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Nets Continue To Defy Analytics Logic With Success Through An Irregular Shot Profile
As the NBA evolves toward an analytics utopia, the Nets are saying, “Hold my beer.”
With the way the league’s shooters have developed over the last 20 years, the math has decisively concluded that the highest value of field goal attempts come from either behind the three-point arc or inside the restricted area.
As such, defending those areas are scheme priorities. The Bucks, the NBA’s top team until the Nets took them down, 118-100, at sold-out Barclays Center on Friday night, are among the best in limiting the damage from those prime scoring opportunities, ranking fifth in the league in opponent restricted area field goal percentage and ninth in three-point percentage allowed going into the contest, per NBA.com.
The Nets, however, have embraced their oppositional defiance disorder when it comes to what constitutes a quality look. Boosted by two of the greatest three-level scorers in the game in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, they have been averaging the fourth-fewest restricted-area attempts and sixth-fewest three-point shots per game in the league this season, yet they are running the fifth-most efficient offense with 115.2 points scored per 100 possessions.
Per NBA.com, Brooklyn takes the third-most mid-range shots per game (14.9) and is the only club to average over 50% (51.3% to be exact) on those attempts, three percent better than second-best Boston on approximately double the attempts. Heck, the league median is about a 40.5% conversion rate on 10 mid-range shots per game. Durant has been sublime from these distances this season, hitting on a league-best (minimum 50 mid-range attempts) 57.1% of such attempts while Irving is fifth at 53.2%. Throw in Seth Curry’s 47.2% and you can have three of the NBA’s 15 most lethal mid-range shooters on the court at the same time. How do you defend that?
Against Milwaukee, the Nets came back to Earth a bit from mid-range distances, going 7-for-18 (39%), but they also shot 14-for-25 (56%) from mid-paint areas, another region on the court where teams typically take about 16.5 of them per game and have a hit rate of around 43%. The Nets were able to extend to a 23-point lead in the third quarter despite Irving misfiring on eight of nine field goal attempts because Ben Simmons and Nic Claxton brought flashbacks of old Bob Lanier clips into my head with all their lefthanded hook shots from mid-paint areas. Of Simmons’ 12 points, eight came on five such looks from 5-14 feet while Claxton was three-for-three.
The Bucks, a team that is analytically inclined under Head Coach Mike Budenholzer, seemed like they couldn’t comprehend the illogic of it all. Maybe if Simmons and Claxton had dribbled in closer, the play would have been to contest harder and not worry about fouling them, since they’d be sending two sub-50% free throw shooters to the line. My sense was that the Bucks were willing to chalk up Brooklyn’s success to dumb luck, the way their own inefficiency on wide open three-point looks on Friday had the opposite variance (they shot 5-for-17 from deep with at least six feet of distance from the nearest Nets defender, per NBA.com, 9% lower than their season average). If you can’t take away everything, you might as well give up what the analytics charts tell you is most optimal.
Only the Nets have been a unicorn in the land of logic. The offensive numbers they have put up during their current 15-3 hot streak, including victories in their last eight consecutive games, have been off the charts—a league best offensive rating (117.9), field goal percentage (53.4%), three-point field goal percentage (40.5%), and true shooting percentage (63.4%). All that while taking the fourth-fewest shots from the restricted area and fifth-fewest three-point attempts per game.
Whether any of this is sustainable, particularly when they get to postseason play, is unclear. The Nets have drastically improved their performance in the shared Claxton/Simmons minutes to the point where they are now in plus territory on the season, but there’s always going to be a concern that having two non-shooters clogging space during the more physical environment of the playoffs will prove to be a bit stifling to the Nets’ stars like it was last year during Brooklyn’s first-round sweep at the hands of Boston.
However, there’s another school of thought that believes shotmaking is a premium skill in the playoffs, so whether it’s KD, Kyrie, Curry or T.J. Warren pulling up and knocking down looks from the mid-range areas or Simmons and Claxton converting baby hooks, the more options you have, the better. The answer, of course, can’t be ascertained by any computer; we can only watch it play out before our eyes.