A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Silly superstars, Treys are for Kicks!

with 2 comments

Image via nba.com

As the Dallas Mavericks progressed through the playoffs it was noted how well their offense was faring, and how strong the team’s 3-point attack was. The team shot 39.4% from 3-point land in the playoffs while shooting more than 20 3’s per game. This is devastating and obviously deserving of attention. Of course with Dirk Nowitzki, one of the great shooters of all time leading the way, would you expect anything less?

Yes, actually you would if you’ve been paying attention.

First off, Dirk has never shot 3-pointers like a mad man. While Ray Allen and, ahem, Antoine Walker shot in excess of 600 3-pointers a season Dirk peaked in the high 300s. Still though, when you’re shooting about 5 3-pointers per game, that’s a serious focus of your game.

It’s fascinating then to see how unimportant 3-pointers have become to Dirk’s current game as they’ve become more important to the Mav team as a whole. Dude’s been averaging about 2 3-pointers per game the past few years. How low is that? Well obviously it’s a heck of a lower than the amount that guys like Kobe, Durant, and Rose shoot, despite the fact none of them is the level of shooter than Dirk is (though admittedly Durant is getting close). Even superstars criticized for their lack of outside shooting like LeBron and Wade shoot 3s more than Dirk.

Here’s the thing that really puts it in perspective though:

Dirk was 13th on the Mavs by 3-pointers taken per minute played.

The Mavs hit their all-time high in 3PA’s this year 1768 because most of the roster has become more likely to take a 3 than Dirk. Even funnier? One of the few guys he shoots more 3’s than is Shawn Marion who in Phoenix was himself a guy who jacked up 4+ 3-pointers per game.

Safe to say, these guys aren’t taking 3’s instead of Dirk because they are better at shooting them, so how is this phenomenon working out?

Pretty well I’d say. Here’s how the team’s effective FG% looks over the same period:

Granted there’s more to offense than effective FG%, but it’s pretty clear that the Mavs have made a choice to go toward shooting more 3’s, with more of them coming from sidekicks, and it’s awful hard to make the argument that this has been a mistake.

Now, the strategy of having role players feed off of the space created by a superstar to shoot 3s is nothing new. Hakeem Olajuwon‘s Rockets were arguably the first to do this and it helped them win 2 titles. That model of interior scorers and 3-point role players is still very much in evidence with Dwight Howard‘s Magic today. This particular model is intuitive because a true big man is bound to suck the defense away from the interior and can’t shoot 3s himself.

The dominant offense of the past decade, Steve Nash‘s Phoenix Suns, demonstrate on a variant of the approach. Like Nowitzki, Nash has been the best shooter on his team but not the most prolific shooter of 3s. However, Nash’s primary role was as distributor, so it wasn’t as shocking to see him take less advantage of the 3-point line.

Dirk Nowitzki however is a jump shooting scorer first and foremost. With the 3-point shot being the single most potent way to score in the game, and with him being the best at performing it as well as being a player whose primary job has always been maximizing his scoring impact, the obvious thing to do is to have him shoot 3’s.

Over time however, Dirk has proven more valuable setting up shop in the mid-range. Part of this is certainly because it allows him to make better use of his spin and body moves to present a wide array of different scoring threats. Part of it though is that taking position here causes maximal distortion of the defense, which then allows for better usage of his now open teammates on the perimeter. And to me this gets us to the key epiphany of the 3-point shot:

1) It ain’t hard to find guys who can hit an open 3

2) It’s much easier to get role players open than stars

3) Therefore, it makes sense to build your offense with role players 3’s as a focal point more so than star 3’s

This may seem obvious to some, but it certainly wasn’t obvious historically. The 3-point shot was around for more than a decade before it started really becoming a part of every game plan. People knew then as well as now that 3 points are better than 2, but they simply thought it was too hard for any but the best shooters in the game to make the shot reliably. They were wrong.

Where this gets interesting to me is in the effect this epiphany has on the value to different types of players in the game.

The role player? Becomes more valuable because he is now the player most able to take advantage of the most potent scoring method in the game.

The get-out-of-my-way scorer? Becomes less valuable precisely because his value is in contrast to the role players.

The defense-manipulating star with the awareness to kick it to the open man? Becomes more valuable relative to the get-out-of-my-way scorer.

Dirk’s progression to the next level of impact comes with him fully realizing his potential as such a manipulator.

Written by Matt Johnson

June 17, 2011 at 11:49 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Exactly. Defence distorting players are immensely valuable for that reason. Even great one-on-one scorers like Kobe, Rose (dare I say Lebron?) don’t always have the ability to warp the best defensive plans, opening up opportunities for the role players to calmly bury the opportunity created.


    June 18, 2011 at 12:47 am

  2. Dallas had the right design with Dirk this season.

    With Nash driving lane for the old Mavs Dirk probably tended to float to the 3 point line. Moving on from Nash might have been the right outcome for the Mavs ultimately but they should have have traded him or gotten something else than Dampier with the money. Chandler was the right piece. Along with the 3 pt shooters.


    November 6, 2011 at 2:35 pm

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