Nylon Calculus: Where do catch-and-shoot 3s come from?

A new pass tracking database and accompanying app allows us to track the locations of passers and shooters on catch-and-shoot 3s, on the hunt for patterns.

Everybody loves catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts. They are some of the most valuable shots in basketball and coaches have dreamt up actions, principles, and entire offenses designed to create as many of these juicy looks as possible. Across the league, shooters made 37 percent of these opportunities during the 2019-20 season (the equivalent of a healthy 1.11 points per shot).

But, where exactly do these shots come from? And how can we help our team get more of them or prevent the other team from getting theirs? Using pass data collected by Darryl Blackport and made available on his site tracking.pbpstats.com, I created a Kick-out Tracking app to help us find some possible answers.

The app shows the user two different views of passes that led directly to catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts: the locations where the player was standing when he threw the passes and the locations where his teammates were standing when they caught the ball and shot it. For example, let’s check out the 90 passes made by Russell Westbrook that are available in Blackport’s tracking database.

Last season, Westbrook led the league in corner-3s assisted per game, setting up one of his teammates for a 22-footer 1.72 times each night. For Westbrook (and many other offensive initiators), the key to opening up some space in the corners is to collapse the defense and draw help towards the middle of the floor. On average, Westbrook was 13.9 feet away from the hoop when he passed the ball out for a catch-and-shoot 3 and he was passing the ball from the paint more than half of the time (51 percent ) — those stats illustrate that he tended to be standing closer to the basket than any other passer in the app (which includes the 50 players with the most passes in the database, 45+ passes each).

Now let’s take a look at Bam Adebayo, who has a much different pair of charts.

Michael Pina did a great job of breaking down the dribble handoff do-si-do that Adebayo danced with Duncan Robinson last season. Per PBPstats.com, Adebayo assisted Robinson on 78 of his 3-pointers. You can see the spot in the high post where Adebayo liked to operate and the location — just to the left — where Robinson liked to let it fly.

How else can we break down this data for catch-and-shoot 3s?

To create his amazing database of catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts, Blackport has been hand-tracking passer locations and then linking up that tracking data with the play-by-play data from stats.nba.com. This process provides more detailed shot level data than is otherwise available, publicly. One neat thing this linkage allows us to do is to evaluate changes in a player’s passing patterns as the shot clock runs down.

For example, let’s consider the passes that Anthony Davis made to 3-point shooters in the last six seconds of the shot clock.

The chart that shows the starting points of his passes (on the left) highlights Davis’ preferred post-up location on the edge of the lane. At the beginning of the possession, Davis has time to make a move into the paint and pass the ball out to the opposite wing or corner (not shown here); however, as the shot clock dwindles, Davis is much more likely to just kick the ball back out to the wing on the same side (shown in the chart on the right). Unfortunately, these passes were less likely to open up space, as only 13 percent of his 54 passes in these situations led to a wide-open 3. For comparison, big men with special passing skills like Nikola Jokic (21 percent) and Marc Gasol (30 percent) have created more open looks for teammates, even at the last second.

The app also has a filter to help us focus on passes that led to a wide-open 3-point attempt. Here are 164 passes from James Harden that led to either a contested or a wide-open 3 (as defined by the closest defender tracking stats on the NBA site, ie. the closest defender was at least 6 feet away). You can see that the two sets of pass targets look pretty different.

Harden sets up more wide-open 3-point attempts in the corner to his left (your right), whereas he’s more likely to set up a contested 3-pointer on the other side of the court. Interestingly, that’s NOT his natural passing target — as he prefers to use one-handed passes to hook and sling the ball across his body towards his right (your left). This could be an indication that he’s more likely to attempt this uncomfortable pass when he sees a wide-open teammate camping out in that corner.

Another feature of the app is the option to look at passes that were made against specific opponents. This is particularly useful when we’re thinking about how things played out in playoff matchups. This season, the Toronto Raptors gave up the most corner 3s in the league — 14 percent of their opponents’ shots came from those spots. In contrast, the Philadelphia 76ers gave up the fewest, just six percent of their opponents’ shots were corner 3s. Coincidentally, the Boston Celtics played both the Sixers and the Raptors during the first two rounds of the playoffs last year. So, let’s see how these two contrasting defensive schemes impacted the passing patterns of one of the Celtics’ main distributors, Jayson Tatum.

As we might have guessed, Tatum was more likely to set up an above-break 3-point attempt in the first round against Philadelphia and more likely to set up a corner-3 attempt in the second round against Toronto.

TL;DR — the Kick-out Tracking app allows us to map out over 6,000 passes from 50 different players that led directly to a catch-and-shoot 3-point attempt, with filters for game details (regular vs. postseason, time and score, shot clock, and opponent) and shot details (result, location, and quality) — go check it out and see what you can find!

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