Lies, damned lies and statistics: The confusing analytics of the NBA's 3-point obsession

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NBC Sports

Lies, damned lies and statistics: The confusing analytics of the NBA's 3-point obsession

Let's say you're an NBA coach after a loss. You plop down in your office chair. You're stewing. You're sweaty. Your vocal chords feel like someone gently massaged them with a cheese grater.  

An intern hands you the final box score. You look down and can't wait to find out: What cost you the win? 

What column do you look at first? What column should you look at first?

If you ask Gregg Popovich, it's the 3-pointers-made column. That's the only one worth looking at these days in a 3-obsessed league.

Last week, ahead of the San Antonio Spurs’ game against Chicago Bulls, Popovich was asked about the 3-point shot in the NBA, a topic which has long been fertile ground for a good quote from Pop. The 69-year-old has hated the advent of the 3-point shot for years and this was not the first time he’s ranted about the 3-ball.

“These days there’s such an emphasis on the 3 because it’s proven to be analytically correct,” Popovich offered Monday with what appeared to be a sneer. “Now you look at a stat sheet after a game and the first thing you look at is the 3s. If you made 3s and the other team didn’t, you win. You don’t even look at the rebounds or the turnovers or how much transition (defense) was involved. You don’t even care. That’s how much an impact the 3 shot has and it’s evidenced by how everybody plays.”

Pop wasn’t done.

“I hate it, but I always have,” Popovich said even as he’s adjusted over the years. “I’ve hated the 3 for 20 years. That’s why I make a joke all the time (and say) if we’re going to make it a different game, let’s have a four-point play. Because if everybody likes the 3, they’ll really like the 4. People will jump out of their seats if you have a five-point play. It will be great. There’s no basketball anymore, there’s no beauty in it. It’s pretty boring. But it is what it is and you need to work with it.”

(Stephen Curry chimed in on Instagram with a “Nope!”)

This is a classic Pop rant. Funny. Ornery. Critical. But accurate?

He's exaggerating a bit to make a point, but on the surface, Popovich seems like he’s onto something. The 3-point shot has become more and more popular in today’s NBA. This season, the average NBA team shoots roughly 31 3-point attempts, about two more than last season and a whopping 13 more than the 2009-10 season. In some ways, it has taken over the sport. 

But is the 3-point column really that predictive? If you're a coach and you want to see what won you the game, should your eyes dart to the 3-point column on the stat sheet first?

Well, let's actually do the work. I have researched every NBA game played this season through Sunday’s games (all 342!) and looked at which stats aligned with the win column most often. In other words, which battle tended to win the war of a basketball game?

With that in mind, the most important stat on the traditional box score is ... field-goal percentage! Basketball purists, rejoice! If you shoot better from the floor than your opponent, you’re probably going to win the game. In fact, teams this season are 246-69 (.781) when they win the FG% column.

OK, maybe that's a little obvious. It’s a make-or-miss league, just as Jeff Van Gundy loves to say. 

Now, with all the 3s in today’s game, you look at the 3-pointers-made column, right?

Actually, still no. Old-school coaches might want to sit down for this: The team that won the defensive rebound battle is the next-most likely to win, going 225-71 (.760) this season. Don't believe it? Look at the league's top defensive rebound teams: Milwaukee, Philly, Portland, L.A. Clippers, -- yeah, they're really good this season! 

That area of the game probably keeps Wizards coach Scott Brooks up at night. Washington is 4-1 when they win the defensive-boards column, but 6-13 when they don’t

All right, 3-pointers have to be the next most pivotal category in the box score, right? Nope. Plain ol' field goals made is still more important than the 3-ball. The team that reigned supreme in the field goals column went 225-72 (.758), regardless of where they took them.

We can keep going. Turns out that assists (.699), rebounds (.690) and 2-point field goal percentage (.689) are still more tied to the win column than 3-pointers made. We’re seeing that maybe the 3-point shot isn’t the be-all and end-all.

Finally, further down the list, boom, we have 3-pointers made at a .640 win percentage, just barely ahead of 2FG (.628).

