NBA Metrics 101: Predicting the Best Shooter at Every Position
Focus on dribbling moves all you want. Ogle the flashy passes made by some of the NBA's best distributors. Revel in the thunderous dunks produced by high-flying athletes operating at the sport's highest level.
But without shooting ability in today's league, offenses won't maximize their featured talents. Spacing is vital, and it only stems from the men who can connect on perimeter jumpers frequently enough that they force defenses into respecting them.
These particular men, with one featured per traditional position, will be the leading forces throughout the 2018-19 campaign.
To determine the selections in purely objective fashion, we're calculating shooting value added in four distinct areas, as compared to league-average contributors using the same number of shots: 10-to-15-foot jumpers, two-pointers even farther from the basket, three-pointers and free-throw attempts (included because work at the stripe is indicative of quality shooting, even if it doesn't come within the game flow). This was done for all 531 players who took at least one relevant attempt in 2017-18, and their scores within each category were summed to find total shooting value added. The specifics of the calculations are similar to what was done here.
Next, we created a polynomial regression based on players' ages last year and their shooting results (limited to those who took at least 100 relevant shots), which allows us to build an aging curve and project improvements or declines for the 2018-19 campaign. Put simply, you can expect players to improve most at the beginning of their careers, continue growing until peaking during their age-32 seasons, then start declining.
Confounding variables do exist (individual situations, players who entered the league at younger ages, playing time, etc.), but we're sticking with the basic projections here to tease out the positional leaders, as well as the top-10 hierarchy at each lineup slot.
Point Guard: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors (200.27)
- Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors: 200.27
- Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics: 158.64
- Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets: 137.33
- Chris Paul, Houston Rockets: 112.97
- Darren Collison, Indiana Pacers: 112.89
- Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers: 111.58
- Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets: 100.92
- Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors: 76.63
- D.J. Augustin, Orlando Magic: 74.01
- Ricky Rubio, Utah Jazz: 49.93
Was there any doubt?
Stephen Curry led all NBA point guards in our shooting metric last season, finishing behind only teammates Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant in the overall standings. And even though the calculations favor volume, he did so despite playing in only 51 contests. He was just that potent on a per-shot basis by knocking down 54.0 percent of his mid-range jumpers, 61.3 percent of his long twos, 42.3 percent of his triples and a league-best 92.1 percent of his free-throw tries.
Those numbers are simply unreal, even by Curry's standings.
Though he continued to produce a remarkable percentage of his buckets off the bounce, he also learned to excel in spot-up situations. Feeding off the creative abilities of a loaded Golden State Warriors lineup, he used assists on a career-high 41.7 percent of his buckets within the rainbow. That's likely part of the reason this floor general nearly posted lifetime bests in both two-point areas we're studying, trailing only his 2013-14 efforts (55.7 percent) from 10-to-15 feet and his 2011-12 campaign (64.0 percent) on longer twos.
Don't expect a decline. Based on our aging curve, shooting doesn't trend in the wrong direction until players are coming off their age-32 campaigns, and this Davidson product won't even celebrate his 31st birthday until March. Plus, the Warriors might get even more potent with a healthy DeMarcus Cousins operating alongside the incumbent stars, and that just opens up more opportunities for a 1-guard who figures to play more minutes in 2018-19.
Picking anyone else, even at such a talented position, would be foolish.
The Full Top 10
Shooting Guard: Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors (226.57)
- Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors: 226.57
- JJ Redick, Philadelphia 76ers: 162.47
- CJ McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers: 121.87
- Buddy Hield, Sacramento Kings: 102.39
- Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns: 100.96
- Luke Kennard, Detroit Pistons: 83.86
- James Harden, Houston Rockets: 82.45
- Marco Belinelli, San Antonio Spurs: 74.31
- Lou Williams, Los Angeles Clippers: 72.16
- Joe Harris, Brooklyn Nets: 70.23
During the 2017-18 season, only 16 players added at least five points of value from each of our four shooting areas. We'll go ahead and provide the full list for you, as it essentially serves as a who's-who fraternity of the league's leading marksmen: Bradley Beal, Marco Belinelli, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Nikola Jokic, CJ McCollum, Darius Miller, Dirk Nowitzki, Victor Oladipo, Chris Paul, Kristaps Porzingis, JJ Redick and Klay Thompson.
Some potent shooters thrive in one category at the expense of others (see: Middleton, Khris). But only special snipers are capable of excelling on mid-range jumpers, long twos, treys and shots at the stripe.
Thompson, however, didn't just excel.
Among that group of 16, he finished fourth in value added from 10-to-15 feet (behind Durant, Paul and McCollum), first on longer twos, first on three-pointers and 15th from the line. It's only his ability to earn freebies that holds him back in this competition, as he doesn't frequently attack the basket or put the ball on the floor, instead choosing to riddle the opposition with catch-and-shoot jumpers that invariably tickle the twine.
And that leads us to a second club, one that's far more exclusive than the first. Thompson joined Durant, Paul and Mike Scott as one of just four players in 2017-18 to add at least 20 points of value from each of the three live-action zones.
Just as was the case with Curry, this isn't going to change for the worse.
Thompson still boasts the same lightning-quick release that allows him to fire over the top of even the outstretched arms that come in timely fashion. He still plays in the same system, which features him in off-ball scenarios and counts on the spacing he provides. And considering he's entering his age-28 season, he might still be getting better.
The Full Top 10
Small Forward: Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors (203.38)
- Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors: 203.38
- Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks: 147.35
- Otto Porter Jr., Washington Wizards: 145.35
- Joe Ingles, Utah Jazz: 106.37
- Kyle Korver, Cleveland Cavaliers: 94.69
- Darius Miller, New Orleans Pelicans: 93.63
- Reggie Bullock, Detroit Pistons: 89.11
- Bojan Bogdanovic, Indiana Pacers: 79.58
- Bogdan Bogdanovic, Sacramento Kings: 71.55
- Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder: 49.45
Only one player has a realistic shot at taking away Kevin Durant's crown.
Otto Porter Jr., Joe Ingles and Kyle Korver are fantastic shooters, but their roles are far too limited to ascend all the way up the hierarchy. Volume matters, and they don't have enough opportunities to keep pace with a go-to scorer of Durant's caliber.
But Khris Middleton could wrest away the crown if everything goes right.
He finished second among small forwards in our shooting metric last year (No. 6 overall), and that was with a shockingly poor season shooting three-balls. Imagine if he can couple his two-point proficiency (54.5 percent from 10-to-15 feet and 45.2 percent on longer twos) with something other than his 2017-18 work from beyond the arc (35.9 percent on 5.0 attempts per game).
If we substitute in his 2016-17 efforts (43.3 percent on 3.6 tries per contest), his score would've risen high enough to surpass Kyrie Irving and jump up to No. 5 overall. His 2018-19 projection would also elevate to 174.91, which still leaves him in the same No. 2 spot but at least puts him within sniffing distance of Durant.
Even if we've been focusing on the Milwaukee Bucks standout, that should tell you a lot about the two-time reigning Finals MVP. Giving Middleton an even more ideal shooting resume still leaves him shy of Durant, who doesn't figure to get any less comfortable operating alongside two of the game's best marksmen.
Sorry for the unrelenting focus on the Warriors, but their best players are just that good.
The Full Top 10
Power Forward: Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics (148.77)
- Jayson Tatum: 77.44 on 737 shots
- Jamal Murray: 71.49 on 941 shots
- Ivan Rabb: 10.69 on 96 shots
- TJ Leaf: 5.36 on 81 shots
- Georgios Papagiannis: 3.79 on 15 shots
- Ike Anigbogu: 1.51 on 12 shots
- Justin Patton: 1.17 on one shot
- Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics: 148.77
- Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks: 97.46
- Tobias Harris, Los Angeles Clippers: 92.42
- Anthony Tolliver, Minnesota Timberwolves: 85.1
- Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers: 80.1
- Mike Scott, Los Angeles Clippers: 72.76
- Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks: 54.92
- Serge Ibaka, Toronto Raptors: 53.77
- Marvin Williams, Charlotte Hornets: 53.34
- Dario Saric, Philadelphia 76ers: 45.32
Jayson Tatum thrived as a teenager for the Boston Celtics, posting positive marks from each relevant area and finishing No. 24 overall in shooting value added. Limit the club to those who hadn't yet completed their age-20 seasons, and he becomes even more impressive. These youngsters are the only ones who posted positive results before growing longer in the tooth:
Throw in last year's 21-year-olds, and only Wade Baldwin IV, Devin Booker, Tyus Jones, Luke Kennard, Myles Turner and Rashad Vaughn enter the fray. Tatum is already in a special category after his stellar debut in Beantown, and he's only going to keep growing.
Take the playoffs as an example, since the up-and-comer struggled from beyond the arc but still managed to shoulder a heavy burden as a top option, knocking down 46.4 percent of his 10-to-15-foot jumpers and 45.0 percent of his longer twos—both improvements upon his respective marks of 43.8 and 42.0 during the regular season. He should keep developing and growing even more efficient with a healthy Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward set to draw away defensive attention and open up easier opportunities for the 20-year-old—similar to how the myriad Golden State Warriors shooters feed off one another.
Should Tatum again qualify primarily as a small forward, he'd fall behind only Kevin Durant in these projections, which predict massive strides from standouts still this young. But one year after Basketball-Reference and Cleaning the Glass showed that 21 and 38 percent of his minutes, respectively, came at the 4, we're expecting that to become his full-time position alongside Irving, Jaylen Brown, Hayward and Al Horford.
And if that's the case, this could be a runaway. Though Dirk Nowitzki (110.26) and Anthony Tolliver (85.43) may have posted higher scores last year, they're trending, courtesy of Father Time, in the opposite direction as Tatum. Meanwhile, the only other power forwards who beat Boston's rising sophomore in 2017-18 were Tobias Harris (83.31) and Kevin Love (77.57), but their marginal advantages should be erased by this former Blue Devil's expected growth.
The Full Top 10
Center: Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves (141.24)
- Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves: 141.24
- Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets: 92.96
- Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers: 44.19
- Jonas Valanciunas, Toronto Raptors: 30.12
- Enes Kanter, New York Knicks: 20.73
- Mike Muscala, Philadelphia 76ers: 19.57
- Meyers Leonard, Portland Trail Blazers: 16.18
- Dewayne Dedmon, Atlanta Hawks: 15.83
- Frank Kaminsky, Charlotte Hornets: 13.81
- Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies: 12.34
Free throws can help the standing of many big men who aren't necessarily proficient shooters from outside the painted area, but Karl-Anthony Towns requires no such boosts.
Sure, he connected on his 4.9 freebies per game at an 85.8 percent clip—numbers only seven qualified players throughout the league could match or exceed: Devin Booker, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Damian Lillard, Kemba Walker and Lou Williams. Notice that none of those men line up at center.
Towns also thrived as the rare big man who didn't just take, but also made his shots from all over the half-court set. He has a preternatural blend of shooting skills, physicality and instincts, which enables him to terrorize defenses from the interior on one possession before spotting up along the arc on the next trip down the floor. Overplay him on the perimeter, and he can attack the hoop. Don't pay attention to him away from the primary action, and you'll be greeted with a catch-and-shoot splash.
Nikola Jokic is the only primary threat to Towns' positional supremacy here, though Myles Turner could also re-enter the conversation with a bounce-back season that reestablishes his upward trajectory. Even still, neither young 5 really belongs in the same tier as Towns, who has already demonstrated shooting excellence from every relevant spot.
Not impressed by his 42.1 percent shooting from beyond the arc while firing away 3.5 times per game? Perhaps you'll be swayed by his conversion rates from 10-to-15 feet and on even longer twos—44.2 and 50.0 percent, respectively.
Towns has all the tools. On the offensive end, at least.
The Full Top 10
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.