championship team that consistently struggled to create offense from midrange or the mid-post.
The midrange game isn’t what it used to be, but it’s still a vital trait for every championship team.
Its death has been greatly overstated.
From 2010-11 through 2014-15, the Chicago Bulls were led by the incomparable Tom Thibodeau. His hard-nosed, play-until-you drop approach brought Chicago its most significant success of the post-Michael Jordan era.
Per Josh Newman of CSN Chicago, Butler called on Hoiberg to, “Coach a lot harder,” than he currently is. That wasn’t a critique of the head coach’s effort, but instead a comment on how his laid back approach to the game may be incompatible with a Bulls roster that’s been pushed in a different way over the past five seasons.
Chicago is doing reasonably well at 15-11, but developing chemistry is still a work in progress.
Amongst rookies, no player is generating more hype than New York Knicks power forward Kristaps Porzingis. On the Minnesota Timberwolves, all eyes have shifted to the supreme upside of shooting guard Andrew Wiggins.
No one seems to be acknowledging how brilliantly Karl-Anthony Towns is playing during his first season.
Porzingis has been a delight, but Towns is the Rookie of the Year frontrunner.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, Towns is on pace to be the 10th rookie in NBA history to average at least 15.0 points, 9.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks. The others who qualify are Tim Duncan, Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Ralph Sampson, and Chris Webber.
If you follow the NBA Draft, you’ve likely heard people compare Brandon Ingram to Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Kevin Durant. Much like Durant, he’s a long and lanky scorer with deep 3-point range and the uncanny ability to put it on the floor to attack.
The Durant comparisons are a massive reach—for the time being, that is—but Ingram has All-Star upside.
Ingram has been a Top 5 prospect since the beginning of the season, but he catapulted into the top pick discussion by scoring 24 points against the Indiana Hoosiers. He followed that performance with back-to-back 20-plus-point scoring outings, thus effectively captivating the masses.
The issues with his game have been exposed early in 2015-16. Ingram struggles to finish against length and is far too thin—he’s less than 200 pounds at the small forward position—to consistently create his own offense against NBA defenders.
There’s simply no way around how dynamic he is at 6’9.5″ with a 7’3″ wingspan, high-grade athleticism, and a dynamic scoring attack.
The New Orleans Pelicans have opened the season with in dismal fashion. Alvin Gentry’s crew is just 8-19, which is reason enough to question why they’re listed as the team to watch.
The reason for New Orleans’ appearance is simple: it’s healthy again.
Jrue Holiday has played in 21 games, but he’s been limited to an average of 22.9 minutes of court time. Tyreke Evans is a productive and well-rounded offensive threat, but he’s been available for just 10 of the team’s 27 outings.
With both players now nearing 100 percent, the Pelicans are an entirely different team. Gentry has a borderline superstar in Anthony Davis, two star-caliber playmakers in Evans and Holiday, and a pair of dynamic sharpshooters in Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon.
New Orleans is an even 4-4 over its past eight games after opening the year at 4-15. It’s also a mere 4.5 games back of the No. 8 seed.