Photos from USAToday Sports. Pictured: Kemba Walker, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Trae Young.
- Pace is up in the NBA this year, but so are optimized offenses -- ones that focus on 3-pointers, shots at the rim and transition opportunities.
- I created a metric to measure offensive optimization and took a look at teams that are embracing the modern game vs. teams that aren't.
A lot has been made early this season of the NBA’s pace of play and the increase in free throw shooting. And those are certainly important league-wide trends to monitor, especially if you’re inclined to wager some of your hard-earned dollars on over/under bets.
NBA Offenses Are Becoming Modernized This Year
But we’re also seeing a wave of teams embracing modern basketball that emphasizes optimal shots. Last season, only the Houston Rockets took more than 40% of their shots from the 3-point line. So far this season — and here’s your obligatory “small sample size, it’s early” warning — five teams are above 40%: the Mavericks (44.0), Rockets (42.5), Bucks (42.0), Suns (41.6) and Hawks (40.2).
This doesn’t seem like a fluky trend, either. Some of the younger players seem to get it; take this quote the other day from Bucks wing Giannis Antetokounmpo as an example:
The league has been going in this direction for years, and the public first caught on several years ago after Kirk Goldsberry, then a writer at Grantland and now VP of Strategic Research for the San Antonio Spurs, wrote this profile on the Rockets, James Harden and Houston general manager Daryl Morey. To put things simply: The most optimal shots, according to the numbers, are at the 3-point line and at the rim.
The Rockets were the first team to fully embrace this style of optimization, setting the NBA record with a 46.7% three-point rate last season. Nearly half of their shots were 3-pointers. Another 35.0% of their shots came at the rim. They avoided mid-rangers like the plague and as a result finished with the best offense in the league, scoring 1.148 points per possession.
But not every team is buying into “Moreyball.” In fact, two of the best teams of the past decade, the Spurs and Warriors, are a good example of this. The Spurs, once thought of as the pinnacle of offensive basketball, are now built around mid-range players in DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge. This season they’ve taken just 26.2% (26th in the NBA) of their shots from the 3-point line and 26.2% (30th) of shots at the rim.
The Warriors, who boast perhaps three of the best 10 shooters in the history of basketball, are oddly right there, too. They’ve taken just 27.3% (24th) of their shots from behind the arc and 32.8% (23rd) at the rim.
2018-19 Moreyball Ratings
To highlight this, I’ve create a metric I’m calling “Moreyball Rating.” It’s not designed to be groundbreaking, merely descriptive. It takes the percentile score of a team’s 3-point rate, frequency of shots at the rim and transition frequency. Basically, how modern is the offense? If a team is in the 100th percentile of each category, it would have a 100 Moreyball Rating.
So far this season, the teams with the highest Moreyball Ratings are the Lakers (79.5), Rockets (74.1), Bucks (72.1), Hawks (64.3) and Wizards (60.5).
LeBron and Co. are 0-3 to start the season, and the roster isn’t exactly ideal for Moreyball (I talked about that more here), but it’s encouraging to see Luke Walton employ a modern scheme. The Lakers are first in the league in shots at the rim and first in transition opportunities. The shooting has been suspect — the Lakers have hit just 29.3% of their 3s this year — but the foundation is encouraging, and it’s likely they’ll see positive regression soon.
The Bucks and Hawks are pleasant surprises, although it was clear to anyone remotely following the league that Mike Budenholzer would be a significant coaching upgrade over Jason Kidd and Joe Prunty. Still, it seems like the culture has caught on in Milwaukee, as the Bucks rank in the 60th-plus percentile in all three categories listed above.
The Hawks are intriguing, as they certainly did not have a modern offense a season ago. Rookie point guard Trae Young will certainly have his ups and downs early in his career, but his modern game looks to be contagious in Atlanta. He looks to be an impact player: Through three games, the Hawks have taken 16.3% more shots at the rim with him on the floor versus off. Even when Young’s shots aren’t falling from behind the arc, the spacing he is providing early on is paying dividends for the Atlanta offense.
And finally, the Wizards have looked much better this season, in large part because Scott Brooks has finally realized his smallball lineups are better at, you know, scoring points.
The biggest change has been their willingness to attack the rim, which they surprisingly did not do at all a year ago, even with John Wall leading the attack. They’ve pushed the pace and increased their outside shots, which has led for easier lanes for their ball-handlers.
The Spurs have the worst Moreyball Rating (9.2) in league this season, largely thanks to ranking dead last in frequency of shots at the rim and transition rate. I get the counterpoints made by the coaching staff — you have to accumulate the best roster possible and then build to its strengths — but platitudes are platitudes. Gregg Popovich is a Hall of Fame coach, but his offense is definitely not optimized to the modern game.
The Cavaliers have seen the largest drop in their Moreyball Rating from last season to this one, although it’s understandable because they no longer have LeBron. This season they’re in the 15th percentile in 3-point rate and 32nd percentile in transition frequency. They’re in a tough spot, though: Their older vets such as Kevin Love aren’t necessarily transition experts, and playing more of rookie Collin Sexton to increase the pace would hurt the shooting and spacing.
But perhaps the weirdest non-optimized offense belongs to the defending champions. The Warriors, the best shooting team in the history of basketball, have seemingly taken shooting for granted. Don’t get me wrong: Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant are all-world still, but the rest of the roster just has zero shooting outside of them.
Those three players have taken 82 three-pointers through their four games this season. The rest of the roster? Just 29 combined. No player is even in double digits.
And Durant isn’t exactly launching 3s right now either. He has just 13 attempts on the season, and his 3-point rate has really declined:
- Durant’s 2017-18 three-point rate: 33.8%
- Durant’s 2018-19 three-point rate: 15.9%
That’s a problem.
Does that make them vulnerable? Well, I’m not necessarily ready to say that yet, but the trend is something to monitor this season. The Warriors can absolutely win the title simply relying on their talent — even if that means jacking up mid-rangers all season long — but the room for error is smaller with a non-optimized offense. We’ll see if this trend changes, and whether it comes back to bite them if it doesn’t.