The Mid-range Jumper: Persistent Dinosaur in the Analytics Age

(Image via Wikipedia and chensiyuan)

(Image via Wikipedia and chensiyuan)

The mid-range jumper and the long 2 have earned a reputation as the most inefficient and stupid shot in basketball at any level. Modern players just can’t seem to convert the shot on a consistent basis. Defenses are engineered to force opposing teams to take that specific shot. And it simply isn’t worth the risk if you’re going to create a long rebound which your big man can’t grab for you. In short you’re just really hurting your team with that shot. You probably won’t get points, you wont get the rebound, you risk giving up points on the other end on a fast break… its just stupid.

Now, I don’t mean to sound like a crotchety old man here, but I can’t help but believe AAU ball has something to do with this. Guys are taught to take it hard to the rack and get fouled. Use your superior speed and athleticism to either score, get an and-one, or shoot free throws. Now, this kind of play works great in AAU and High School games. It even still works with some guys at the college level, but once you land in the NBA that style of play has run its course for all but the truly elite.

(Photo Credit - Tom Pennington, Getty Images)

(Photo Credit – Tom Pennington, Getty Images)

 

Conversely, the layup and dunk will always be considered great shots as long as you’re not fouling someone. The terms “layup” and “slam dunk” have entered the vernacular meaning something that is so easy that it is almost certain to happen. So in short, if you can engineer a layup or a dunk under the basket for your team, you are helping them immensely. You have a high percentage chance of scoring 2 points and allowing your team to get back on defense and set themselves up to stop your opponents.

(Photo Credit - Rocky Widner, Getty Image)

(Photo Credit – Rocky Widner, Getty Image)

 

The other option scoring option (besides a mid-range jumper or a bucket under the basket) is a three. This shot goes in a lot less than a dunk and actually it goes in less than a mid-range jumper. However, with a jumper you are risking losing the ball and giving up points IN ADDITION to not scoring for only a 2 point return. With a 3 pointer you gain the incentive of an extra point, making it worth the risk, according to the NBA Analytics community. The opportunity cost is there and makes up for the risk. Moreover, the risk is further minimized when you shoot a three from the corner. A corner three is only 22 feet from the basket while a three from the arc is 23 feet 9 inches. A corner 3 is 21 inches closer to the basket and still gets you that extra point, so its a beautiful shot.

(Photo Credit - Pat Sullivan, AP Photo)

(Photo Credit – Pat Sullivan, AP Photo)

Enter the Houston rockets, Daryl Morey, and yes the Rio Grand Valley Vipers. Daryl Morey is the GM of the Rockets and the Vipers are the Rockets’ D League affiliate. Because we know 3s (especially corner 3s) and layups/dunks are the only shots reeeeally worth taking, and because we know that the mid-range jumper is both a bad shot and a team hurting shot, Daryl Morey, the mad scientist, has decreed that his NBA D-League team should shoot nothing but those 4 types of shots (dunk, layup, corner 3, and iiiiiiiiif you haaaaaaaaave to… a normal three).

On the surface this looks like a perfect plan. We have used scientific analysis, mathematics, and reason to determine what the best shots on a basketball court are. By taking these shots and avoiding inferior shots, science would dictate that this team win constantly. And actually, the Vipers DO win… A LOT. They’ve won 2 of the last 5 D League Titles and were runner up another year. Three trips to the title game in five years seems pretty good to me. So, this is the mindset the Houston Rockets entered into the playoffs with this season. The Rockets believed they had cracked the code to basketball success, and perfectly constructed a team to exploit these perceived market inefficiencies.

