As the NBA continues to evolve in the pace-and-space era, which teams are capitalizing on the corner 3? And do mid-range shots even matter anymore?
The corner 3-point shot has been widely documented as being one of the best shots in basketball. The corner lines are both 22 feet away from the basket, almost a full two feet closer than anywhere else in the half-court, making it a bit easier to nab three points than above the break. Being that the shot is as valuable as a shot at the rim, many teams have been exploiting the corner 3 to their benefit.
This article by Stephen Shea covers the aspects and trends of how teams in the NBA have been increasingly shooting from the corners from 1998-2018. I want to look at how often and how teams shot from this special spot last season and judge.
How valuable was attempting each shot this past NBA season?
“If a team could replace 10 mid-range jumpers with 10 corner 3 attempts, they’d be projected to score an additional 3.7 points per game. That might not sound like a lot, but everything else the same, an additional 3.7 points per game projects to an additional 9.7 wins on the NBA season.”
It’s wild to think that switching up a couple of shots can potentially swing a bad team’s season. If that’s the case, however, teams should be abandoning the mid-range shot like the plague. So which teams took advantage of the corner 3 last season?
The plot above is meant to give a general overview, and some of the teams in the green space are arguably playing the “right kind of basketball” in terms of favoring the corner 3. Teams in the lower right red quadrant haven’t been able or aren’t valuing the corner 3 in the same way that other successful teams are.
Now, maybe it’s a little bit disingenuous to place such a target on the likes of the Minnesota Timberwolves or Orlando Magic simply because not every team can have 3-point assassins to build a playbook around.
Teams in the lower left quadrant, however, like the Atlanta Hawks or the Dallas Mavericks, may have recognized that their personnel was lacking in elite 3-point shooters, but decided to ditch the mid-range regardless. It’s sensible, as the system will be in place for when the team would be able to land the appropriate personnel for increased efficiency on corner 3s.
Strangely, in the case of the Dallas Mavericks, the team had moved on from the likes of Harrison Barnes and Wesley Matthews — players that, despite various shortcomings like contract value or age, were fairly efficient from the corner. Instead, the Mavs have brought in Seth Curry and Delon Wright, players who also shoot well and stand to benefit from playmaking of Luka Doncic. With the addition of Kristaps Porzingis and Boban Marjanovic, we might see the Mavs gently steer away from the corner, since these big men should give them an advantage in the mid-range and in the restricted area, respectively.
The quadrant in the upper right are teams that have excelled in the mid-range shot compared to the rest of the league. The Golden State Warriors are the clear outlier in that the team can clearly shoot well from everywhere because of Stephen Curry, but they probably could afford to shoot even more from the corners. With the departure of an elite mid-range shooter in Kevin Durant, the team will be forced to look elsewhere, and the corners seem like an easy choice to divert the attempts that Durant is leaving behind.
An interesting case, as always, is the San Antonio Spurs. Shea brought up how the team has successfully utilized the corner 3 to its advantage over the years, but this past season, it looked like a mid-90s tour-de-force. The Spurs offense clearly runs through mid-range savants in LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan and having finished the season as seventh in the Western Conference, there remains value in zigging when the rest of the league is zagging. Still, the Spurs finished the 2018-19 season as the best shooting team by overall 3-point percentage, so there’s definitely room to give up a couple of mid-range shots.
Perhaps basketball remains to be a sport about recognizing and amplifying personnel strengths over grabbing a specifically more valuable shot. It’s an important thought experiment coaches and analytics departments should be asking every single day. Just because the mid-range shot nets less than desirable results in the macro perspective doesn’t mean it’s useless.
As games start then, what do teams opt for? Do they tend to try and get their star players “warmed up” in the post? Do they opt to pass in and out and look for 3s? The following slope chart takes a gander at the 16 playoff teams from last season and how they approached mid-range shots and corner 3 attempts.
Two things stand out from the graph above. The San Antonio Spurs are seemingly hell-bent on getting active in the mid-range at the beginning of each game, no better expressed than by this linked table from Basketball-Reference. Any tropes describing the Spurs as some 3-ball Euro-style team should be dead right? Per pbpstats.com, the Spurs are among four other teams to have:
- over 2,500 points come from unassisted 2-point shots
- a 3-point attempt rate of under 30
- made at least 35 percent of their 3-point shots (league-leading 39.2 percent)
Only one of these teams, the Chicago Bulls, didn’t make the playoffs during the 2018-19 season, showing that this style of play that’s based around a seemingly inefficient shot still matters and is approved by grand basketball wizard Gregg Popovich. In fact, the Spurs’ shot quality was a league-worst 0.49. (You should read about shot quality from pbpstats here.)
Teams like the Houston Rockets, Utah Jazz and Brooklyn Nets are ditching the mid-range shot in fervid favor of corner 3s. This kind of shot selection has positively affected the Rockets’ shot quality, as it was fourth-best in the league at 0.53. Other teams like the Philadelphia 76ers flip-flop between the mid-range and corner attempts throughout the game. However, it looks like most playoff-bound teams strayed away from taking as many mid-range shots in the fourth quarter as they did to start the game.
For what it’s worth, it’s perhaps a bit too soon to write off the mid-range shot, even if it averages 0.8 points per attempt.