The playoffs are in full form with an ever-changing postseason
landscape. Game-by-game changes in scheme and emphasis highlight
the spirit of strategy and game-planning. As all eyes fall upon a
subset of games, it makes sense that some of the most competitive
and talent-laden exhibitions in the world are viewed as a lens for
Every April over the past five years, the same observation has
popped up: analytics has changed the game. Their application has
driven efficiency, shifted defenses and reshaped the dimensions of
the court. Its impact cannot be overstated, although the way they
are emphasized can sometimes be overwrought.
Some quick math: The league average for three-point percentage
per Basketball Reference was 35.4% during the 2021-22 regular
season. Accounting for that on a per-possession basis, the league
average shot from distance is worth 1.06 points per possession. By
comparison, the league average shot/finish at the rim (0-3 feet)
was 68.1% this season, equating to 1.362 points per possession.
These statistics don't filter out transition plays and wide-open
shots, but I'd posit that's also part of the point. If your
weakside low-man is zoning up and gets back cut, you're giving up
an absurdly efficient shot at the rim, one that your defense will
do everything in its power to account for. If Steph Curry or Jordan
Poole loses his man on a relocation to the slot, their defense is
also doing everything to account for that and try to erase that
mistake, or at least make the shot more difficult. There isn't a
Three-pointers on volume and without hesitation force the
defense to close out, and the varying degrees of shooting efficacy
and multitude of ways a player might be able to get their shot off
further changes how the defense guards them.
Again though, it is less about the three-pointer here, and this
is where debating about the value of two-pointers vs.
three-pointers comes up short. They go hand in hand. While looking
at offense from a top-down view, magnifying singular possessions
and pulling data from that is useful, it makes the organic,
You lose the seasoning of what makes a possession a possession.
The why, the how, the confluence of events that bring you here.
This is not to disparage data in the slightest, but it is so
important to contextualize that data.
Let's back up a bit and consider how analytics change how the
defense guards players and teams. This is the key here. I'd rather
think about applied analytics as a realtor than an overpowering
overlord for TNT broadcasts to get mad at. Over the last decade,
we've essentially seen the league living in a good-sized house only
to experience the revelation of, "Wait, we have a basement?"
Its about space! That's what it is! Its not about numbers, or
metrics, or three-point rates moving on up. Hitting threes is
great. Using the three as a tool to remap the floor is what really
stands out. Instead of those 18-foot curls off a million screens
for Rip Hamilton (art, literal freakin art btw), we have Steph
Curry running off double pin-downs, elevator screens, etc. to
potentially launch from 29 feet out. Again, it's about the
potential, the threat.
The three-pointer is, of course, a useful and essential
finishing tool, but some of the early shot clock and offense
jumpers that teeter between feeling forced and making your father
turn off the TV are looked at incorrectly.
I don't intend to say that they can't be frustrating, but
there's a reason why some staffs emphasize these looks. Think of it
like a jab in boxing. Is it the knockout punch? Heck no, but you
can't just run around throwing overhand rights hoping to win a
title fight. There has to be a setup. There has to be some guile
and craft to unlock and open what's most desired: efficient
"Efficient buckets" has an entirely different world of meanings.
Applied analytics has certainly cut down on the mid-range looks,
but not entirely. The best of the best live there still, and
perhaps with greater efficacy now as the floor is better spread,
allowing for premier operators to flourish or showcase their
What is efficient certainly has larger trends that track
league-wide for the most part, but doubtlessly, it depends on the
player. Some players might have minimal verticality around the rim,
so the slightest contest at the basket can relegate them to a
subatomic percentage at the basket. However, they might also be one
of the quickest shooters in the league, so a three is more
efficient for them. Another player might have a a 43-inch vertical,
crafty handle and willingness to shoot, but they may also have the
ability to yam on just about anyone. So again, there are trends,
but it always depends on personnel.
Looking at this through the lens of multiple possessions or
actions, it's worth trying to encapsulate the entirety. As
mentioned earlier, space is the key. Unlocking the floor puts more
and more torsion/tension on the defense.
Median Drives Per Game
Drives Per Game
(All Data courtesy of Second
Spectrum. Median is from the 15th-ranked team and High is from the
first-ranked team of that season.)
This is the biggest shift due to
applied analytics, and what I most want to highlight. It's easy to
lose the plot of the process, and I'd argue the process is the most
important part. The change of pace has certainly contributed to
more overall possessions, which is worth noting.
The way the floor is spaced now is the
story, though. It is less about three-pointers and two-pointers and
more about what a well-spaced floor with remapped dimensions can
allow for: driving lanes (and driving lanes galore, at
Timing and quickness in
decision-making continue to be paramount as more and more players,
regardless of role, must be capable of making reads. While size is again starting to
reshape the court (what I'd consider the next evolution
coming), it is even moreso about having meaningful size. Every
player should handle the ball to a degree. Every player should be
capable of passing to a degree. No, not everyone is going to be a
primary option, but if you watch some of the top prep schools in
the country, and you'll note how many players are capable of doing
a little bit of everything. That sounds incredibly lacking in
nuance, but it's true. Bigs might not be drivers, but they can
catch and go. They can make one or two dribbles and a quick
decision. If they're open, they make the defense care.
The San Antonio Spurs have been revelatory in watching and
understanding space capitalization. Don't get me wrong, they're not
a great offensive team, but they have showcased a great deal of
offensive principles the past few seasons. While they have
struggled as a shooting team, they routinely play a four-wing
lineup that's built upon drive after drive after drive. Often,
possessions will happen with two or three closeouts attacked
repeatedly and kickouts with quick relocation to restart the
process. Part of the reason they've needed that is their lack of
high-powered finishing and how easy it can be to wall the paint on
them. But again, that's part of the point.
It's not about twos and threes and their "worth." Rather, it's
about how a shot opens up the court and how it allows teams to
shape the defense as an offense.
Offense is fluid and shifts based on personnel on either side.
It's not geometry or stats; it's organic architecture, consistently
in flux with both teams trying to capitalize and minimize space,
time and advantages. It's awesome. It's so much more about the
constant push-pull to take space or not give an inch. It's about
who can make the other tie their arm behind their back first.
Basketball continues to slowly but surely evolve in real time.
It's evolving even quicker when we zoom out and have a look at the
game on a grander scale, and changes are certainly on the horizon
as the game continues to adapt and develop.