(Photo Credit - Troy Taormina, USA TODAY Sports)

(Photo Credit – Troy Taormina, USA TODAY Sports)

 

They had one of the best centers in the NBA, Dwight Howard, who can convert with ease under the basket offensively, and can prevent the other team from converting layups on dunks (allegedly the best shots in basketball) on the other end. They had an arsenal of lanky perimeter players who could run the court and bomb threes to exploit the other market inefficiency, the three point shot (and corner 3). And again, Howard is the 3 time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, so as long as their laboratory-built offense succeeded, he should have been able to clean up everything else on defense. A perfect storm. The only problem? They had to play LaMarcus Aldridge and the Portland Trailblazers in the first round.

The Blazers are loaded with perimeter players just like the Rockets. Nicolas Batum, Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, and even rookie C.J. McCollum can hit 3s at an incredibly high rate, thereby neutralizing Houston’s 3 point advantage. Moreover, Aldridge hits the mid-range jumper beautifully meaning their plan to plant Howard under the basket and shut down dunks and layups is neutralized as well, because Portland can take, and make, a mid-range jumper instead.

Simply put, the long two is a part of Aldridge’s game. Over a lifetime he worked to add this shot into his arsenal, and has therefore given himself an advantage over the rest of the league. With a basketball culture that, from AAU ball through college and into the pros, has neglected this shot and in extreme cases (like Houston) even shuns it vehemently, Aldridge is a rare breed. And in the end the upstart, spunky Portland Trailblazers upset the mighty (and scientifically proven) Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs.

So Aldridge’s case, dovetailed with the AAU hypothesis, provides us with an alternative narrative to the mysterious case of the mid-range jumper. I think it is more of a lost art than a truly bad shot. In fact, it isn’t a bad shot at all because the individuals, like Aldridge, who have the shot in their arsenal find themselves with a monumental competitive advantage in the modern NBA (or college basketball for that matter).

(Photo Credit - Randy L. Rasmussen, The Oregonian)

(Photo Credit – Randy L. Rasmussen, The Oregonian)

Defenses are no longer prepared to defend the shot as efficiently as they could be because it is considered common knowledge that the shot is so bad that it defends itself. Yes players defend it, but a truly well executed mid range shot, like Aldridge’s, will simply be unstoppable.

Moreover, this phenomenon has resulted in a shift in the NBA. When I was growing up the narrative was always, “there are no big men in the NBA! You need to go all in for big men whenever you can!” and “guards (specifically shooting guards) grow on trees, never put any effort into finding one for your team cuz you can pick one up off the scrap heap whenever you like.”

However, this is no longer true. There are tons of big men in the league now, and there is a dearth of shooting guards in the NBA. Moreover there is a wealth of point guards… guys who can dish the ball to big men down low (for dunks) drive to the rack themselves (for a layup) or kick it out to an open teammate (for a 3). However, what we don’t have much of anymore is the big man who can step outside the paint and hit a jumper. We don’t have the shooting guards who can abort a drive and pull up from mid-range after breaking his man’s ankles and drain a shot.

The 90s are gone and they took their wealth of shooting guards with them. (Images via Manny Millan/Sports Illustrated and shattertheglass.com )

The 90s are gone and they took their wealth of shooting guards with them. (Images via Manny Millan/Sports Illustrated and shattertheglass.com )

I think the game of basketball is much worse off this way. Again, I’m sounding like an old man watching basketball in the 50s but we need pure skill and shooting ability to return to the game. The way things are now you really can break the game down to a science where its all numbers and percentages like the Rockets do. You can just grind away at those low variance, high benefit shots while ignoring the rest of the nuance of the game of basketball. You can’t really do this at the NBA level simply because there is so much talent around, but college? High School? And the lower levels of pro basketball like Europe, China, and the D League, you can, and that seems kindof sad to me. I hope in the future we can have more guys who can hit these mid-range shots coming up through the ranks, but I’m not sure the AAU culture will allow it. Its going to remain a select few. So maybe I’ll just have to settle for the loving the rare few who can do it for their competitive advantage and the utter domination they can unleash on their opponents.

(Photo Credit - Greg Nelson, Sports Illustrated)

(Photo Credit – Greg Nelson, Sports Illustrated)

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