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The NBA’s 3s-and-Layups Cheat Code Is No More

Layups and 3s used to be an easy predictor of team success. That’s not the case anymore. Why did that relationship disappear? And where is this evolution leading?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Houston Rockets boast one of the best shot profiles in the NBA. Compared to other teams, they take by far the most high-value shots at the rim and the fewest low-value shots from midrange. Their average shot quality ranks first according to Cleaning the Glass, which looks at shot locations, and second according to Second Spectrum, which factors in other considerations like defender distance.

Conversely, the Brooklyn Nets have a terrible shot profile relative to the rest of the league. They rank 28th in rim rate and fifth in midrange rate; their average shot quality ranks 27th per CtG, and 29th per Second Spectrum.

In a league that has spent the past decade learning the mathematical advantage of a layups-and-3s offensive philosophy, every indication should be that Houston would be shooting more efficiently and thus playing better than Brooklyn. And yet, anyone paying attention to the standings would know that the opposite is the case: The 7-16 Rockets rank 22nd in effective field goal percentage (eFG%), while the 16-7 Nets rank sixth.

For a long time across the NBA, a team’s shot distribution could reasonably predict its offensive success: Take good shots, enjoy good results. Simple. But that relationship, which had declined each season for the past half-decade, is now gone—and may not be coming back. Shot quality doesn’t matter anymore—and both team-building and on-court strategies might have to shift their focus as a result.

The graph below shows the correlation between teams’ shot quality and eFG% over the years. To understand it, know that correlations are measured on a scale from -1 to 1. A correlation of 1.00 means a perfect relationship, a negative-1.00 means a perfect inverse relationship, and a 0.00 means no relationship at all. According to analysis of CtG data, the correlation this season is negative-0.02—meaning, essentially, no relationship at all.

Based on analysis of Cleaning the Glass data

That’s a leaguewide conclusion—Houston and Brooklyn aren’t outliers, but rather the most extreme examples of a wider trend. Other teams with “smart” layups-and-3s shot profiles this season include the Timberwolves (fourth in shot quality, 25th in shot success, per Second Spectrum) and Thunder (sixth vs. 29th); other teams with theoretically suboptimal shot profiles include the Hawks (tied for 25th vs. seventh) and Bulls (tied for 25th vs. eighth).

In 2017-18, the top six teams in shot quality, per Second Spectrum, outshot the bottom six teams by an average of 3.5 percentage points of eFG%, and outscored them by an average of 6.9 points per 100 chances. This season, the gap between the top six and bottom six teams is just 0.2 percentage points of eFG% and 0.2 points per 100 chances.

The first reason for this drastic change is the NBA’s embrace of analytics, which has led to general agreement on how to optimize shot distribution. “The league is becoming more homogenous in shot selection based on location, which means location is telling us less than it used to,” says Ben Falk, a former executive for the Trail Blazers and 76ers who now runs the CtG site.

As renowned NBA analyst Syndrome once said: When everyone’s shot selection is super, no one’s will be.

The Spurs rank last in 3-point attempt rate this season, but their current rate would’ve led the league 20 years ago and ranked second 10 years ago. Shots at the rim and in short midrange areas have stayed relatively consistent, meaning the rise in 3-pointers—now the most common shot type in the league—has come entirely at the expense of long midrange shots, which have fallen from 30 percent of all attempts in 2004-05 to 10 percent this season.

Based on analysis of Cleaning the Glass data

So if location is no longer as important, what is? “If everyone’s doing kind of the same thing,” says a lead analyst for an NBA team, “then it’s really just the quality of the players that matters more.”

A team’s eFG% is the interaction between two components: its shot quality and its shot making, or shooting performance above or below expectation. The latter was always important, of course, but over the past half-decade, as shot quality has become less tied to a team’s offensive production, shot making has become more vital, according to analysis of Second Spectrum’s shot-tracking data.

Based on analysis of Second Spectrum data

This shift is most apparent when looking at what are in theory the least efficient shots in the sport: midrange jumpers. Despite laments over the “lost art of the midrange,” analysts like Seth Partnow and Darryl Blackport have shown that stars still take midrange shots in bunches. In the 2020-21 season, only 16 players took at least three long midrange shots per team game, according to NBA Advanced Stats. But they were almost all elite players—12 of the 16 were All-Stars within the past two seasons—and capable from that spot, combining for 45.4 percent accuracy.

The difference between the modern NBA and previous eras isn’t where stars shoot. Instead, it’s that “teams have gotten much smarter about role players not taking bad shots,” the lead analyst says.

In 2010-11, for comparison, a whopping 87 players—basically three per team—took at least three long midrange shots per game. They were much more varied in skill and combined to make just 41.7 percent as a group. Back then, midrange rate and shooting efficiency displayed an inverse relationship: If a team took a lot of midrange jumpers, it probably shot poorly; if it avoided midrange jumpers, it probably shot well.

