Less than a month into the NBA season, it’s far too early to draw concrete conclusions about players’ shooting performances. It takes hundreds of 3-point attempts for a player’s percentage to stabilize; slumps and hot streaks happen, and Damian Lillard won’t keep shooting this poorly.
But measuring a player’s shot distribution at this point is useful, as it offers insight into the process instead of just the end result. So let’s focus on four established stars with notable changes to their shot profiles so far, and what those deviations say about their individual situation or stylistic fit within a team.
Carmelo Anthony, Lakers
Against all odds, it is Anthony—not Anthony Davis, not Russell Westbrook—who is keeping the 7-5 Lakers afloat while LeBron James is injured. He’s averaging 17.2 points per game, his highest figure since leaving the Knicks half a decade ago, and his effect on the team is even more pronounced.
With Anthony on the court this season, L.A. has scored 109.2 points per 100 possessions—the equivalent of a top-10 mark leaguewide. With Anthony out, however, the Lakers’ production drops to a ghastly 96.4 points per 100 possessions—which would be the worst offensive rating in the NBA. That offensive on-off gap is by far the largest among Lakers’ rotation players.
The explanation for this extreme start is Anthony’s 3-point prowess: He’s made 50 percent of his long-range shots so far (40-for-80), the best rate of any NBA player with at least 40 attempts. That level likely isn’t sustainable over the long run, given that Anthony is a career 35.6 percent 3-point shooter (38.5 percent since leaving New York). But his volume of attempts might be.
Entering this season, the 10-time All-Star’s career high in 3-point attempt rate—the proportion of shots that are 3s—was 42 percent, achieved last season in Portland. (His rate was higher in his 10-game spell in Houston in 2018-19, but all parties involved probably want to forget about that brief stint.) So far this season, he’s boosted that rate to 54 percent, meaning more than half his shots have come from distance—a smart ratio even if he doesn’t keep making half of those attempts.
There are two main reasons this distribution shift makes sense. The first is that the Lakers desperately need competent shooting to space the floor in lineups featuring Westbrook, Davis, and a center. Before his injury, LeBron was also taking 3-pointers at a career-high rate. But with LeBron out, Anthony, Wayne Ellington, and maybe Malik Monk are the only threatening shooters in the rotation, so they have to spread to the perimeter as much as possible to give Westbrook and Davis room to work inside.
The second is that more 3s mean fewer midrange looks for Anthony. In the neighborhood of half of Melo’s shots have come from the midrange every season since he was a rookie (again, the Houston stretch excepted)—annually one of the league’s highest figures. But this season, that midrange rate is down to just a third.
That’s a valuable tradeoff for even the most efficient midrange artists. Anthony’s quantified shot quality (qSQ)—a Second Spectrum metric that measures how well an average shooter would perform based on factors like shot type and defender location—is up by 4.7 percentage points compared to last season, the second-biggest jump in the league (minimum 100 shot attempts).
In other words, Melo’s not just shooting better, but taking better shots in the first place.
Chris Paul, Suns
From one banana boat rider to another: Paul also exhibits an unusual shot distribution so far this season. That strangeness might not matter, given that Paul is leading the league in assists, at 10.9 per game, and his Suns are 7-3, in second place in the West.
Yet one glaring weak point stands out in his profile. See if you can find it, using his shot chart from Phoenix’s 119-109 win against Portland on Wednesday as a clue:
Paul was efficient against the Trail Blazers, with 21 points on 16 shots—but he didn’t take a single try from within 6 feet. Every shot was from the midrange or behind the arc. And that’s been the story of Paul’s season.
In half-court possessions through the Suns’ first 10 games, Paul hasn’t attempted a single shot at the rim, according to Second Spectrum. Not one! He’s taken three shots in the restricted area off steals, but that’s it.
And he’s not taking more 3s to compensate: His 3-point attempt rate has actually fallen by 5 percentage points since last season. Instead, he’s boosted his already-high midrange diet to a whopping 71 percent of his shots, according to Cleaning the Glass—the highest rate in the league.
Paul has always lived in the midrange, of course, and he led point guards in midrange rate in each of the past two seasons. His at-rim rate has essentially fallen consistently from the start of his career until now. But the gap has grown to an extreme. (The two-season dip in his midrange rate on this graph represents his Houston tenure.)
As a tremendously accurate midrange shooter, Paul can still score efficiently. But the lack of at-rim attempts isn’t the only worrisome data point in his profile. He’s also scoring a career-low 14 points per game, thanks to a career-low usage rate. And his blowby rate on drives is just 6 percent, per Second Spectrum, which is last place by a mile: Every other high-volume driver in the league is at least double Paul’s rate, at 12 percent or higher.
