The Nuggets Didn’t Lose Because of Math. On a Related Note, The Mid-Range Isn’t Dead

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Nuggets guard Jamal Murray’s tweet after catastrophic loss to Wizards

Thomas Rice, Staff Writer

In a recent game against the Washington Wizards, Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray halted more than 20 feet from the basket and passed to an open Facundo Campazzo on a fast break. Two other Nuggets were situated as Campazzo and Murray were, right at the three-point line. None of Denver’s players ran to the wide open basket for an easy dunk, with no Wizards in position to challenge a shot near the hoop. Campazzo missed his three-point shot. It was a botched play by the Nuggets, a bad way to drop easy points. Compounding the incompetence of the play was the fact that it occurred as the Nuggets were down just two points, and the game clock expired as Campazzo’s shot clanked off the rim.

In the immediate wake of the Nuggets’ loss, the play was scrutinized and criticized everywhere from Twitter to TNT’s broadcast of Inside the NBA to Nuggets press conferences that night, where Murray, forward Michael Porter Jr., and coach Mike Malone all admitted that their team should’ve done better and found a shot right at the rim. Everyone was in agreement that it was a bad play. Not everyone was in agreement as to why the play went so wrong.

The first, and most realistic, answer is that it was simply a collective lapse in judgement by the Nuggets. Murray should have attacked the basket, or Porter, who in actuality ran to the corner to get into position to shoot a three, should have cut to the basket, or both. In the heat of the moment, Porter and Murray just forgot what they were supposed to do, and neither Campazzo nor Monte Morris, the other player on the Nuggets break, were quick enough to correct Porter’s mistake. The other explanation blamed basketball analytics, the boogeyman of many a 90’s NBA fan, an evolution that has supposedly caused the sport of basketball to get “softer,” with players looking only for three point shots and ignoring the grinding interior game of the past.

The primary reason analytics was being blamed for the Nuggets’ mishap was that many thought the Nuggets players were conditioned to shoot only threes, and take no other shots, as the numbers suggest. Except, that isn’t at all what the numbers suggest. 

Yes, the rise of analytics, along with the success of players like Steph Curry, James Harden, and Damian Lillard, has led to more and more three-pointers. But, and this is important to the Nuggets’ situation, the most prized shot for analytics is not the wide-open three, but the wide open layup or dunk. The reason for this lies in the basic math that serves as the base for much of analytics. Most NBA players will make wide open layups nearly all the time, barring a major mental lapse. This means that a wide open layup is worth nearly 2 points per shot (2 points for the shot going in, multiplied by the chance that it goes in, nearly 100%). However, only the most elite players can make just 50% of open threes. 

According to NBA.com, there are only five players who have both shot more than 50 wide open (the nearest defender more than 6 feet away) threes and made more than half of them this season. The best wide open three-point shooter in the NBA this year, Joe Harris of the Brooklyn Nets, makes just 60.3%, good for 1.89 points per shot, which still doesn’t match the mark of a wide open layup by probably any player in the NBA. So, even if all of the Nuggets’ players were the absolute best shooters in the entire NBA, analytics would tell them to cut to the basket for a layup.

This isn’t to belittle the open three, however. Teams have become more and more reliant on deep shots, and with good reason. While players aren’t as efficient on open threes as shots near the basket, hundreds of players shoot near or better than 40% on wide open three pointers, which is worth 1.2 points per shot, above the league average on all shots this season, which is just below 1.12 points per shot. 

Because of the efficiency advantages, teams have come to hunt shots at the rim and threes at unprecedented rates. This has led to many decrying the “death of the mid-range,” the area between the paint right underneath the basket, and the three point line. And, in many ways, the mid-range shot has indeed died off. In seasons past, legends like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, and Kevin Garnett perfected the art of the mid-range jumper, captivating with their mastery of making a 15-footer with a defender draped all over them. But practitioners of the mid-ranger still are found across the NBA in players like Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Demar DeRozan, and Kawhi Leonard. 

It is a common misconception that analytics don’t “like” mid-rangers, and there is some truth to that idea. Indeed, most players shoot just about as well from behind the three-point line as they do right in front of it, except making a shot from behind the line grants an extra point, making the three the far more efficient shot. But, if a mid-range jumper is indeed an open shot, for many players, it is a shot worth taking. Nikola Jokic is a good example. The Nuggets center (and final player on the court for the disastrous play against the Wizards) shoots nearly 58% on mid-range shots with the nearest defender more than 4 feet away (NBA.com classifies this as open), making that an efficient shot worth 1.16 points per attempt. Analytics has a bigger problem with players taking shots that are essentially as deep as threes, just aren’t worth as many points, as well as well-defended shots when better looks can be found. 

Many will complain that analytics hurt basketball, breaking it all down into numbers that take away individuality. But, basketball is ultimately about winning, and analytics have helped teams like the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Phoenix Suns, and San Antonio Spurs enjoy success in the past 20 years, pushing the limits of how efficient a basketball team can be.