The entry of Jahlil Okafor, an elite post scoring big man in his one year at Duke, into the draft set off a new round[1. Round 333rd by my unofficial count.] of debate over the evolving role of big men in today’s pick & roll, pace & space dominated NBA.
Max Rappaport, a Philadelphia 76er’s blogger, stepped into the discussion with a nice image that went semi-viral showing the on/off shooting splits of four prominent, skilled, and generally traditional, big men; DeMarcus Cousins, Marc Gasol, Tim Duncan, and Al Horford.
As you can see, the general trend was for more and better threes when the skilled big men were on the court rather than off. What it does not answer is any causal effect[2. And I don’t know that Rappaport necessarily intended to assert that there was one.], as these are all starters playing with the teams best perimeter players most of the time.
The Hidden Shooter
The question was interesting enough for me to take a closer look at the line ups using the stats website NBA Wowy (With Or Without You). Sometimes in statistics the correlation of two variables is actually explained by a third variable not present in the original data, so I started by contrasting the three point production with each big man and his team’s most prolific three point shooter as measured by total three point makes using on/off splits and then with the two together.
The four pairs were Horford and Kyle Korver, Cousins and Ben McLemore, Gasol and Mike Conley, and Duncan and Danny Green. The consistent pattern is that, unsurprisingly, having the team’s best three point shooter on the floor is more important to three point production than having their traditional big man. In most cases the team shot more threes and more accurately in the splits with the shooter on the floor rather than the big man.
That’s not the whole story, however. Everyone of those four teams had better three point shooting with both the primary shooter and traditional big man on the floor, though not necessarily at a higher rate. So it appears that having the most skilled line up on the court helps generate the best looks.[3. #FullSquad]
Since most non-Steph Curry three-point attempts are off of a catch-and-shoot, it is widely acknowledged that three-point shooting is part of a team offensive effort. A player can help his team’s three point shooting in a number of different ways, the most direct being by the guy running endless curl patterns and knocking down the shots. Also helpful are a player driving and dishing, or drawing double teams and kicking out passes.
Obviously there are a number of different ways to generate good looks and efficient offense making it difficult to focus on just creating mismatches, or making plays off the dribble or even playing through traditional skilled big men. All of these things help, but none more so than having the shooters to begin with.