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Syracuse Basketball: An idea about shot selection and increasing offensive production

Dunks ‘n Threes!

Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

In case you missed it, Marshall head coach Dan D’Antoni — brother to noted lunatic Mike D’Antoni — gave a short lecture in his postgame press conference after falling to Pittsburgh on Wednesday, laying out the basic construct for identifying production value. The short of the long: Threes are worth more than twos, and shot selection within the spatial constraints of the floor dictate the best ways to generate points. There’s nothing earth-shattering about this; coaches and analysts have been bombing down this path for years, revisiting strategy from a production and efficiency standpoint in order to maximize a team’s opportunities to make the scoreboard blink and, like, stay employed.

This has been rattling around my skull for a while and D’Antoni’s “damn analytics story” offers a pretty convenient platform to float an idea: Should Syracuse adopt more of a Dunks ‘n Threes philosophy on the offensive end? The Orange kind of have that profile already, but what if Syracuse went all-in on this in order to try and increase the production of an offense that currently ranks 76th — there’s blood raining from the sky! — nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency. In other words, is there a strategic advantage that generates a tangible up-tick in Syracuse’s offense if the Orange focused more on creating shots at the rim and from behind the arc?

Assuming -- this is a static assumption that has variables attached to it — that Syracuse was able to convert shots at the same rate that it is right now, there’s at least reasonable evidence that it could work.

The Idea

This idea is almost nakedly simple:

  1. Syracuse puts up three-point attempts at a rate that would rank 25th nationally. This means that the ratio of threes to total field goals attempted would rise from 40.1% to 45.1%. Not a drastic increase, but an increase nonetheless. Four players — Andrew White, Tyler Lydon, John Gillon, and Tyus Battle -- are already taking at least 43% of their field goal attempts from distance and are converting, at worst, 37.9% of their attempts from range. (Three — White, Lydon, and Gillon — are taking at least 20% of the Orange’s shots while on the floor, so these are core focal points to the offense.)
  2. Syracuse increases its ratio of two-point attempts at the rim from 34.3% to 43.3%, a mark that would rank 25th nationally. This is a drastic increase in shot attempts from a selection standpoint and it also reduces the number of two-point jumpers that the team attempts (reducing that rate from 25.6% to 11.6%). (Only Taurean Thompson, Dajuan Coleman, and Tyler Roberson are taking at least 43% of their shots at the rim. This shot selection reset would impact, importantly, Lydon (26.9% taken at rim; 29.4% in two-point jumpers), and Frank Howard (37.2% taken at rim; 23.1% in two-point jumpers), two cats that are taking fewer than 40% of their shots at the rim and are filling in the gap between their rim attempts and three-point attempts with two-point jumpers that are falling at less than a 35% conversion rate). This isn’t a prohibition on two-point jumpers — much of Thompson and Coleman’s games solid in the midrange and contribute sufficient production value — but rather a de-emphasis on those shots among players to generate increased value elsewhere. The focus: Penetration that creates dunks, dishes, layups, and kicks, and drawing fouls.
  3. With the elevated focus of getting shots at the rim and drawing fouls, a related escalation in drawing fouls and increasing free throw rate, rising from 35.9% to 44.3% (this rate ranks 25th nationally). This is a massive increase for Syracuse based on the team’s current profile, but is connected to the team’s decreased reliance on two-point jumpers (of which it only converts on 36.7% of the attempts) and a greater focus on creating around the rim. Howard and Coleman are the only two players above 44% in FTA/FGA; Gillon and Battle — two guards that have the ability to move dangerously toward the basket -- are below 34% in the same measure (while both are converting over 72% of their free throw attempts).

That’s it, that’s all that changes. This isn’t even a colossal departure from Syracuse’s current pick and roll/heavy screen offense: It’s just spreading the floor a little more and permitting the pick and roll/screens to do their thing; the only difference is putting less emphasis on settling for two-point jumpers — find shooters looking to cash in on threes instead of taking low-value twos (because threes are worth more than twos) or defiantly penetrate to the rim and make rainbows happen with high percentage twos while, at worst, putting circumstances in place to draw fouls.

The personnel is already there, it’s just merely changing the mentality around shot selection: White is a prodigious catch and shoot three-point shooter; Howard and Gillon have capacity to distribute; Lydon is a multi-tool player that can create matchup issues inside and out and is a dangerous three-point shooter (and needs to rely less on the two-point jumper as it’s the weakest aspect of his game); etc. It’s just painfully emphasizing the focus areas.

When applied in this alternate universe of fun times basketball, Syracuse could generate about seven more points per game and increase its raw offensive efficiency almost six points per 100 possessions, ascending from 55th nationally to about 20th nationally. The details:

(Click to embiggen.)

This, obviously, does not solve all of Syracuse’s problems, but it is a net positive and it isn’t a monumental shift in offensive attitude. It’s a spread-type offense, but Syracuse is so bad at two-point jumpers — 158th in the country in two-point jumper field goal percentage — that limiting the attempts from that area of the floor and reallocating those shots to beyond the arc — Syracuse’s three-point field goal percentage ranks 33rd nationally -- and at the rim generates a greater offensive output. And this fits nicely with the offensive philosophy already in place.

The Costco-stylized free throw situation is hilarious to look at. This is volumized brow-beating: Syracuse still shoots free throws like a blind drunk trying to text his girlfriend on a coaster, but by the sheer magic of quantity the Orange put more points on the scoreboard. If you can’t be efficient, be repetitively annoying (which is basically the internet commenter’s code).

So, yeah. That’s an idea — no change to player output, but you can potentially increase offensive production just by resetting overall shot selection. Of course, player maturation on the offensive end is what everyone would like to see, but this is a potential way to achieve greater output in case development doesn’t come together as hoped.

Source: Hoop Math; kenpom ($)