Nylon Calculus: How to succeed on offense without really shooting

Shooting 3-pointers is often treated as an essential skill in today’s NBA. But you can still be a positive contributor on offense without shooting.

Talk about Ben Simmons or Giannis Antetokounmpo long enough and you’ll eventually hit the rhetorical brick wall of their jump-shooting. Both are insanely talented and neither has a reliable 3-point shot, the offensive outcome that has come to define so much of the present-day NBA.

And yet, for as often as we’re caught in that sticky wicket, there are some holes to slip through. For example — Antetokounmpo shot 25.6 percent on 3-pointers and still won MVP. He won that award largely with his offensive value, which was estimated to be worth plus-4.1 points per 100 possessions by Jacob Goldstein’s Player-Impact Plus-Minus, the fifth-highest mark in the league. Simmons’ offensive impact (O-PIPM) was estimated at plus-0.5, about the same as shooters like Jayson Tatum, Zach LaVine, Kevin Huerter and Spencer Dinwiddie.

There is a connection between outside shooting and offensive value but it’s not one-to-one and it’s not the only thing that drives offensive impact.

The chart below shows every player who has an O-PIPM of at least 1.5 last season (roughly one standard deviation above average), marked by their O-PIPM and their 3-pointers made per 100 possessions.

In the group of players with an O-PIPM between 1.5 and 3.0, we see a fairly wide range of 3-point shooting outcomes — from Eric Gordon‘s 4.8 made 3-pointers per 100 possessions, down to Andre Drummond and Jusuf Nurkic at essentially zero.

As you move into the group of players with an O-PIPM of 3.5 and higher (more than 2.5 standard deviations above average) the floor comes up a bit, with just Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid below 2.0 made 3-pointers per 100 possessions. The final group, this with truly elite offensive impact — Damian Lillard, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and James Harden — are all prolific 3-point shooters.

The obvious implication is that it’s very hard to have an elite offensive impact without being a consistent outside threat. To understand why this is, and to explain how players like Drummond, Nurkic, Davis and Antetokounmpo can have such a large impact without being shooters, we can look at the Four Factors and their relative impacts on offensive efficiency.

On offense, the Four Factors — shooting efficiency (effective field goal percentage), rebounding (offensive rebound percentage), free throws (free throw rate) and turnovers (offensive turnover percentage) — essentially explain all of a team’s offensive efficiency. However, those variables don’t hold equal weight when it comes to determining efficiency.

Research by Evan Zamir assessed the relative impact of each of the Four Factors on point differential and found that shooting efficiency, as measured by effective field goal percentage, was by far the most important variable — explaining roughly 54 percent of offensive efficiency. Making shots at a high rate is the most obvious and visceral explanation for offensive impact, and the added value of the 3-point shot is one of the reasons that high-volume, high-accuracy 3-point shooters are clustered around the upper bounds of a metric like O-PIPM.

Free throw rate is a related factor and, combined, free throw rate and effective field goal percentage approximate true shooting percentage.

The graph below shows every person who played at least 500 minutes last season, charted by the two different sides of the Four Factors — the scoring efficiency factors and the possession factors. Players are marked by the average of the two different factors in each category.

You adjust the filters but they’re preset to just players with a positive O-PIPM to give you an idea of the different pathways to positive offensive contributions. It is important to remember that, going back to Zamir’s work, the scoring efficiency factors explain about two-thirds of a team’s offensive impact.

The elite offensive players are mostly clustered on the right side of average for the scoring efficiency factors. However, there are just as many positive offensive players who rank below average in those categories and even a few who rank below average on both. To make this point, we’re overlaying a team framework for understanding offensive efficiency to an individual player level, which misses things like offensive gravity and playmaking ability and how they can increase offensive impact for teammates. This helps explain players like Ricky Rubio, Eric Gordon, Draymond Green and Kevin Huerter who have a positive O-PIPM despite ranking below average in both categories.

Next: Meet the 2019 NBA 25-under-25

The big takeaway here is, while high-volume, high-efficiency scoring is the easiest pathway to offensive impact, it’s not the only one. Efficiency matters, even it’s on a small volume and even if it’s just finishing shots in the paint without helping your team space the floor. Extending possessions with offensive rebounds matters. Getting to the line matters. Playmaking matters. Protecting the ball and making sure possessions become scoring opportunities matters.

Even as the game evolves towards pace and space, Ben Simmons, Giannis Antetokounmpo and all the talented young players who come after them don’t have to be able to hit 3-pointers to help their teams have an elite offense.