Nylon Calculus: The evolution of 3-and-D

Oct 29, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Boston Celtics center Al Horford (42) blocks the shot of Charlotte Hornets forward Marvin Williams (2) in the first half at the Spectrum Center Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 29, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Boston Celtics center Al Horford (42) blocks the shot of Charlotte Hornets forward Marvin Williams (2) in the first half at the Spectrum Center Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports /

Over the last few years, as our definition of basketball positions has expanded, perhaps no player type has become more important than the 3-and-D player. Usually playing on the wing, a 3-and-D player is one who presents two distinct skills — above average defense and three-point shooting. In the mold of Bruce Bowen, the first player I can recall being labeled as a 3-and-D guy, these are usually specialists — that is to say most wouldn’t consider Kevin Durant a 3-and-D player since his defense and three-point shooting is wrapped around a diverse, high-volume offensive game.

The 3-and-D player has become an archetype ascribed to more and more players, both as a statement of present fact and of hypothetical future. How many draft prospects at wing positions are described primarily around their potential to fill a 3-and-D role at the NBA level?

However, while this player type has received more attention, they don’t appear to be increasingly prevalent. Last season, 350 players played at least 500 minutes. Of that group, 167 had a positive Defensive Box Plus-Minus (a box score derived estimate of a player’s defensive impact per 100 possessions) and 176 averaged at least 5.0 3-point attempts per 100 possessions (a benchmark research has identified for when a player’s ability to space the floor begins to affect a defense). However, just 35 of those 350 players had a positive D-BPM, attempted more than 5.0 3-point attempts per 100 possessions, and had a usage rate below 22.0 (which would signify a specialist whose primary contributions were defense and spot-up shooting).

Read More: Nylon Calculus — Week 1 in Review

For all the awareness and hypothetical emphasis that has been placed on this combination of skills over the past few seasons, it is still a relatively rare player archetype, at least as a specialist.

One of the interesting things about the 3-and-D archetype is that, as teams have become less focused on traditional positions and the general skill sets they used to represent, the combination of shooting and defensive specialities no longer seems to be confined to the wing.

The dashboard below looks at the 35 3-and-D players from last season, using the statistical parameters from above, and separates them out by their average estimated position and by the effectiveness of their 3-and-D skills.

While the majority of 3-and-D players are still playing the wing positions, we can see the expansion as well. George Hill is probably the best example of a 3-and-D point guard, but Marcus Smart, Langston Galloway, and Pablo Prigioni also fall close to that mark. At the other end of the positional spectrum, we can see 3-and-D players like Frank Kaminsky, Kelly Olynyk, Marvin Williams, and Patrick Patterson, who primarily play power forward and center.

Obviously, a certain amount of individual context is lost on both accounts — the statistical benchmarks I’ve set don’t capture everyone who could be considered a 3-and-D player, and the position estimates can miss a fair bit about how a player is used. Still, this presents an interesting spread and one with potential ties to diverse roster construction. Fifteen years ago, NBA offenses were often built around the individual scoring talents of a dynamic perimeter player or a powerful post player. In both cases, it made sense to complement that scorer with 3-and-D play from the wings.

In today’s NBA, where we see more diversity in offensive sets and the physical sizes of skill packages — big men who operate from the elbows and beyond, perimeter players who operate primarily inside the arc, posting-up, penetrating or curling around the elbows — it makes sense that there would be an advantage to having 3-and-D contributions coming from different places.

Charlotte features two 3-and-D frontcourt players — Kaminsky and Williams — whose stretchy skill sets allow room for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Kemba Walker to work inside the arc. The Utah Jazz now have Hill as a 3-and-D point guard, a perfect complement for wings like Rodney Hood and Gordon Hayward who run the pick-and-roll, and for the post-up games of Joe Johnson, Derrick Favors, and Boris Diaw. As the featured offensive players become more diverse, the specialist around them need to adapt as well. None of this may be a new trend, but it’s certainly easier to see in today’s NBA.

Of course, the other issue here is that we are just focused on specialists. As the game has evolved the combination of outside shooting and above average defense (which, frankly, has always been important) is no longer just a specialist’s job. During the 2001-02 season, just five of the top ten scorers in the league averaged at least 5.0 3-point attempts per 100 possessions. Last season, seven of the top ten hit that benchmark, with DeMarcus Cousins just missing at 4.5 3-point attempts per 100 possessions.

The truth is, 3-and-D is not just a specialty role. To a certain extent, that combination is something teams would ideally like to find in every player on their roster, regardless of position or level of offensive responsibility.

The dashboard below shows every player who played at least 500 minutes last season, regardless of usage, charted by their 3-and-D characteristics.

The upper right quadrant are players who display 3-and-D skills. You can see that this grouping includes Danny Green and Nicolas Batum, but also John Wall, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Kyle Lowry, Paul George, and Kawhi Leonard. A few other notable bigs — Al Horford, DeMarcus Cousins, Paul Millsap, and Draymond Green — sit just below the 3-point attempt threshold. More likely than not, if you’re looking for one of the best players in the league you’re going to find that they classify as a 3-and-D player.

The ability to defend and hit outside shots is no longer a specialty, it’s on the verge of becoming a prerequisite to positive production, regardless of size or position.