NOTE: This article has been updated from its original version.
Ahead of the 2017 Western Conference semifinals against the Houston Rockets, James Borrego sat in with Gregg Popovich for the San Antonio Spurs’ coaches meeting. This would be Popovich’s 51st playoff opponent in his coaching career, but Borrego, as the Spurs’ assistant coach, knew the Spurs were prepping to face a team unlike anything Popovich had seen in his three decades on the sidelines.
Houston liked taking 3s, but it loved taking deep 3s. That season, the Rockets took an NBA-high 23.7 3-pointers per game ranging from 25 to 29 feet, according to NBA.com tracking. For context, the NBA’s 3-point line stands roughly 23 feet from the basket.
No team had ever averaged more than 17 such shots in the history of the NBA, but the Rockets were different. Ryan Anderson, James Harden and Eric Gordon weren’t just lining up from beyond the arc, they were lining up well beyond the arc. Despite the extra yards of distance, they still shot a healthy 35 percent on those shots, just about league average on all 3-pointers.
Harden ran out of gas in the series and the Spurs dispatched the Rockets in six games, in part because they limited Houston’s second-chance points. Two years later, Borrego is the head coach of the Charlotte Hornets and still thinks about that pre-series meeting against Houston.
More specifically, he remembers the big takeaway: Reprogram how you crash the boards.
“That was one of the keys for us in our playoff series with Houston,” Borrego said. “You can’t just crash to the paint area. You have to come out long. Go to the elbow area and read it from there.”
What the Spurs noticed was that Patrick Beverley and Anderson were sniping offensive rebounds further out from the basket area. The Rockets had discovered a new wrinkle, borne out of Newtonian physics.
“They figured out these long 3s were producing long rebounds,” Borrego said. “So these guys were going to the elbow area and the free-throw-line area to get second-chance opportunities. Then it created another wide-open 3-pointer for them.”
Borrego still harkens back to those meetings today. This season, the average team takes 19 shots from 25 to 29 feet and the 3-point attempts are only getting deeper.
Like never before, teams are taking what I call “Logo 3s” from 30 to 40 feet, usually near the home team’s giant halfcourt logo. There have been 777 such shots already this season, up from 525 in 2016-17 and on pace to shatter last season’s total of 860. We might hit 1,000 such shots by season’s end.
But here’s the fascinating trend that will change the way you watch the upcoming playoffs: Because of the hidden value of more second-chance opportunities, Logo 3s are far more effective than they appear to be by looking at raw field-goal percentage. Due to the laws of physics, teams get second-chance opportunities on Logo 3s at a much higher rate. So much so that Logo 3s are turning into BOGO 3s: Buy one, get one free.
Just like your local grocery store.
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Houston coach Mike D’Antoni laughs off the question. Did the Rockets take more deep 3s, not because they made more, but because of the sneaky second-chance opportunities when they missed?
“Nah, nah, nah,” D’Antoni said, smiling. “A miss doesn’t come into our vocabulary.”
Touché, coach! Although the Rockets have a seemingly cold-blooded numbers guy as their GM in Daryl Morey, this trend wasn’t cooked up in a lab. Instead, it began when D’Antoni watched his players practice 3-point shots. The further out they went, it didn’t seem to matter. They kept making ’em.
“The reason it came about was because Ryan Anderson was shooting and James [Harden] and Eric [Gordon],” D’Antoni said. “And they would sit back there and shoot it. That gives us more room. That just makes sense.”
It was a matter of spacing. Offensive rebound potential, or the idea of a BOGO 3, wasn’t part of the thinking. But maybe it should be. I asked Darryl Blackport, the guru behind the statistical goldmine site pbpstats.com, and Mike Beuoy, of hoops research site Inpredictable.com, to crunch the numbers for me. Are longer 3s rebounded by the offensive team more often than shorter 3s? Was Beverley, an amazing offensive rebounder, onto something?
The short answer was yes. The long answer has some layers to it. Let’s peel them back.
The typical 3-pointer is not a great second-chance opportunity. The average NBA team gets an offensive rebound on 27 percent of their misses, per NBA.com/stats. But that number falls to roughly 20 percent on non-corner 3-pointer misses. (Blackport removed corner 3s from his particular research because we wanted to isolate the effect of distance, and you simply can’t take deep corner 3s without stepping out of bounds or, worse, spilling someone’s $15 beer.) The upshot: You might get an extra point for making a 3-pointer (good!), but the second-chance opportunity declines from 27 percent to 20 percent (bad!). It’s a tradeoff.
Things change when players step back to the Logo, for 3s taken from 30 to 40 feet. Originally, the data said offensive rebounds were being recovered from those shots at a drastic rate -- 31 percent for Logo 3s and up to 56 percent for 3s taken from 34 to 35 feet.
I know what you’re probably thinking. There’s got to be a quirk here. Like, are end-of-quarter heaves or shot-clock violations being mistakenly recorded as offensive rebounds?
Then, on Friday, Beuoy and Blackport identified a quirk in the play-by-play data that overstated the BOGO effect. Shot-clock violations and buzzerbeaters have a tricky way of being logged in play-by-play data. Take this example by Trey Burke. Or this one from Marco Belinelli. Both instances were registered as offensive rebounds with 0:01 second on the clock. Obviously, that rebound did not happen in time.