Paul may be pacing himself after consecutive compressed offseasons and the longest playoff run of his career, during which he suffered multiple injuries. But when so much data points in the same direction, there’s reason to wonder whether it’s telling a broader story. As the season progresses and the Suns vie for a repeat Finals berth, keep an eye on the 36-year-old Paul’s explosiveness. The burst just hasn’t appeared in the early going.
Draymond Green, Warriors
While Paul drifts farther away from the rim, Green is rushing closer. In every season since his rookie campaign, Green has taken at least 32 percent of his shots from 3-point range—until this season, when he’s cut his rate by more than half, to just 15 percent. Put another way: Ever since his rookie season, Green has averaged at least two 3-pointers per game—until this season, when he’s down below one per game.
Green’s situation is essentially the inverse of Melo’s. The Lakers need spacing, so Melo is best suited to stand beyond the arc. The Warriors already have enough spacing, as Golden State’s rotation includes just two non-shooters (Green and Kevon Looney), with the other eight Warriors in the top 10 in minutes played all boasting 3-point attempt rates of 38 percent or higher.
And the Warriors aren’t missing any theoretical spacing that Green would provide because his lack of shooting gravity means defenses often ignore him out there anyway. Unlike with Anthony, who’s developed into a well-above-average shooter, a Green 3 isn’t an efficient shot. During the Warriors’ 73-win season in 2015-16, he shot 39 percent from distance. But that’s an outlier in his career, as he hasn’t exceeded 34 percent in any other season. He’s been especially bad from deep in recent years, with the second-worst percentage in the league since 2016-17.
Worst 3-Point Accuracy, 2016-17 to Present
That performance looks even worse considering how wide open Green was for many of those 3s. Green’s effective field goal percentage on 3-pointers over the past four seasons is 10.4 points lower than his qSQ. Among all players with at least 500 attempts in that span, that’s the worst performance relative to expectation.
Green’s newfound 3-point avoidance isn’t all strategic; it’s psychological, too. “I think when you go so long without shooting, it’s a mental hurdle you have to get over. I’ll say that’s where I am,” Green told The Athletic’s Anthony Slater earlier this month. (He then added, in typical Green fashion, “But I can shoot the shit out the ball. I know that.”)
Whatever the causes, the effects of Green’s shooting shift have been incredibly productive for the league-leading Warriors. Lineups with both Green and Looney are outscoring opponents by 12.1 points per 100 possessions, according to CTG; lineups with Green and no Looney are plus-11.2. (Playing the league’s easiest schedule so far helps.)
Instead of 3s, Green is taking a career-high percentage of shots at the rim this season, leading to his highest effective field goal percentage since 2015-16. He’s also just as creative a playmaker for others as ever. With the Warriors offense humming along, there’s no reason for Green to venture back out beyond the arc at the same rate he used to—especially once Klay Thompson returns and adds another knockdown shooter to the rotation.
Trae Young, Hawks
The last player on this list is actually amid a two-year trend. Young has a reputation as a long-range chucker, and in one respect, he’s still fulfilling that role: He’s taken 20 jump shots from at least 30 feet this season, seven more than any other player.
But Young hasn’t shot all that many 3-pointers aside from his super-deep tries. Just 31 percent of his attempts are from distance, down from 36 percent last season and, more drastically, from 45 percent the season before. Meanwhile, the league’s average 3-point attempt rate has inched above 40 percent this season, making Young’s declined rate stand out even more. As the rest of the league continues to shoot more and more 3s, Young is moving in the opposite direction.
Young’s 3-point attempt rate this season ranks in just the 21st percentile among point guards, per Cleaning the Glass. Thus far, 3-pointers represent a smaller portion of Young’s shot chart than the charts of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Eric Bledsoe, and Derrick Rose—none of whom has the remotest reputation as a shooter.
While Young has an effective midrange floater and an uninspiring raw 3-point percentage (34 percent in his career, 33 percent this season), he still averages more points per shot on 3s than on 2s. With the Hawks off to a 4-8 start and Young struggling to adjust to the league’s new contact guidelines—he’s drawing just as many non-shooting fouls as in previous seasons, per CTG, but his percentage of shooting fouls has been cut in half—he would do well to hoist a few more 3s to maximize his skill set.
It’s worth noting that Young’s 3-point attempt rate increased to 40 percent in last season’s playoffs during the Hawks’ run to the conference finals. That doesn’t sound like a huge difference from where he is now, but when he’s attempting about 20 shots per game, that means two additional 3-pointers every night.
Again, given his reputation, it seems strange to say that Young should take more 3s—but really, the numbers do suggest that Young should take more 3s.