Pelicans Perimeter Problems – Too Many Open Threes

Published: January 1, 2015

Before I even type a single word, I already know that my theory will sound ridiculous to most, and I fully accept that. But hear me out before you completely dismiss what I have to say. What do I think is wrong with the Pelicans offense as currently constructed? My belief is that they take too many open three-point shots. Or, to be more specific, I believe that the percentage of threes that they take that are either open or wide open are far too high. This team simply does not take enough contested threes, and for several reasons that is a problem.

First, let’s talk about what a contested three is versus an open three. (a terrific tool) lists an ‘open’ attempt as one where the closest defender is 4-6 feet away. ‘Wide open’ is 6+ feet. 2-4 feet is considered ‘tight’ and 0-2 feet is ‘very tight’. Now, in a vacuum, everybody would prefer to take a wide open three-point shot as opposed to an attempt that is tightly contested. And, as one would expect, the Pelicans shoot much higher percentages when they are open from behind the arc, as opposed to contested – though, their wide open 3-pt percentage (34.5%) leaves a lot to be desired.

But all shots do not occur in a vacuum. That is to say, that they each leave a footprint that not only dictates the rest of the game, but future games as well. I want you to imagine that you are a team scouting the Pelicans and you see that on tape and via the stats your assistant just handed you that they absolutely refuse to take contested three-point shots. How would that effect your game plan? How would it impact the way you defend the guy assigned to you on that night?

The Pelicans take about 19 three-pointers a game. Only TWO are either tightly or very tightly contested. Let’s compare that to some of the elite offensive teams in the league. Portland takes 27 per game, with about 5 tightly or very tightly contested. Golden State takes 26, again with a little more than 5 tightly or very tightly contested. The Mavericks take 27 per game and 5 are tightly or very tightly contested. The Suns put up 27 and more than 6 of them are tightly contested. The Raptors – the best offense in the East – put up 25 and 7 of them are tightly contested. Again, all of these teams shoot a higher percentage when open or wide open, but stats can not measure the effect that even a missed tightly contested three has on an opponents defensive scheme.

Take, for example, the one guy on the Pelicans who takes a decent amount of contested three’s – Ryan Anderson. Of the contested three’s put up by the Pelicans, Ryan Anderson accounts for about 38% of them. Oddly, Anderson is an anomaly and makes tightly contested threes at a higher rate than open or wide open threes, but beyond that, the fact that he is willing to take them is what creates so much space for the Pelicans offense when he is on the court. Meanwhile, you take a look at someone like Luke Babbitt – oh, if I had a nickel for every time I read somebody say “He needs to take more threes!” – But I digress. The fact is that Luke Babbitt only takes three’s when he has a wide open look. Of his 65 attempts, only 6 have been tightly or very tightly contested.

Again, I want you to pause for a moment and think about how this effects you as a defender. Now, Babbitt shoots a far higher percentage than Ryno this year (50% to 33%), but are you going to tend to pay more attention to the guy who will let it go at any moment than you are the guy who will pass up the opportunity if you are within shouting distance? Same goes for a guy like Jrue Holiday, who has no problem putting up tightly contested mid-range jumpers, but all of a sudden gets shy putting up contested threes. You go down the list with Pelicans perimeter players, from Rivers to Gordon and Evans, and it is the same story with all of them. They take the three only when they have no choice but to take it because they are so open.

Open threes aren’t a bad thing, but when the opposition knows that this is the only type of three you will take, then it limits how dynamic your offense can be. It allows teams to be far more conservative on the Holiday-AD pick and roll than they should have to be. It allows Babbitt’s defender to be a better help guy than he should be able to be, because he knows all he has to do is close out quick if Babbitt were to receive the ball and the possession is thwarted. Austin Rivers’ first step can be somewhat negated because a defender knows that if he is even relatively close, Austin won’t pull the trigger.

Now, here comes the big question – one that, spoiler alert, I don’t have an answer for – Is this a result of the players and their tendencies or is it a result of Monty’s coaching? I can argue both sides on this one, and I imagine that people are going to conclude what they will based on their personal feelings about Monty going into this article. For me, on one side I say – Well, if Monty tells his players not to take contested threes, why does Ryno do it? If your theory is that Monty tells his players to only take threes if open, then Ryno is either: A) Disobeying his coaches orders or B) Given an exemption by Monty.

It is unlikely that Monty would continue to give him heavy minutes if he was blatantly disobeying him. And, if you go with B, then why wouldn’t Monty give Babbitt the same green light, seeing that he is shooting 50%? Lastly, look at Anthony Morrow this past year, who took three times more contested threes than any of our perimeter players this year. Was he given this random exemption too?

The one thing that you can say about Ryno that you can’t say about any of the other guys is that he has an incredibly quick release. Babbitt often times has to bring the ball down to his waist before taking the shot. Holiday and Evans have methodically slow shots, and anybody who has ever played NBA 2K knows that Gordon’s three-point shot takes a millennium to get off. If you are on the side of personnel being the problem here, you can easily point to this as the issue. There are no quick release perimeter players or guys capable of hitting from deep off the dribble. What we have is a collection of catch-and-shoot guys who will only take the shot when given a ton of room. And if I know this, then opposing coaches know this and that is why, despite the fact that our percentages look solid on paper, our three-point efficiency doesn’t open up the offense as well as it should.

Now, I know a lot of people will pin this on Monty – and truth be told, I can’t say that it is on him or not. I have no clue what he is saying behind closed doors to his players, and neither can any of you. We tend to imagine he is saying whatever promotes our own narrative, but let’s try to be more objective here. One thing we know for sure is that most perimeter players tend to increase their 3-point rates when they leave Monty’s system, as pointed out by David Fisher last year. Now, the data only goes back to last year, so we can’t know if these guys take more contested three’s or if the reason for their increased rate is due to any number of other factors.

But again, why does Ryno alone have the green light if this the conclusion we are all destined to arrive at? