There has been an increased focus in the NBA on shot selection in recent years, as teams like the Houston Rockets and Cleveland Cavaliers look to take more and more 3-point shots, particularly emphasizing the super-efficient corner 3. But because teams like the Rockets and Cavs are stocked with high-level shooters, it can be difficult to distinguish the efforts of teams that take good shots from those that are good at making shots -- the Rockets and Cavs do both.
A study of where the Oklahoma City Thunder are getting their shots, however, provides a clear example of how shot selection can impact an offense.
The Thunder get 35 percent of their shots within 3 feet of the basket -- far more than the league average of 29 percent. Out of 100 shots, the Thunder get six more within 3 feet of the basket than an average team. If they made those shots at the league average of 62 percent, the Thunder would score about eight points more than an average team from that distance.
Continuing that process by adding up all the points the Thunder get off shots from 3 to 10 feet, 10 to 16 feet, 16 feet to the 3-point line, corner 3s and non-corner threes, we can see how many points a team like the Thunder will score based on where they get their shots. Looking at this shot selection metric, the Thunder score about three points more per 100 shots than an average team would. While this is not a perfect measure of shot selection -- it does not include any information about how difficult a shot was due to the presence of defenders, whether the shooter got a pass or took the shot off the dribble, or any number of other factors -- it provides a general look at how teams are creating value on offense by separating the distance of shots and a team's ability to make shots.
Next, we can use the same breakdown of shot locations to look at shot accuracy. As an example, the Thunder hit 33 percent of their non-corner 3s, compared with the league average of 36 percent. That means if the Thunder take non-corner 3s at the same rate as an average team, their below-average shooting accuracy would cost them about two points per 100 shots.
Overall, the Thunder's lack of shooting skill costs them about three points per 100 shots. To put that in perspective, the New Orleans Pelicans, Orlando Magic and Philadelphia 76ers all lose about three points per 100 shots because of their lack of shooting skill -- those teams rank 26th, 27th and 30th, respectively, in offensive efficiency. The Thunder, meanwhile, rank 12th overall in offensive efficiency, and their shot selection is the key to that disparity.
The Thunder's points added through shot selection ranks fourth overall in the league, and has them in playoff contention despite a level of shooting that is normally disqualifying. The Thunder are getting more shots than an average team from close to the basket and from the corner, where they are adding nearly 1.5 points per 100 shots. By way of comparison, the Warriors are currently leading the league in accuracy by adding over nine points per 100 shots, and the San Antonio Spurs are adding nearly eight points per 100 shots via their accuracy.
So can a below-average shooting team like Oklahoma City will its way to the playoffs and title contention by taking good shots? The numbers are not in their favor.
Over the last five seasons, the average playoff team adds about 1.5 points per 100 shots via shooting accuracy. Only 15 percent of playoff teams over the last five seasons lost two or more points per 100 shots from shooting accuracy -- remember, the Thunder are losing three points per 100 shots.
Shot selection, meanwhile, is rarely a reliable formula through which a team can reach the playoffs. Over the past five seasons, the average playoff team added an average of less than half a point per 100 shots via shot selection. This season, the only team that is top five in both selection and accuracy is the Rockets -- marking the first time since the 2011-12 season that Houston has been an above-average team in shot accuracy.
The Thunder may be able to overcome their lack of shooting skill to get to the playoffs, but it is unlikely they will make a serious run once they get there. Over the past five seasons, no Finals team has been below average in shot accuracy, and the majority have been at least three points better than average. The Thunder may have maxed out what they can get offensively from this collection of players via strong shot selection. Challenging for a title, historical data shows, would require them to improve the shooting skill of the team to complement the strong shot selection.
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