Here's the W-L record of teams that "won" the stat in the box score.

Huh. So, Pop is right in some sense. The "winner" of the 3-point column is more correlated with wins than turnovers, blocks and steals. But not rebounding, especially cleaning up the defensive glass. 

Even though teams are launching the deep ball more than ever, knocking down more 3s than your opponent doesn't guarantee victory. In fact, you lose 36 percent of the time with that 3-point edge. Even if you win the 3-point percentage column, you still lose 25 percent of your games, hardly a knockout punch.

You don't have to tell Mike D'Antoni twice about this phenomenon. If Pop's theory were true, the Rockets would be good this season. Newsflash: They aren't. If 3s made truly determined wins, then the Rockets would be 18-3-2 this season. They're 11-12. Earlier this season, they made 10 more 3-pointers than the Clippers and still caught an L.

How about the Bucks? The surprise team of the season, Milwaukee is 16-7 while firing up 3s at a Rockets-like rate. If the 3-point column dictated wins and losses, they’d be 14-8-1. It’s only two more wins, but this shows there’s more to their hot start than just the 3-ball. Their star player and offensive focal point, Giannis Antetokounmpo, is a terrible 3-point shooter, but the Bucks are amazing this season more so because they're the NBA's leader in 2FG% and layups -- and they dominate the boards. They're so dang good because they own the paint like a 90s throwback.

* * *

I asked the trusty Basketball-Reference gurus to run some numbers for me, and what they found was interesting. The team that wins the 3FGM column over the last decade has a win percentage of .648 in those games. This season, that win percentage is .640  and has been in decline as 3-point attempts have gone way up.

In fact, the 3-point column is essentially no more predictive than it was a decade ago (.638 in 2008-09). Aside from a blip in 2016-17, teams that won the 3-point column have hovered around .640 pretty consistently since 2004-05, when rule changes allowed more freedom of movement for guards (Hey, Mike D'Antoni!).

 

So what's Pop's rant really about?

It seems to be more about aesthetics, along with a hint of bitterness toward the fact that he's not using 3s to his advantage (NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman wrote about this). Popovich doesn't seem to like the drive-and-kick flow of the game, which feels like an issue of taste rather than a contention of competition. Business in the NBA is booming and it's hard to imagine a global obsession over Steph Curry without the advent of the 3-point line. 

The game isn't dominated by guys who were born super tall -- there’s no Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and George Mikan in today’s game (not yet, Joel Embiid). Now, the NBA’s best players are smaller guys -- Curry, Kemba Walker and Damian Lillard -- who have mastered the skill of making baskets from really far away and away from a web of defenders.

There’s more data than ever in sports and the lessons from that data-mining has made its way onto the playing field where scoring has reached heights unseen. NFL coaches are going for it on fourth down more and throwing for more yards than ever. In Major League Baseball, strikeouts and home runs are soaring as part of the true-outcome seachange. If Pop hates 3-pointers, he'd really hate the home run ball. The team that wins the 3-point battle wins 64 percent of the time but according to the Sports Reference folks, the team that wins the homer battle wins a whopping 77 percent of the time. 

In the end, it's not only good for winning, it's good for business. As Greg Maddux told Tom Glavine: Chicks dig the long ball.

Bradley Beal, Wizards buying in with new extension

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NBC Sports

Bradley Beal, Wizards buying in with new extension

Bradley Beal isn’t going anywhere.

That was the message Washington Wizards officials insisted on for months even when it seemed, from the outside, that Beal was facing an unpalatable situation, at best.

Consider the ominous backdrop. The Wizards missed the playoffs in 2018-19 despite Beal’s career year. The search to replace Ernie Grunfeld as the Wizards’ chief decision maker took nearly four months. Fellow backcourt star John Wall tore his Achilles and likely will miss the entire 2019-20 season. 

Not only that, but Anthony Davis -- who was picked two spots ahead of Beal in the 2012 draft -- just orchestrated an ugly exit from the franchise that drafted him. All the while, Beal’s name kept surfacing in the rumor mill as a potential trade target following a historic free agency bonanza that was sure to leave some teams desperate for a splashy move. 

