NBA Positions By The Numbers – Shot Locations

Mar 1, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) and Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) before a game at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 1, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) and Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) before a game at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports /
Mar 1, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) and Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) before a game at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 1, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) and Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) before a game at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports /

The NBA is swiftly becoming a “non-traditional” league. Unique combinations of skillset and body type are allowing many players to break out of the traditional molds and constraints of 1-through-5 positionality. Or at least that’s the rumor.

While LeBron James can play as an initiating point guard one instant and be a bullyball power forward the next, often within the span of a single position, he and the few others like him are more the exception than the rule. The standard position classification system arose because the necessary skills for a successful lineup tend to come in recognizable packages and bundles. A center screens, rebounds and protects the rim. A shooting guard operates as a secondary ball-handler and spaces the floor, and so on.

Of course there are many different ways to fill those broad roles, and terms like “True Point Guard” tend to obscure more than they illuminate, but those categories exist for a reason. Even if that reason is simply because that’s how basketball operates at lower levels of play. In their formative years, players tend to develop into broadly defined roles which largely overlap with the traditional taxonomy. It remains important to understand those roles so that even as the modern game imposes new demands, the existing boxes are still checked.

For example, with Dante Exum’s injury, Utah might well be best off playing “without a point guard” for long stretches of the season. Might be. If Gordon Hayward can do enough “point guard things” that is. To know whether he’s likely to do so, the first question is “what are poing guard things?”[1. Again, see here.] And so it goes with each bundle of skills to which the label “position” has been applied. So while the positional revolution will be televised[3. And perhaps even streamed over the top, thank you Mr. Ballmer.], it’s worthwhile to be able to identify with some degree of certainty what is being rebelled against. To that end, I wanted to look at what each position “does” across a number of different areas.

The first area of examination is shot locations. Certain shots are generally restricted to certain player types. The most obvious example is the corner three, which tends to be mostly employed by low usage wings. Because why would an offense stick other players in the corner in the first place? In any event, if those zones are mostly occupied by wings, are other spots on the floor generally the property of other players? With some help from Matt D’Anna and Darryl Blackport, here are some visualizations of aggregate shot locations for each position[3. “Position” designations can be somewhat arbitrary, so I used a weighted average of Basketball-Reference’s “position estimates” to determine each players’ primary position. Most assignments align with expectation and observation, though the finer definitions, such as between PF and C or SG and SF were muddier.]. First an overall look:

chart_position_PWB /

It’s slightly difficult to pull anything definitive with all the overlap, with the major points being how point guards tend to dominate shots from the elbow areas, baseline twos seem to be taken mostly by wings, while bigs tend to score mostly from the paint and top of the key area. This largely squares with the general impression of how modern NBA offenses play with the prevalence of pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops.

Breaking the images down a little more, here are bigs — centers and power forwards — on one chart:

chart_position_B /

Very concentrated around the basket, with some work at the top of the arc and along the baseline. Though the categories naturally get a little squishier, splitting the graphs into PF’s and C’s shows something of a bifurcation in offensive zones for the two roles:

chart_position_PF /
chart_position_C /

Essentially all the jumpshooting, aside from a few pokes from the top of the key, comes from the power forward slot. Hence, the “stretch four.” Even those hot zones in the corner are slightly deceiving, as just under a quarter of all corner threes taken by bigs in 2014-15 were taken by one of Kevin Love, Anthony Tolliver, Patrick Patterson, Nikola Mirotic or Shawne Williams[4. Not to mention players like Harrison Barnes, Khris Middleton and Marcus Morris who are wings by any reasonable estimation, but end up playing a great deal of titular “power forward” by virtue of their respective teams’ expensive use of smallball or even “mediumball” lineups full of guys all around 6’7.]

Looking next to the wings:

chart_position_W /

The two wing positions probably contain the widest variation in terms of role types, from adjutant point guards like James Harden to players who frequently “play up” as power forwards or even centers. So it’s not surprising how wings cover most of the useful court. As noted above, the corner three is something of the domain of the wing player. Around 65% of corner threes were taken by wing players last season. The heat maps for shooting guards and small forwards are essentially identical. Not shocking given the malleability and overlap between those two positions.

Finally, point guards:

chart_position_PG /

Point guards tend to operate in a sort of inverted triangle from the free throw line extended to the hoop, eschewing the corners and especially the baseline area. Taken together, the shot locations paint what should be a familiar picture to any student of basketball:

secondary /

The basic secondary break: alive and well in NBA shot locations.

So that’s the basics of shot locations by position. In later posts breaking down each position, I’ll look further into players who best fit and most diverge from these sorts of shot patterns.

Of course, simply looking at shot locations doesn’t tell us everything or even most things about how these shots come about. Vats of virtual ink are spilled daily discussing that topic, and I don’t want to rehash it all again. However, using some nifty new data Darryl has secured for us[4. Darryl has been able to determine passing angle from’s movement animation data, and though it’s not the complete data set, he’s been able to determine angle of passes relative to the basket on around 80% of all catch-and-shoot three attempts for 2014-15.], We found something interesting. Looking just at catch-and-shoot three pointers, big men are much more likely to be catching passes coming from the sides, while wings and especially point guards are more likely to be receiving “kick-out” passes from the interior to set-up their catch and shoot threes. The following chart estimates based on a kickout pass as one coming from the 60 degree arc centered on a straight line from the shooter to the basket[6. In other words passes coming from 30 degrees or less to the left or right.]:

CS kickout 3s
CS kickout 3s /

A similar effect can be if the angle for “kickouts” is widened to any reasonable amount as well. It’s probably too early to make pronouncements about what this might mean other that to say it perhaps indicates bigs shooting threes tend to shoot them more frequently off of pitchbacks from pick-and-pops or ball rotation than the do simply spotting up to receive a kick out from a driver or a player in the post.

In the future, I’m going to delve into a few other topics such as ball-handling and playmaking responsibilities, shot types, play types and even look at rebounding duties.