Nylon Calculus

Nylon Calculus: Raptors, Redick, and relishing in wide-open 3s

The Raptors have been among the most successful teams in the NBA at taking and making wide-open 3-pointers this season. Who else is making it work?

Whenever Giannis Antetokounmpo dashes towards the rim, the rationale for the modern NBA’s emphasis on floor spacing becomes abundantly clear. As that burst of size, speed and strength picks up a head of steam, defenders can’t help but gravitate toward the paint to lend whatever help they can. But their doing so means falling right into the Greek Freak’s trap — a Milwaukee sharpshooter now has ample space and time to fire away…

…only for the ball to clang off the rim. The effort exerted to create those opportunities is wasted. Elsewhere in the league, plays often break down. At least, it seems fair to assume that any play that results in E’Twaun Moore having the ball in the dunker spot has broken down. Brandon Ingram simply comes over to retrieve the ball and reset, only to have Donovan Mitchell slide by like he’s at Shermer High School on a Saturday. All of a sudden, he’s wide open…

…and the Pelicans have three more points on the board. Manufacturing wide-open looks is easier for some teams than others, but every team needs to knock down those shots as frequently as possible.

Floor spacing has become such a focus this decade that it can finagle its way into being a noun (e.g., “The Bucks have a lineup with great floor spacing,”), a verb (e.g., “Brandon Ingram is spacing the floor nicely this year,”) and an adjective (e.g., “Will Dwight Howard ever be a floor-spacing big?”) Raw 3-point percentage serves admirably as a measure of a team’s long-range success but falls short of evaluating how effective they actually are at creating space. One tool that helps close that information gap is the NBA’s publicly available closest defender tracking data.

With the help of this handy information, I’ve collected the frequency with which each team takes wide-open 3-point shots (the percentage of their total field goal attempts that are 3 pointers with at least six feet of space) as well as their success rate on such attempts. Here is a bubble chart with the results:

The league average for wide-open 3-point frequency is 17.9 percent, but thanks to the cluster right in that 17 to 18 range, just ten teams have marks above the average. The rest of this piece will key in on the three teams in this group that also find themselves in the top third of the league in wide-open 3-point percentage. Not every team is subject to the same level of regression either positive or negative, but this data could help explain the relative success or shortcomings they’ve experienced thus far. Let’s begin with the best team in the league at sinking their wide-open shots, the defending champion Toronto Raptors.

Toronto Raptors

Wide-open 3-point frequency ranking: Fourth (22.2 percent)

Wide-open 3-point percentage ranking: First (45.9 percent)

All the Raptors have done since losing one of the best basketball players in the world to free agency is establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with on the perimeter.

Their Leonard-less roster lacks a name that really pops off the page as an elite sharpshooting threat, but their prowess as a collective is literally unmatched. Of the five qualified players whose wide-open 3-point frequency (henceforth referred to as WOTF) reaches at least 20 percent, the lowest wide-open 3-point percentage (henceforth referred to as WOTP) belongs to Marc Gasol, who clocks in at a sturdy 40.4 percent (the league average WOTP through games on Dec. 1 is 38.6 percent.)

Not counted among that group thanks to a 19.5 percent WOTF that just missed my arbitrary mark is Pascal Siakam. The NBA’s reigning Most Improved Player is apparently not ready to stop improving in his age-25 season. Rather than regressing under the pressure of a sizable usage boost back to his 22 percent 3-point percentage from 2018, his 36.9 percent mark from last season has risen once again. It now sits at a healthy 39 percent, in no small part because he’s been able to knock down his four wide-open 3-point attempts per game at just a couple of ticks above that clip (40.8 percent), a slight improvement from last year’s 38.5 percent mark.

Though Siakam has garnered a majority of the headlines for the 15-4 Raptors, the team effort cannot be understated. Fred VanVleet (53 percent WOTP) has not skipped his beat since his revelatory Finals performance, OG Anunoby (48.9 percent WOTP) has provided what the Raptors always hoped he would and then some, and Kyle Lowry (42.9 percent WOTP), though currently injured, refuses to show signs of decline.

The Raptors may have lost a superstar talent, but their shot-creating and making remains championship caliber.

Utah Jazz

WOTF ranking: Ninth (19.5 percent)

WOTP ranking: Seventh (40.8 percent)

Bojan Bogdanovic‘s game has many strengths, hence his four-year, $73 million payday in the offseason, but signature among them is his 3-point stroke. As Utah’s primary wingman alongside the backcourt of Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell, he’s delivered from deep more often than ever, touting career-highs in 3-point attempts (6.9 per game) and percentage (45.8 percent). His team-high 54 percent WOTP is made all the more impressive by the fact that his similarly team-leading 3.3 wide-open attempts.