Beal must have had his bags packed, right? 

Quite the contrary. The message I was hearing from the Wizards’ side of things was steadfast: We’re going to keep Beal -- not just for the season. He’s going to want to commit to what we’re building long-term.

On Thursday morning, that level of confidence was justified. Beal agreed to a two-year extension, first reported by ESPN, totalling $72 million through 2022-23 and lining him up for a potential record-breaking five-year, $266 million contract when he’s eligible for the 10-year pay bump in 2022, if he exercises a player option following the 2021-22 season.

This is an absolute home run for Wizards owner Ted Leonsis and his revamped front office structure led by general manager Tommy Sheppard and chief operations and planning officer Sashi Brown. Selling Beal on the team’s vision going forward was the top priority of the franchise.

Not only does it mean, by league rule, that Beal can’t be traded until July 2020, but the extension avoids the sticky situation of Beal becoming eligible for supermax money next summer if he landed on an All-NBA team this upcoming season (or won MVP or Defensive Player of the Year). In 2021-22, Beal is set to earn $34.5 million, about $10 million less than he could have gotten if he inked the supermax contract, a la Wall.

Beal could have demanded a trade like his draft classmate Davis. He could have tabled talks and gunned for an All-NBA selection this season to maximize his earnings. He could have kept this hanging over the Wizards all season. But instead, he signed off on the pitch outlined by Leonsis, Sheppard and the Wizards’ front office. 

Getting Beal’s commitment wasn’t going to be easy considering the strong league-wide current pulling the other way. Beal had to be assured that things would be different going forward. Beal had, at times, been frustrated about the lack of accountability in the front office, according to sources. Those feelings reportedly boiled over in a November practice in which he levied strong words at Grunfeld.

Leonsis’ decision to promote from within was met with surprise by some around the league. While Sheppard was highly-regarded throughout league circles, he also stood loyally by Grunfeld’s side for 16 years. Could Sheppard really convince Beal in a short time that he’s not Grunfeld 2.0?

The answer to that question is loud and clear. After years of shedding longer-term assets for quick fixes, Sheppard and the front office made a play for decade-long sustainability. 

They drafted Rui Hachimura with the No. 9 overall pick and added Admiral Schofield at No. 42 via a deal with Philadelphia. What followed draft night was three shrewd cap moves to acquire talent for next to nothing. The team plucked Mo Wagner, Isaac Bonga, Jemerrio Jones and a second-round pick from the Los Angeles Lakers, who needed to offload money to acquire Davis. Then, Sheppard absorbed former Spurs sharpshooter Davis Bertans when San Antonio needed to move salary in order to sign Marcus Morris, who ended up backing out of the deal to sign with the Knicks. 

To further establish a new culture, the team swapped Dwight Howard’s contract for another veteran sharpshooter who was rehabbing from injury in C.J. Miles. In a season where several contenders will likely look to add talent at the deadline, both Bertans and Miles could be moved for picks.

Sheppard and the front office weren’t done making plays with the long-term future in mind. Rather than pay big money to retain restricted free agents Tomas Satoransky, Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker, the team moved on. They inked 22-year-old Thomas Bryant to a three-year deal for backup money after an impressive season as the team’s starting center. The final tally at the outset of free agency: The Wizards acquired seven players under the age of 23 (Jones was waived Wednesday).

Evidently, Beal was impressed with the reset, turning down the opportunity to be the biggest name on the market this season and signing for less than he could have if he made All-NBA. 

At the age of 26, Beal is a consummate franchise pillar. The two-time All-Star averaged 25.6 points, 5.5 assists and 5.0 rebounds last season, one of six players to reach those marks last season. The other five -- LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden and Kevin Durant -- have all won MVP awards. Beal has played all 82 games in each of the last two seasons, a feat almost no one thought was possible after he battled stress fractures early in his career. 

