The Leadoff: Basketball analytics semi-explained


Much like everyone else, I have spent the last two weeks or so wandering the Earth not knowing what day of the week it is, and at times, what year it is. The week between Christmas and New Years wreaks havoc on me. I’ll eat anything you put near me (and by anything, I mean anything that is either chocolate or salty or covered in sugar), I’ll watch anything on TV (by anything I mean anything that requires a ball), and, like many I presume, I spent most of that time contemplating on if I’m ever actually going to return that sweater my grandma bought me or if I should just tell her it looks great anyways before I’ve put it on.

My consumption of high school basketball skyrocketed during this time. So much so that I would bet, if compared to a similar graph charting the increased rates of cholesterol in Americans reclining back in their favorite chair watching bowl games with their elaborate, multi-story bean dips on their lap and a lukewarm Coors Light in their hand, they would be similar.

It was while I was watching one of these high school basketball games that I was reminded of a quote I heard a while ago that really shook the foundation of what I thought I knew about basketball. It was while I was watching the Templeton Eagles play the Greyhounds in their final game of the Christmas tournament. To the casual fan, it probably wasn’t the most exciting game to watch, but something about it made me smile. The Hounds were much bigger at nearly every position and began imposing their will inside the paint from the very beginning, but that didn't bring me the joy that I was referencing.

In the second half, the Eagles cut the lead to 11 points after hitting a pair of three-point shots back to back. The Hounds ran back down the court and set up their offense. After a few passes around the perimeter, they dropped the ball inside to 6-foot, 8-inch Kyler Warren who laid it up. Still nothing from me. After the make, the Eagles ran down the court where Jordan Stowers noticed he was not being guarded and pulled up for a quick straightaway three-pointer, and I beamed with excitement.

Now the quote I was referencing earlier. It comes from Dan D’antoni (if that name is familiar it's because his brother now coaches the Houston Rockets and used to coach the LA Lakers) after a game in December in 2016 where a reporter asks him if his team’s unwillingness to shoot two-point baskets affected the outcome of the game.

“You see those top three teams. Golden State — do they work it [inside]? My brother in Houston, the biggest turnaround in the league — do they work it in?  You can go get any computer and run what the best shots are and it will tell you the post-up is the worst shot in basketball. If you want to run down and try to get it [in the paint] to shoot over somebody, then you're beating analytics. The best shot in basketball is that corner three. The next-best shot in basketball is any other three. Other than free throws, which we try to do when you get to the foul line, you score 1.5 points every time you go to the foul line in the pros. It just trickles down. It's the same thing for college kids if you can get a layup and it's clean — it's not one that's highly contested — it's [worth] 1.8 points [per attempt]. It's 1.3 from that corner, 1.27. Do you know what a post-up is, with a guy standing over top of you? It's 0.78. So you run your team down there and we'll see how long you can stay with teams that can play the other way. You've seen it in the NBA. The last two championships have been Cleveland and Golden State. What do they do? You don't see anybody post up. They just spread that thing out and go."

If you don't quite understand what he means when he talks about how many points an average shot is worth let me try and explain. If you go onto basketball-reference.com and look up the shooting statistics for this NBA season you will see the Golden State Warriors lead in both FG percentage and 3FG percentage (per 100 possessions). Their regular field goal percentage is at 50 (the next closest team is at 47.7) and their three-point percentage is at 39 percent. The best NBA teams usually average somewhere between 45 and 50 percent field goal percentage and somewhere around 34- 40 percent from three.

Now, this seems self-explanatory but stay with me, three-point shots are worth three points while two-point shots are worth only two points. Think about it, if two teams play each other and one only shoots two-point shots and the other only shoots three-point shots the team only shooting threes has to make significantly fewer shots to score more points and a higher percentage.

Not coincidentally, D’antoni urges his players to shoot 36 percent or better from three-point territory because 36 percent from three, once adjusted, equals 52 percent from two. Remember what the top NBA team was shooting from inside the arc? It was the Warriors at 50 percent. Remember what they shot from three? I’ll help: it was 39 percent. That means that not even the best team in the NBA can get to 52 percent shooting but there are currently 16 different teams shooting at least 36 percent from three-point territory.

So if you have heard about the Houston Rockets lately and were wondering what all the hubbub was about, this is it. The Rockets are trying to shoot 50 three-pointers per game this year in an attempt to distort the math.

Which brings me back to the Templeton Eagles basketball game. The Eagles lost the game but like I said I was dying to see the boxscore. In the game, Templeton shot 38 times from three-point land and only 26 times from two. They also shot 32% percent from deep while only shooting 12% inside. I didn’t get a chance to ask coach Cherry if this was something explicitly talked about to the point where the kids knew the statistics, but it was obviously a point of emphasis and a fabulous one at that. Sometimes, especially in a Christmas tournament where you are the smallest school by far, you have to win in the margins — or at least try.

More In Columns