Knicks President Phil Jackson did something last Sunday that we’ve all regrettably done: tweeted something where the snarkiness was only outstripped by the stupidity.
At the time the Bulls (16th this season in 3-Point Attempt Rate) were up 2-1 on the Cavaliers (2nd), the Wizards (28th) were up 2-1 on the Hawks (4th), the Clippers (3rd) were up 2-1 on the Rockets (1st), and the Grizzlies (29th) were up 2-1 on the Warriors (7th). Now, Jackson probably hasn’t heard of 3-Point Attempt Rate because that would mean having given in to the tyranny of “advanced” statistics, but he generally understood that the good 3-point shooting teams were losing to the bad 3-point shooting teams.
Six days later, Jackson’s ignorance is on display for all the world to see. The Cavaliers, Hawks, and Warriors overcame their series deficits to win, and the Rockets might do the same tomorrow. And even if they don’t, the Clippers still had the 3rd highest 3-Point Attempt Rate this season. Jackson is getting an unrelenting amount of shit on Twitter—as is appropriate—and Knicks fans unconvinced that he’s the man to right James Dolan’s listing Titanic have their worst fears confirmed.
But more importantly, Phil’s tweet was stupid the moment he pressed send, and it would’ve been stupid had he sent it two years ago too. It wasn’t proven stupid by the events of the last week, it was proven stupid by the events of the last decade. The tl;dr is that teams shoot an ever-increasing amount of three-pointers, abhorring mid-range jumpers. The basic logic underpinning this is that players only shoot a little bit worse on threes than mid-range jumpers, and those threes are worth an extra point, making it a much more valuable shot.
This breakthrough—and the breakthrough of advanced stats and analytics more generally—probably would’ve reached mainstream acceptance had the Seven Seconds Or Less Phoenix Suns managed to win a championship, or even make the NBA Finals. But their relative failure allowed the most sclerotic of basketball’s analysts to continue believing in what they “knew”: that jump shooting/3-point shooting/small/run-n-gun/non-defensive/advanced stats teams would never win.
Of course, the 2011 NBA champions were the Dallas Mavericks, which are owned by serial tinkerer Mark Cuban. The Mavericks were the first to put an egghead (Roland Beech) on the bench, and Beech is credited with convincing coach Rick Carlisle to start JJ Barea, an adjustment that won them the Finals. The 2012 and 2013 NBA champions were the Miami Heat, led by coach Erik Spoelstra who never played basketball at a high level, and started his career as a barely-paid video guy. The 2014 NBA champions were the San Antonio Spurs, widely-regarded as one of the league’s most progressive teams, especially when it comes to body science.
But even this analysis—that the “analytics” teams are finally winning NBA championships—misses the point. With only one NBA champion each year, it is dangerous to draw conclusions from their success. For instance, the most important factor in making the NBA Finals over the past four years was the very advanced and wholly replicable skill called “having LeBron James on your team”
No, it is best to look a bit broader when assessing the relative merits of league trends, and that is what proves Jackson’s foolishness. This year the average playoff team ranked 13th in 3-Point Attempt Rate, while the average non-playoff team ranked 18th. The trend becomes more pronounced when you look only at second round playoff teams, and even more pronounced when you look at the four teams (whether the fourth is the Rockets or the Clippers) that made the Conference Finals. This generally holds going back a number of years.
Importantly, the metric being used here is 3-Point Attempt Rate, measuring what percentage of a team’s shots are 3-pointers. It says nothing about whether a team actually made those 3-pointers, meaning that it is important to take a lot of them even if you aren’t making them. Shooting a lot of 3-pointers generally means that a team is spacing well and opening up room in the interior. It leads to a better, more balanced, offense. And even if a team doesn’t shoot them well, they’ll still get more points from their bad 3-pointers than almost as bad mid-range jumpers.
These basic ideas were understood by those on the bleeding edge of thinking about basketball a long time ago, and they have been clear to even moderate consumers of basketball information for at least half a decade. At this point, though there are influential mainstream holdouts like Phil Jackson, Charles Barkley, and Byron Scott, they are on the wrong side of the sport’s future, and everybody but them knows it.
Remember that next time you decry Chuck’s ramblings that the Warriors are a jump-shooting team—they’re not, they’re the best defensive team, and they’re still the favorite to win the title—or lament that Phil Jackson is in charge of a team—it’s the Knicks, the worst-managed franchise in all of sports. Despite what the random guy at the end of the bar is spewing, you aren’t a lone voice of sanity in a wilderness of basketball thought. Phil, Chuck, and the like are the 3% of scientists that don’t believe climate change is likely due to human activities, but way less dangerous to humanity.
Laugh at them, but they’re not worth much more of your time than that.