The extension will take Beal under contract through his age-29 season, when he will be reaching the apex of his career, about the same phase that Curry, Harden and Kawhi Leonard are in now. The Wizards may not make the playoffs this season, but under revamped leadership, there’s at least a roadmap to contention. The Wizards just needed to buy some time to see it through. Beal’s extension, which at multiple points seemed unlikely, gives them that. And affirmation that the Wizards have something here.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

Anthony Davis should play more at center for DeMarcus Cousins-less Lakers

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USA Today Sports

Anthony Davis should play more at center for DeMarcus Cousins-less Lakers

LeBron James’ team could not score. Worse yet, his star big man was injured.

The Miami Heat managed just 75 points against the vaunted Indiana Pacers defense led by Frank Vogel in Game 2 of the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals. Chris Bosh pulled an abdominal muscle in Game 1 and wouldn’t be back for the foreseeable future. The Heat were in crisis mode.

The next day, the Heat held practice to figure out who was going to replace Bosh in the starting lineup. Ronny Turiaf and Udonis Haslem started Game 2, but matching the Pacers’ massive size up front wasn’t working. David West and Roy Hibbert weren’t budging.

After practice, the Heat’s brain trust gathered for an intense meeting. Some believed staying big was the only logical choice. Others thought going small would force the Pacers to adjust. Pat Riley voiced his thoughts and so did New York Knicks head coach David Fizdale, who was a Heat assistant coach at the time. 

The late-night meeting never resulted in consensus. Spoelstra and the Heat brass walked to their cars in the parking garage along Biscayne Bay.

Spoelstra turned to his colleagues.

“I know what I’m gonna do,” Spoelstra said with a look.

They knew what it meant. 

The next night, Spoelstra signed his starting lineup sheet with Shane Battier starting as a big, allowing LeBron James to effectively operate as the power forward on offense. The Heat lost Game 3, but Spoelstra kept at it. In Game 4, the Heat exploded for 101 points as James erupted for 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists with Ronny Turiaf as the Heat’s lone true big man on the court.

James was unlocked as a do-it-all big man. He set screens. He crashed the boards for putback dunks. He sliced through the defense as West shadowed Battier at the perimeter. After two 75-point games, the Heat would go on to average 100.7 points for the rest of the playoffs and eventually win the 2012 NBA Finals with the smaller, unconventional formation with a fully recovered Bosh at center.

Now, in 2019, the Los Angeles Lakers are facing a similar dilemma -- but with a twist. Now, Vogel is the head coach with the chance to go small. With James’ star big man DeMarcus Cousins out with a torn ACL suffered last week, does his coach effectively make James a big again?

That doesn’t happen without Anthony Davis’ blessing. And therein lies the rub. 

At 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-6 wingspan and listed at 253 pounds, Davis is one of the largest human beings on the planet. But even while the league is moving away from lumbering 7-footers, Davis still prefers not to play the position of players his size. In fact, he told the Lakers up front that he wanted the roster stocked with centers.

Sitting between Lakers GM Rob Pelinka and Vogel at the Lakers’ introductory press conference last month, Davis was asked about his ideal position.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” Davis said. “I like playing the 4. I don’t really like playing the 5.”

Then Davis smiled and put his hand on Vogel’s shoulder.

“But if it comes down to it, if coach needs me to play the 5, then I’ll play the 5.”

Pelinka jumped in, emphasizing the fact that the Lakers granted the upcoming free agent’s wishes by getting commitments from JaVale McGee and Cousins.

“When Anthony and I first started talking about the roster, he did say, ‘Hey, I’d love to have some 5s that can bang with some length.’ He’s 26. We want a decade of dominance out of him here so we’ve got to do what’s best for his body,” Pelinka said. “And having him bang against the biggest centers in the West every night is not what’s best for his body, or for our team or for our franchise.

“We wanted to make sure to honor what Anthony asked for: to get some 5s that he can play with.”

The Lakers aren’t exactly turning tides. Looking at the New Orleans Pelicans’ free agent signings over the years, it’s clear that Davis’ preferences were granted there, too.

