By David Henderson
My wife had surgery yesterday and, with the anesthetic taking hours to wear off, had trouble reading. So I read her my favorite front-page story from a recent Wall Street Journal, a story about her and my favorite team–the Golden State Warriors–and favorite player–Stephen Curry. It’s Ben Cohen, “Remaking Basketball the Warriors’ Way,” Wall Street Journal, April 7, 2016.
For some reason, I can’t access the WSJ on line as I normally can, probably because I sent in my renewal a few days late. So I can’t copy and paste. Instead, I’ll laboriously type in my favorite few paragraphs and add a couple of facts.
But there is another tale to be told about the Warriors. It involves a group of executives with limited experience, led by a Silicon Valley financier, that bought a floundering franchise in 2010 and set out to fix it by raising a single question: What would happen if you built a basketball team by ignoring every orthodoxy of building a basketball team?
The process took many twists and turns, and there were times when it nearly failed. But the dominance the Warriors have displayed this season can be traced back to one of the most unusual ideas embraced by the data-loving executives: the notion that the NBA’s 3-point line was a market inefficiency hiding in plain sight.
This season the Warriors have sunk 1,025 3-pointers, by far the most in NBA history. Not only has Mr. Curry taken more threes than any other player, he is making them at a rate of 45.6%, higher than the NBA average for all shots. He has shattered his own record for most 3-pointers in a season by 34%. Moreover, distance seems to have no significant effect on his accuracy. Mr. Curry is a better shooter from 30 to 40 feet than the average NBA player is from 3 to 4.
The data dive yielded many insights, but the Warriors eventually zeroed in on the 3-point line. NBA players made roughly the same percentage of shots from 23 feet as they did from 24. Because the 3-point line ran between them, the values of those two shots were radically different. Shot attempts from 23 feet had an average value of 0.76 points [DRH note: implying a percentage make of 38%], while 24-footers were worth 1.09 [implying a percentage make of 36%.]
This, the Warriors concluded was an opportunity. By moving back just a few inches before shooting, a basketball player could improve his rate of return by 43%.
The author, Ben Cohen, goes on to write: “Mr. Lacob wasn’t the only team owner in sports to delve into statistics–baseball has been doing it for years.” Interesting that he doesn’t mention that the person most responsible for it in baseball, Billy Beane, started it approximately 300 yards away with the Oakland A’s.
Cohen also goes on to talk about the acquisition of another 3-point sniper, Klay Thompson. Having the “Splash Brothers” made it very hard for other teams to defend and opened up lanes and opportunities near the basket. Cohen mentions that the Warriors refused to give up Klay in a trade for Kevin Love. My wife and I were so nervous about that at the time: the Warriors simply didn’t work without Klay. The article shows that Lacob and the others thought the same way. Whew!
Cohen doesn’t quite get it wrong but in discussing the trade of Monta Ellis in 2012, he doesn’t mention whom the Warriors got in return. At the time my wife and I thought it was a huge mistake because Andrew Bogut came with an injury that took months to heal. Later in the piece, Cohen makes it sound as if the Warriors got Bogut just before the 2014-15 season.
Cohen then has a beautiful discussion of another audacious move the Warriors made after observing Steph make a 3-pointer off one foot. They realized that he was good from almost anywhere:
The team realized that any possession that ended with a 3-point attempt by Mr. Curry was worthwhile–and that they would never discourage him from taking one. In this, the season of Mr. Curry’s unleashing, the Warriors are shooting 17% more threes than a season ago. Mr. Curry is attempting more than 11 a game. No NBA team had ever had a player attempt more than nine. Last season he hit 286 threes. This season he is on pace for about 400.
What amazes fans even more is the location of those shots. NBA players shoot an average of 28% from 27 feet or beyond. Most players don’t even take them unless the shot clock is running out. Mr. Curry has taken 253 such shots and made 47% of them.
Cohen leaves out one ingredient that accounts for the Warriors success: they are a team. They get along well. There are no show-boaters. They pass it around and give up good shots for great shots.
In the comments section, Michael Byrnes writes:
the insight that shooting threes is worth more than long 2s is hardly unique to the Warriors. Just to name one other obvious example, shooting threes and minimizing long 2s was also a key to the construction of the Houston Rockets, who are obviously not anywhere near the success of Golden State.
He’s right and I should have thought of that myself, given that I commissioned an article for the first Encyclopedia, published in 1993, that said just that. In his article “Sportometrics,” Robert Tollison writes:
Moreover, the value of three-point shots must be traded off against two-point shots. Using data from the National Basketball Association, Kevin Grier and I found that coaches who are better at enforcing such an allocation of shots–better arbitrageurs–are more likely to win games and to have longer tenure as head coaches. Among the better coaches, we found, was Cotton Fitzsimmons, the former coach of the Phoenix Suns. He became head coach of the Kansas City Kings in 1977 and, in his first full season, led the Kings to forty-eight wins and a shooting efficiency rating of 66 percent, a very high statistic in the NBA.