Conley, another newcomer to the team, has been a frequent contributor from beyond the arc as well (22 percent WOTF and 42.9 percent WOTP), but he also deserves credit for setting Bogdanovic up for success. Sometimes, the play is drawn up specifically to get Bogey the ball in space:

And in some cases, he winds up in the right place at the right time, with the ball not too far behind:

Including these two plays, Conley has assisted on 15 of Bogdanovic’s triples, more than any other Jazz player. It may be difficult and dangerous to measure chemistry with only a quarter of a season in tow, but Conley and Bogdanovic seem to be getting off to a solid start.

Mitchell’s 24.9 points per game are tops on the team, but his WOTF is just 10.2 percent. Given that he takes 20.6 shots per game his 2.1 wide-open threes still wield potent value, and he’s knocked them down at just below the league average clip (38.1 percent to 38.6 percent).

One key player keeping the Jazz from the upper echelon of team WOTP is Joe Ingles. The veteran Australian’s 30 3-point percentage, 10.3 points below his career mark of 40.3 percent, is indicative of struggles everywhere on the arc regardless of space, but that does not dilute the impact his lack of effectiveness on his cleanest looks (34 percent WOTP) has had. For comparison’s sake, he shot 41.9 percent on such shots last season en route to a 39.1 overall 3-point percentage. If he had a 41.9 WOTP this season, his overall percentage would rise to 34.4 percent, which still falls a bit short of league average (35.6 percent per Basketball Reference) but would undoubtedly be a welcome improvement.

Early cold spells for key players have dampened the start of a season that began with championship aspirations. However, the quantity of quality shots they’ve created and the frequency with which they’ve been able to can them without any obvious overperformances may be a sign that brighter times await for Jazz in the months to come.

New Orleans Pelicans

WOTF ranking: 10th (18.7 percent)

WOTP ranking: Third (42.9 percent)

On the heels of the regular season, the projected starting lineup for the Pelicans was set to consist of Jrue Holiday (35.4 career 3-point percentage), Lonzo Ball (31.9 percent), Brandon Ingram (34.6 percent), Zion Williamson (33.8 percent at Duke) and Derrick Favors (21.3 percent). Given this, it seems almost miraculous that New Orleans is even being considered for this exercise.

This development is not all positive, as much of it can be attributed to Williamson’s preseason meniscus injury, which has prevented this unit from taking the floor together. In fact, each of the players listed above and others have already missed at least some time this season due to some ailment or another, forcing head coach Alvin Gentry to trot out a smorgasbord of five-man sets in hopes of finding something that will temporarily stick. Fortunately, nearly everyone he’s thrown onto the court has demonstrated the ability to at least occasionally make it rain.

J.J. Redick’s 17.3 percent WOTF may seem low, but that is only because another 51 percent of his shots are 3-pointers taken with between two and six feet of space. If we’ve learned anything about Redick since his 2006 debut, it’s that he is not afraid to let it fly even in the tightest of quarters. If we’ve learned anything else, though, it’s that he can knock those shots down too, and his wide-open 3-point shots are no exception. This season, his WOTP is a ludicrous 68.6 percent. In other words, J.J. Redick is about as likely to knock down a wide-open three this season as the 2018-19 Golden State Warriors were to win a regular-season game (69.5 percent). That’s insane! Just look at this shot:

Was there any doubt that he would miss that shot? Of course not! I’m the one choosing the clips. But the fact remains that Redick’s ability to sink shots is astounding, and it has not waned while in the starting lineup.

Redick’s efficiency is expected at this point, but Ingram’s emergence as a 3-point threat has been a real surprise. Even if some metrics aren’t yet sold on his entire game, this development along the perimeter is a massive improvement. His high-arcing stroke has made him good for a 50 percent WOTP, second on the team only to Redick, on 2.1 attempts per game. The Pelicans likely wouldn’t complain even with a slight regression, but they certainly won’t with what they’ve gotten so far.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker (36 percent WOTP) and Josh Hart (42.5 percent WOTP) bookend a group of seven Pelicans whose success rates fall somewhere between the two, allowing Redick and Ingram to pull the team’s mark from average to elite. The most obtrusive obstacle in the Pelicans’ pursuit of Toronto’s top ranking is ironically their best player: Jrue Holiday.

Holiday’s WOTP this season is just 33.3 percent, the second-lowest of any player on the Pelicans, Jazz or Raptors with at least two wide-open attempts per game (only Jeff Green has been worse, with a 27.5 WOTP on precisely two attempts per game.) His recent history hasn’t been particularly strong in that department either, with marks of just 37.6 percent and 36.3 percent on such shots in 2019 and 2018 respectively. With a 13.4 percent WOTF, his success on wide-open 3-pointers won’t make or break his effectiveness on the offensive end, but it is a weakness that defenses may be able to exploit.

Next: Is Killian Hayes an NBA point guard?

Once Williamson makes his debut and Favors returns from his own extended absence, Gentry will be forced to make even more changes to his rotations that could jeopardize the floor spacing that has been so fruitful. However, as long as his players continue to knock down the looks they do get, the New Orleans offense could become a force in more ways than one.

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