In 2015, the team signed center Omer Asik to a five-year, $58 million contract and center Alexis Ajinca to a four-year, $20 million deal. In 2016-17, the Pelicans traded Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway and a future first-round and second-round pick for yet another center, this time, the All-Star Cousins. In 2017-18, the team swung a deal for sweet-shooting center Nikola Mirotic, who starred as Davis’ counterpart in the 2018 playoffs after Cousins went down with a torn Achilles in January of that season. With Mirotic spacing the floor next to Davis, the team swept the Portland Trail Blazers.

Like he professes to do for Vogel, Davis has manned the 5 in high-profile situations. In 60 possessions while Davis guarded Jusuf Nurkic in that playoff series, the Blazers’ offense managed just 50 points, spitting out just 83.3 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com/stats. On the other end, Davis manhandled Nurk to the tune of 64 points on 59.5 percent shooting in 134 possessions with the Portland center guarding him. Davis’ soaring putback dunk on Nurkic in Game 3 was the signature moment of the series, symbolizing Davis’ power as a towering big man.

Putting Davis-at-center on the backburner until the postseason may be the Lakers’ plan. McGee could be the regular-season stopgap until the postseason arrives and then they could more regularly unleash a pseudo-Death Lineup with James at the 4 and Davis at the 5. 

Though McGee was the Lakers’ full-time starter last season, he wasn’t nearly as entrusted to be the finisher. Simply put, he started 76 percent of the Lakers’ games, but played just 31 percent of the team’s clutch minutes. Presumably, Cousins was supposed to fill that role, but his season is in doubt recovering from an ACL tear.

Protecting Davis’ body should be a top priority for the Lakers. After all, Davis in street clothes can’t play any position. On that point, Davis has suffered no shortage of nagging injuries over his seven-year career, holding his career high in games played to just 75 games. On his left side of his body, public book-keeping data shows that he has missed games due to an injured toe, ankle, knee, hip, groin and shoulder. On the right side, he has sat out with a damaged toe, quad, hip, elbow and shoulder. More generally, he has been sidelined games with concussions, a sore back and bruised chest. You can understand his reluctance to “bang” with centers every night.

As of now, McGee doesn’t have a true backup center on the depth chart, if we’re not counting Davis. James, Jared Dudley and Kyle Kuzma could moonlight as small-ball centers in a pinch. With Cousins out, the Lakers reportedly are bringing in free agent centers Dwight Howard, Joakim Noah and Mo Speights for workouts this week, with Marcin Gortat on the radar. 

But if the choice is between veteran free agent centers to eat up minutes, the call is an easy one for me: it should be Noah. 

Though Noah is not the dynamic scorer that Cousins is, the 33-year-old brings the same playmaking and rebounding abilities as Cousins, but with more defensive fire (see: Devin Booker). Noah can fill the void left by Cousins as a distributor. Last season, only six centers tallied more than six assists per 100 possessions, per Basketball Reference tracking. Cousins was one of them. Another was Noah. 

In the end, the best Lakers’ replacement for Cousins is Davis himself. If we earmarked Cousins for 30 minutes a night at center, most of those minutes should now go to Davis. That allocation might not happen until playoff time in the name of preserving Davis’ body. But it should still happen.

While the focus is on the short term, what the Lakers do with their lineups in April, May and June is most important. The Heat didn’t go to Bosh at center until late in the 2012 playoffs and it resulted in their first title together. The next year, they won again with Bosh at center, culminating in his iconic rebound in Game 6 to save the season. It’s not hard to see Davis being the new Bosh and Dudley filling Battier’s role as the veteran dirty-work spacer. Imagine Davis and James working in a spread-out system. That could be the silver lining of Cousins’ injury.

Just like that Heat team, the Lakers can use this adversity and turn it into an opportunity. James likes to say that the greatest teacher you can have in life is experience. It’s a saying that he picked up in Miami, only after losing the Finals in 2011. Hopefully for the Lakers, they won’t have to experience a similar defeat for Davis to see it.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.