When I play pick-up ball, my teammates usually know me well enough to run an easy play for me. When everybody is worn down and we just need an easy basket, I’ll check the ball at the top of the key, and a teammate will come up and stand in front of my defender. I hand them the ball, they hand it back, I take a step back and fire up a 3-pointer. It’s not the most impressive play, but I’m a pretty solid shooter, and if nothing else, at least we get a decent shot off.
The Celtics run a somewhat similar play for Paul Pierce, from time to time. Boston uses Pierce in P&R ball handling situations in 13.3% of Pierce’s possessions, and on occasion, instead of dribbling toward the hedging big, Pierce will hang back behind the screener and launch a 3-pointer. This is a useful shot because, as long as the screen is solid, Pierce’s original defender can’t really contest the shot and the hedging big isn’t able to contest either. And since Pierce is hitting roughly 39% of his 3-pointers this year, this play is, for the most part, a win-win. Here’s an example of what it looks like:
There is another Celtic who could really benefit from the ability to hit this shot, but before I go any farther, let me offer two disclaimers. 1) It’s easy to say “This guy could benefit from the ability to hit this shot” because, frankly, any player could benefit from the ability to hit any shot. 2) I hate arguing that a player should take more of a certain shot more because we don’t see that player in practice, and we can’t actually know how good he is at a certain play.
Regardless of both those things, I believe Avery Bradley should be taking more 3-pointers as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, and I believe that this set I described with Pierce is a good way to get him a solid look at the basket.
For starters, let’s take a look at how Bradley gets most of his jumpers out of the pick-and-roll. First the numbers: 25.4% of Bradley’s possessions involve him as the pick-and-roll ball-handler, and he’s averaging just 0.57 points per possession. It’s the highest usage he sees while on the floor, second only to spot-up jumpers (where he is averaging .40 more PPP), and he is shooting 31.8% in the P&R. Since Bradley is 0-2 from 3-point range in P&R attempts, his eFG% is also .318. None of these numbers inspire much confidence, but if you have watched the Celtics extensively, you don’t need a bunch of numbers to tell you that Bradley struggles to shoot off the bounce, especially from mid-range.
So what does a Bradley P&R look like when it ends in a jumper? Here’s an example in Boston’s recent loss to Miami (apologies for the video quality).
As you can see, Bradley shies away from the longer, more efficient 3-point shot. What’s more, Miami’s vaunted defense is more than happy to let Bradley fire away from that inefficient range. As soon as Bradley crosses the 3-point line, his defender (Chalmers) turns to cover Paul Pierce, and LeBron James hangs back to guard against the drive.
When Bradley rises for the jumper, James doesn’t even pretend to guard him. This isn’t because Bradley can’t hit that particular shot (he can on occasion), it’s because he isn’t going to beat you with it. And frankly, an Avery Bradley jumper from 20 feet was infinitely more preferable to Miami at this point than Jeff Green having the ball in any way, shape or form.
But it’s not just great defenses like Miami’s that are backing off Bradley. Even mediocre defensive teams like Dallas (22nd in opponent FG%) are backing off and allowing him to take long 2-pointers. In this play, Dirk Nowitzki, much like LeBron, doesn’t even put a hand up to defend.
Allowing Bradley to take this shot (and even make it a few times) is a solid defensive scheme. If Bradley made these shots on a consistent basis, we could chalk this up to bad defense, but the truth is that if an opponent can force Boston into shots that only fall 31.8% of the time, they are playing extremely effective defense.
Unlike Rajon Rondo, Bradley isn’t good enough at passing and ball-handling to be an offensive threat without a jumpshot. But much like Rondo, Bradley will consistently be able to take open 3-pointers whenever he wants. Defenders don’t even go under screens against Bradley. Instead, they switch onto the screener, and the hedging defender falls back to defend against the drive. Instead of taking advantage of this, Bradley frequently settles for 2-pointers where 3-pointers would be just as easy and much more efficient. Notice from where Bradley takes the jumper against Dallas.
You can see that Dirk has switched onto Bradley, and that he is giving him a ton of space for the jumper. But Bradley is also just one step inside the 3-point line. If he simply stays behind the arc and takes the jumper, it instantly becomes a much better shot.
Here’s how the play COULD look if Bradley proves himself capable of knocking down shots from long distance in the pick-and-roll:
In this play, Pierce simply dribbles to his left off the pick and drains a 3-pointer by staying behind Kevin Garnett on the screen. Pierce is an incredibly heady player, and he recognizes immediately that the defender has chosen to go under the pick, which is a mistake against Pierce. We aren’t sure if going under the screen is a mistake against Bradley yet, since he has only attempted two 3-pointers as a P&R ball-handler all season. But we do know that, in general, long 2-pointers aren’t working. If nothing else, Bradley has little to lose by staying behind the 3-point arc. What’s more, he doesn’t even need to read the defense the way Pierce does. When Bradley comes off a screen, he can feel fairly confident that the defense is going to give him a jumper. Boston’s offense becomes a more complicated problem to solve if Bradley proves he needs to be defended behind the 3-point line.
In a recent story on Grantland (incidentally, the must-read piece of the year for stats-nerds), Zach Lowe talked about Toronto’s analytics team who have an interesting take on 3-pointers:
An example: The analytics team is unanimous, and rather emphatic, that every team should shoot more 3s — including the Raptors and even the Rockets, who are on pace to break the NBA record for most 3-point attempts in a season. [...]
For Rucker and his team, this is a question that gets at the value of particular shots, the impact of the shot clock, and how coaches teach players. “When you ask coaches what’s better between a 28 percent 3-point shot and a 42 percent midrange shot, they’ll say the 42 percent shot,” Rucker says. “And that’s objectively false. It’s wrong. If LeBron James just jacked a 3 on every single possession, that’d be an exceptionally good offense. That’s a conversation we’ve had with our coaching staff, and let’s just say they don’t support that approach.”
The coaches aren’t even close to being onboard with such a 3-happy philosophy yet. “To have guys who shoot 3s that can’t break that 35 percent break-even point, you have to really evaluate that,” Sterner says.
“You can shoot as many 3s as you’d like,” Casey says, “but if you don’t make them, that philosophy goes out the window. There’s always going to be disagreements. Analytics might give you a number, but you can’t live by that number.”
The fact that there is disagreement between two strong basketball minds probably tells you that the answer lies somewhere in between — that LeBron James shouldn’t jack up a 3-pointer on every single possession, but teams should be taking more 3-pointers and fewer mid-range jumpers. Bradley is no exception, and pick-and-roll plays offer him plenty of opportunities to take longer shots.
By no means am I saying that the Celtics should consistently run Bradley off screens for 3-point attempts like he’s Steve Nash. But in 10-seconds-left-on-the-shot-clock-and-Paul-Pierce-is-covered situations, doing so would be an easy way to get a more efficient shot.
Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.