With the new information at hand, the observed BOGO effect did not disappear entirely. The offensive rebound rate on Logo 3s (30-40 feet) shrunk from 31 percent to 23 percent after accounting for the tricky play-by-play notation. Shorter 3s yielded a 20-percent offensive-rebound rate so the BOGO effect was still there but considerably muted (3 percent).
Does this revolutionize the sport? No, but it is enough to affect team strategy in a league where deep 3s are becoming more utilized.
To wrap your head around why this might be, think about rebounding strategy. Giants tussle for inside position near the basket and box out their opponent so that when the ball falls off the rim, they can snatch it away. But what if the ball doesn’t fall off the rim? What if it jumps off the rim and soars to the free-throw line? Now that box out becomes inverted. If the ball soars overhead, the guy you just boxed out has actually boxed you out.
This could have worthwhile implications on the sport. For those who don’t want to see an NBA consisting of guys chucking up 35-footers, the good news is that there were only a total 95 shots from the 34- to 35-foot range over the past six seasons. It’s a rare occurrence, and the small sample size could be warping the offensive-rebound rates. Perhaps if we see more of these shots, the effect will regress to the mean some. Or maybe longer rebounds mean a tad more fastbreak opportunities the other way (Blackport said there’s generally no evidence to support that theory, at least not in 2-point jumpers versus 3-point jumpers.) Or maybe coaches will change their rebounding strategy and account for the strong ricochet off of misses.
But as time goes on, there may be fewer misses to get.
“Guys are literally practicing way out there,” D’Antoni said. “And getting better at it.”
The Atlanta Hawks call them “swag shots.”
Come across halfcourt, pull-up in the open court in rhythm and let it fly, no matter where you are. With a freak talent like rookie guard Trae Young at the helm, it’s something Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce has embraced -- to an extent.
“The swag shot is not to be abused,” Pierce said.
The moniker started with former Hawks guard Tyler Dorsey, who made a habit out of burying opponents in Summer League with an on-the-move deep 3. It wasn’t that different from what Young did to scores of opponents across the NCAA while at Oklahoma.
But that doesn’t mean he, or the young Hawks, have a green light all the time.
“We know Trae [Young] can shoot from deep, but if we come down and just start jacking 3s, there’s a lot of sloppy play that goes along with that,” Pierce said.
That might be true, but the results are undeniable. No one takes more “swag shots” or Logo 3s than Young, who is closing the gap on Luka Doncic in the Rookie of the Year race. According to Basketball Reference tracking, Young is shooting 18-of-47 on shots between 30 and 40 feet (excluding end-of-quarter heaves), a conversion rate of 38 percent.
His normal 3-point shooting percentage is much lower, at 33 percent. Yes, Young has actually been better on long 3s than short 3s.
Young isn’t alone. The extra room from back there may be helpful. On Thursday night, during a potential playoff matchup between the Portland Trail Blazers and the Oklahoma City Thunder, Damian Lillard, a master of the deep trey, will put the BOGO 3 on center stage.
As I featured on The Big Number recently, Lillard is freakishly good at long-distance 3-pointers, shooting 12-of-28 (43 percent) on shots between 30 and 40 feet. Curry, too, is making 43 percent of his 30-footers. (Others aren’t as successful this season. Harden stands at 27 percent, and Gordon is at 20 percent.)
Look deeper into Lillard’s numbers, and you find that of his 16 misses on those shots, the Blazers recovered three of them, generating an offensive-rebound rate of just 19 percent. But those three second-chance opportunities led to three close baskets, which means that of Lillard’s 28 Logo 3 attempts, he scored 42 points through his own makes (36 points) and the Portland makes after his miss (six points).
That’s an astonishing 1.50 points per possession.
To put it in perspective, the Golden State Warriors are the best offense of all time, and they score 1.16 points per possession.
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On Saturday at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, NBA commissioner Adam Silver was interviewed by The Ringer’s Bill Simmons. It was a thrilling hour-long conversation that ranged from serious issues like mental health to lighter topics like adding a midseason tournament. The concept of deep 3s came up when Simmons asked Silver about adding a 4-point line for the first three quarters. You could hear the crowd giggle at the thought.
But Silver wasn’t laughing. The commissioner revealed that he actually suggested adding a 4-point line for the All-Star game to “supe it up a little bit,” but his idea was not met warmly by the NBA’s competition committee, which is staffed by players, coaches and GMs. Silver was surprised to learn that even the All-Star Game was too sacred for his idea of a 4-point line, something I advocated in a letter to Silver back in 2014.
“They threw me out of the room,” Silver told Simmons. “The reaction was, ‘How dare you! The integrity of the game is first and foremost. This is not ‘Rock ’N’ Jock.’’ But I think ideas like that are interesting … We should look at things like that.”
The idea is that we should give extra incentive for elite shooters to step back and shoot the long 3, one of the coolest shots in the game. Players showing off their extreme skill is a good thing for the league and growth of the game, so let’s create an artificial bonus for that.
But maybe Silver doesn’t need to add another line to the game. The incentive is already there, secretly tucked into the equation, in the form of that easier-to-get extra possession.
Editor's note: After publishing, additional research found that, due in part to inconsistency in NBA record-keeping, the percentages of offensive rebounds on long-distance 3-pointers were smaller than originally stated. We've updated the article to reflect these changes.