But now, with only star-level players spending lots of time in the midrange, the correlation between midrange rate and eFG% has jumped from the negative-0.5 range to negative-0.03. In other words, the midrange shots most teams are taking now are no longer stymying offenses.

Based on analysis of Cleaning the Glass data

The Nets are the best example of a team not suffering from its midrange predilection. They’re making 49.7 percent of their long midrange shots this season, according to NBA Advanced Stats, which puts them on pace to absolutely shatter the league record (47.4 percent, from last season’s Suns). That’s because Kevin Durant (making 56 percent) and LaMarcus Aldridge (57 percent) are combining to shoot more than two-thirds of the Nets’ attempts from that area. Those look like bad shots on paper, but not in practice with the players involved. The same concept is true to a lesser extent of the Bulls, with DeMar DeRozan, and the Suns, with Devin Booker and Chris Paul; those two teams rank first and fourth, respectively, in long midrange rate this season, according to CtG.

Notably, the Warriors took long midrange shots at a top-five rate in Durant’s last two seasons with the team and didn’t suffer from the theoretical inefficiency. A player with Durant’s shooting talent is just skilled enough to break normal metrics or rules of offense.

Other possible reasons for the disappearance in correlation between shot quality and shot success arise, too. Analysts say that after years of being tormented by 3-point-heavy offenses, defenses could finally be better adjusted to the new offensive regime, meaning their focus is firmly beyond the arc—but, like NFL defenses that are so intent on slowing modern passing attacks that they can’t stop the run, NBA defenses might thus be less prepared to guard effective midrange mavens.

This season’s strange offensive environment could also be playing a role. With free throw rates and 3-point accuracy down, thanks to rule changes and the return of fans to the stands, leaguewide efficiency is down by 3.6 points per 100 possessions versus last season, per Basketball-Reference—the largest year-over-year drop on record. That number might improve as the season continues—offenses are typically at their worst at the start of a season—but for the moment, 2-pointers look more attractive, and 3-pointers less, than they have in past years.

Regardless of the reasons, this change isn’t happening only in theory—it’s visible on the court and in the standings, with tangible effects across the sport. First, it reinforces the need for acquiring better players instead of relying on strategy to win games. Once upon a time, a team could generate enough of a mathematical advantage by taking 3s while its opponent settled for long 2s that it could overcome a talent disadvantage. Now, the Rockets and Thunder aren’t outshooting their opponents who possess slightly worse shot profiles but much better players.

Offensive success “always was more tied to your personnel than your types of shots,” the lead analyst says, “but it was easier to overcome your personnel before, and now it’s become more difficult to do that.”

More broadly, this trend serves as a microcosm of the evolution and limits of strategic statistical analysis in the NBA. As a personnel executive for one team told me last year, “The low-hanging fruit was like, ‘Oh, let’s shoot 3s and they’re going to shoot 18-footers and then we’re smarter than they are.’ Everyone’s figured that part out.”

For context, look at what’s happened in MLB, which has been ahead of the NBA in its analytical development. For several seasons after the discovery of catcher framing in the late 2000s, savvy, framing-conscious teams could gain up to 10 wins per year over their competition by focusing on this sabermetric edge. But as other teams realized its value and began to implement their own framing strategies, that advantage mostly disappeared. The gaps between the best and worst framers are a lot smaller now than a decade ago.

As Jeff Sullivan wrote for FanGraphs about framing’s trajectory, “In a sense, analytics doomed analytics. At first, they seemed powerful. You could find market inefficiencies everywhere. And so early adopters were able to benefit. But then came the later adopters, and then came the last adopters. Numbers are no less powerful than they used to be, but there’s less relative power to be wielded when everyone’s trying.”

The same appears true in the NBA: Early layups-and-3s adopters like Stan Van Gundy’s Magic or Daryl Morey’s Rockets gained the first-mover advantage because they recognized the smart strategy while their competition was stuck in the past. But now, knowing where to shoot isn’t enough because other teams have caught up with the math. Just look at the Rockets’ offensive trajectory since first acquiring James Harden: They’ve always ranked first or second in the league in terms of shot quality, but after Harden left, their actual production plummeted.

Teams now must shift to discover and exploit other advantages, just as baseball teams had to move on to the next frontiers after framing. In the NBA, that might mean diving into player development or defense. It also means looking closer at the other facets of offense, like turnovers, offensive rebounding, and free throws.

“How can you win the other three factors,” the lead analyst says, “if with eFG%, you’ve squeezed everything you can out of it?”

Absent extreme rules changes like the elimination of corner 3s, NBA strategy isn’t ever returning to the dark ages in which middling power forwards across the league could attempt a half-dozen long midrange shots per game. For teams wanting to retain an analytical edge, it’s on to the next market inefficiency.

As for shooting, well, there’s still one path to pursue, and that’s to be like this season’s Jazz: third in shot quality, first in shot making, first in team effective field goal percentage. As the lead analyst says, “If we can get higher shot quality and have good players, that’s the ideal.”

Stats through Sunday’s games.