Analytics 101 – Location, Location, Location

If you’ve played enough basketball, you probably know where your favorite spots on the floor are to shoot. NBA players are no different. When constructing an effective NBA offense, a team needs to consider these comfort zones and build a roster that is complimentary. With the universe-destroying gravity of Steph Curry completely changing the game over the past seven years, more and more teams are employing efficiency analytics to their player evaluations. In almost all cases, the most efficient attempts from a pure expected value are shots right at the rim and beyond the three-point arc.

Gone are the days where you could throw five great individual one-on-one type players together and expect to compete. The Oklahoma City Thunder and Toronto Raptors could be argued as the last successful teams remaining when it comes to relying on an iso-heavy, “take turns” style offense. When the defenses can predict your behavior, they can adapt. When you think about the Philadelphia 76ers, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons immediately come to mind. But you could argue that when looking at the shots they like to take, they must have players like JJ Redick and Robert Covington around them.  So lets dive into the starting five and talk about their tendencies and fit. What we will focus on today are individual heatmaps of where the players take their shots and how effective they are at those shots. We will analyze each of the starting players individual “Heatmap” which is a gradated representation of a players chart of all shot attempts with color codes for effectiveness. Ideally these individual heatmaps combine to form a consistent but unpredictable integrated whole for an NBA teams offensive repertoire.

  1. Joel Hans Embiid

Joel is a three-level scorer in the sense that he loves the baseline jumper to compliment his inside game and his pick and pop three from the top of the arc. What’s interesting is the difference between how much work Joel puts into practicing the corner threes before games in warmups versus how rarely he attempts those in games. The corner three is not a great choice for a center typically because of how much it takes them out of position for getting back on defense and/or cleaning up misses on the offensive boards. When you look at his heatmap, you see that Joel stands out among other NBA big men in his ability to stretch a center outside of classic rim defensive posture. His expected points per shot on attempts at the rim is even more than his 1.32 would suggest because of how many fouls he draws. He is also one of the rare players who can consistently draw fouls on face-up jumpers which enhances the relatively meager .87 PPS on two-point attempts outside of the paint. This combination of skills and versatility combine for an invaluable skill when you have someone like Ben Simmons on your team…

2. Ben Simmons

Much is made about Ben Simmons lack of a three-point shot in his arsenal. Conventional wisdom would tell you that in order to really keep your defender off balance, you must be able to be a threat both inside and out. As you see, the heatmap bears out the fact that Simmons does not like to attempt shots away from the rim. More than half of his shot attempts and 68 percent of his makes come at the basket. On those shots, he has an expected 1.39 points per shot versus shooting just 37 percent away from the rim with an expected PPS of .74.  This is an aspect of Ben’s game that everyone inside and outside the organization both hopes and expects to improve. This stark difference in effectiveness highlights why it is so vital that his teammates can stress the defense to pull defenders as far away from the paint as possible, which helps explain why JJ Redick was so valuable last year….

3. JJ Redick

When looking at the heatmap comparison between Redick and Simmons it reinforces the eye test of just how polar opposite and complimentary they are from an offensive standpoint. Where Simmons had more than half of his attempts at the rim, Redick takes more than half of his shots from beyond the arc. Redick’s expected points per shot on three’s was 1.26 versus 1.08 on two-point shots. Shooting 49.3 percent on long two-pointers is among the leagues best figures and still accounts for a PPS of just .986. Many of these long two’s were forced by the defense late in the shot clock when he was run off the line and had to dribble into a long two. Again, Redick is extremely effective in that scenario and yet the difference is stark. Our next player is like Redick on steroids offensively…..

4. Robert Covington

Nearly two-thirds of Robert Covington’s shots were taken from behind the three-point line. He took less than one shot per game in the mid-range and for good reason. Covington had an expected points per shot of 1.11 on three-point attempts versus just an average .994 on two-point attempts, including a horrific .57 PPS on mid-range jumpers. Covington is the epitome of your three-and-D player. I remain convinced that the high volume of three’s that Covington takes is a function of the needs of the team. He has had the greenest of green lights since he arrived in Philadelphia and the value of having even a league average three-point shooter forcing defenses to extend their coverage outside of the zones that a teams stars like to operate is tremendously valuable. That leads us to the player who adapted most last season, Dario Saric.

5. Dario Saric

Dario Saric is a fascinating case for transforming his game to fit what the team needed most. When Dario entered the NBA, he was thought of as a playmaking power forward with a questionable shot, but unquestioned work ethic and attention to detail. In each of his first two seasons in the NBA, he has attempted exactly 11.4 shots per game, but his points per game average increased from 12.8 to 14.6. How did this happen on the same number of shots? Did he make a much higher percentage? Well yes, but also he made significant changes in where his shots were taken. He took 48 fewer mid-range jumpers last season and adapted his shot chart to look much more like Covington and Redick.

Summary

Our default player evaluation tends to be driven by individual skills, or the lack thereof. We think too often about what a player cannot do, versus really understanding what they can do effectively and putting them in a position to do that. When viewed through the lens of capabilities, you start to see a player within the context of his role versus as an individual stat machine. Joel Embiid is a rare and beautiful creature in that his game is versatile and stresses defenses. Ben Simmons provides great contrast to Embiid with the ability to not only to find open teammates, but fool the defense and take advantage at the rim. There is a symbiosis that they open the floor for him to attack the paint while he forces opposing defenses into a pick your poison scenario.

We’ve focused on the starters in this, but the philosophy very much extends to the entire team. When you look at the potential of Markelle Fultz, it is as a “third star”. He has the ability to both take over point guard duties when Simmons is on the bench in addition to being that isolation player who can simply break a defense by himself. That becomes absolutely critical to true championship aspirations. We all saw how Boston was able to design a defensive scheme to really take away the three-point line and force Embiid and Simmons to beat them individually. The symbiosis was broken down by a team who was both strong enough and quick enough to deny the 76ers very effective default gameplan.

BTW shoutout to http://nbasavant.com/ . and https://www.basketball-reference.com/ Excellent resources for analyzing NBA players.