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.

Bulls made one key mistake in Hoiberg hire

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NBC Sports

Bulls made one key mistake in Hoiberg hire

Fred Hoiberg, it turns out, is not the next Brad Stevens.

In June 2015, the Chicago Bulls took a gamble by hiring Hoiberg away from Iowa State to replace Tom Thibodeau, despite Hoiberg having zero coaching experience in the NBA domain. After a 10-year career in the NBA and four years in the Minnesota Timberwolves’ front office, Hoiberg enjoyed a respectable five seasons coaching at his alma mater, Iowa State, where he compiled a 115-56 record as a head coach. 

But Hoiberg never sat on an NBA bench as an assistant or head coach before receiving a five-year, $25 million commitment from the Bulls’ front office. The college coach was hired about a month after Oklahoma City pried Billy Donovan away from the Florida Gators and two years after Stevens stunningly left Butler to take a six-year deal from the Boston Celtics.

“I think the big thing for me is I have always run an NBA-type system,” Hoiberg said at his introductory press conference. “I’m not coming into this [having] never experienced NBA basketball.”

As it turns out, Hoiberg couldn’t capture the college-to-pro magic that Stevens sprinkled all over the Boston organization, nor did he fall into a roster with two MVPs in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Part of Hoiberg’s appeal was that he was the anti-Thibodeau. 

“Two opposite ends of the spectrum. Fred [Hoiberg] and Thibs couldn’t be more different, personality-wise,” said a league source with knowledge of the situation. But that lack of fiery disposition and experience ended up likely being his downfall.

Hoiberg struggled to implement his “pace-and-space” brand of basketball and get his players to change. From Day 1 in Chicago, Hoiberg pointed to his college resume, showing that, in his last season at Iowa State, he had the second-fastest pace of play in the NCAA. He talked about how much he used the pick-and-roll in the college game and how he liked to space the floor with the 3-ball.

But in the NBA, none of that really translated. 

Hoiberg inherited a team full of veterans hoping to reach the NBA Finals after LeBron James left Miami. But the post-Thibodeau era didn’t go well as the locker room spun further and further into disarray. By December of their first season together, Jimmy Butler called out Hoiberg and told reporters that the Bulls “probably have to be coached a lot harder.” Shortly after the Bulls traded Derrick Rose to the Knicks and Joakim Noah followed Rose to New York in the summer of 2016, Butler admitted to NBC Sports that he didn’t think “everybody was on the same page.” 

The drama didn’t end when Rose and Noah left town. After two middling seasons with Hoiberg at the helm, the Bulls traded Butler to the Timberwolves on the night of the 2017 draft and signaled a change in the direction of their franchise, netting Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the first-round pick that turned into Lauri Markkanen. Butler later told ESPN’s Sam Alipour that “it was either gonna be me or the Fred Hoiberg route. And rightfully so, they took Fred. Good for them.” Last season, after Bobby Portis punched Nikola Mirotic in a preseason practice and broke his face, Mirotic demanded a trade and he too was moved, this time to New Orleans for a first-round pick.

Hoiberg’s win percentage declined each of his four seasons (well, three and a quarter) as the team floundered as contenders and went into a rebuild. But even now, Hoiberg struggled to make his imprint. With an athletic team full of young legs this season, the Bulls rank 16th in pace this season, hardly the same speed of his Cyclones. What’s more, the team ranks 19th in 3-point attempt frequency and, according to Synergy tracking, 27th in pick-and-roll efficiency from ball-handlers. The result is the worst offense in the league.

Moving forward, the Bulls have turned the job over to assistant Jim Boylen, who executive VP Jim Paxson says will keep the job past this season. That said, things in the NBA can, and often do, change at the drop of a dime. If Paxson and general manager Gar Forman decide after the year that Boylen isn't the answer, they would be wise to avoid dipping back into the college coaching waters to find Hoiberg’s replacement. Tom Izzo, Jay Wright and John Beilein have been connected to NBA gigs recently, but Hoiberg, Tim Floyd (remember him, Bulls fans?), John Calipari and Rick Pitino have proven that the big leagues are a different animal. Yes, Stevens has been the rare exception, but Hoiberg is the rule.

Look at the top of the NBA standings and you’ll find coaches who spent several years on an NBA bench as an assistant before getting their big shot -- Mike Budenholzer (16 seasons as assistant coach), Brett Brown (nine years), Mike Malone (10 years) and Dwane Casey (11 years before Minnesota head coach). Keep an eye on names like Dallas assistant Stephen Silas, Spurs assistant Ettore Messina, Memphis assistant Jerry Stackhouse, and Portland assistant David Vanterpool. 

One coach with Chicago ties is Adrian Griffin, who is currently Toronto’s lead assistant and served as Thibodeau’s assistant for five years. If the Bulls want someone with head coaching experience, current Philadelphia assistant Monty Williams, who recently worked on Team USA’s staff, makes a lot of sense.

Ironically, now that Hoiberg has that experience, he might be a candidate to replace Thibodeau again. A league source close to the situation told NBC Sports that Hoiberg could be a candidate to take over in Minnesota where he’d be reunited with owner Glen Taylor.

“Glen loves Fred,” the source told NBC Sports. 

Though Hoiberg spent just four seasons working in the Timberwolves’ front office, he made quite the impact on the organization. When Hoiberg announced he was taking the Iowa State job in 2010, the team published a press release that included a statement from Taylor, who called him “truly a class act and a wonderful person” and “one of my all-time favorite players [who] will always be a part of the Timberwolves family.”

Hoiberg’s next spot is unclear, but we do know he won’t see it through with the Bulls’ young core. From those on the outside looking in, it’s no coincidence that Hoiberg was let go on Monday, just after Markkanen’s return from injury on Saturday. With Markkanen back and the imminent return of Portis and Dunn, the Bulls have just one game in five days as they begin a three-game homestand. If there was a light pocket in the schedule to make a coaching change, this is it. 

With better health in hand, these are rosy circumstances for new coach Jim Boylen and the front office to turn things around and win some brownie points with the fanbase. 

“Teams,” said one league executive, “do this all the time.”

Fans also shouldn’t be surprised if Boylen, a long-time assistant with championship pedigree, becomes the long-term coach for the Bulls. While Hoiberg lacked any experience on an NBA bench, Boylen, like Thibodeau, is an NBA lifer. With the exception of four seasons as the University of Utah’s head coach, Boylen has been an NBA assistant coach since 1992.

If Boylen’s not the right candidate for the job, the Bulls shouldn’t go back to college. Go straight to an NBA bench.