Understanding the "New NBA" - Part II
Updated: Oct 5, 2020
In part I of this series, we saw that the advent of the three-point revolution has made a lot of changes to the NBA. These changes had otherwise gone almost unnoticed. Today, I’ll explain how these changes have impacted the roles of the players playing in different positions.
We know that teams have recently been attempting a lot more three pointers. The next question is, “Players from which position are taking more shots?” Image 1 shows the percentage of three-point attempts for a position as a proportion of total three-point attempts. The black dashed line is the 20% line. If all five players take equal three-point attempts, this is where they would end.
Other than the orange line for Shooting Guards, all other lines are converging towards the 20% line. This shows that coaches are looking to spread the three-point shooting equally among all players on the court. Even the centers, who were traditionally expected to stay close to the rim, are now attempting almost 7% of the team’s three-pointers.
Excluding centers, players from all other positions are attempting 35-40% 3-point shots. For a position like Power Forward, that is a 25% increase over the last 5 years. But some of that is due to a decline in shooting frequency from power forwards. Image 3 is similar to image 1 and shows how teams are distributing their two-point attempts among the different player positions.
As one would expect, two-point attempts were historically much more closely bunched across all positions. Contrary to what we saw for the three pointers, it is now diverging away from the 20% line. Forwards are seeing a significant dip in their 2-point attempts.
In part I of this article, we concluded that players hadn’t improved in their 3-point shooting. Image 4 shows that it isn’t completely true.
While all other positions have been fairly bunched up in terms of their 3-point shot conversion, centers have been converting more of their 3-point shots than they were historically used to. With more 3-point attempts going their way, they have improved their shot accuracy to justify the increased frequency.
Image 5 shows the 2 point shot conversion rates for players in different positions. I have changed the scale of the y-axis to emphasize the increase in shot conversion which wasn’t so clearly visible without the scale change. But have the players really improved their 2-point shooting ability? We already know that the NBA has collectively reduced the frequency of 2-point shots from outside the restricted area. Because teams are taking better shots, they would be expected to convert more. This might explain the increase in 2-point shot conversions. Of course, Gregg Popovich isn’t a firm believer as the Spurs are playing a different game. To ensure that there is no improvement in the shooting ability, a deeper analysis would be needed. I’ll leave that for later.
In part I of the series, we saw that free throws have decreased because of reduced perimeter penetration. Image 3 showed that the forwards are seeing fewer two-point attempts. If we are correct, they should have a reduced proportion of free throws as well. Let us see if that adds up.
I can’t blame you if you feel image 3 and image 6 look like replicas of each other. Trust me, they aren’t! This is testament to the absoluteness of the relationship between 2-point attempts and free throw attempts. Forwards, who were getting a lower proportion of 2-point attempts, are also getting a lower proportion of free throws.
I won’t continue with the barrage of line charts with another one to demonstrate the change in free throw conversion. The only evolution in that regard is the improvement in the free throw conversion from centers. They are now getting more free throws and have, therefore, improved their conversion rates as well.
As observed in the first part of the series, the game is moving towards fewer offensive rebounds because of the increased perimeter play. Since the forwards have lost most of their 2-point shot attempts, they have also seen the reduction in the rebounds. If you don’t drive into the area enough, you don’t get a lot of free throws and you don’t get a lot of rebounds either. Center players, as expected, are taking up most of the rebounds.
Defensive rebounds are also following the same trend. Opposition forwards are driving inside the perimeter less often. Hence, defending forwards are not getting close to the rim often enough to get as many rebounds as they used to. Image 7 shows this in graphical form.
Point guards used to be the primary ball handlers of the team. Their role was to create better shooting opportunities for their teammates. That still remains true. But other players are starting to help them out more often. Centers, especially, have seen a significant increase in their assist production.
In general, assist to turnover ratios have been increasing all this while. Centers and Power Forwards have led this revolution with 40% increases over the last 7 years. Other positions have stayed fairly stagnant in this regard.
The role of a center is becoming way more demanding now. They are everywhere. They are attempting more threes, getting better at shooting 3s and free throws, creating more for their teammates and grabbing a higher proportion of the rebounds. If it continues this way, the value of an all-round big will soon reach astronomical levels. Remember, we’re only talking about an average big in the NBA. Anthony Davis is no average big. He’s absurdly good. If he wants out of New Orleans, he will have a lot of suitors.
Power forwards and small forwards are attempting fewer 2s which has led to fewer rushes to the free throw line and fewer rebounds as well. Power forwards have improved their assist rates, though. All in all, if you’re not a center, you’d better be a good 3-point shooter and a good shot creator to have a good NBA career. Of course, a good defense also helps.
Data courtesy basketball-reference.com
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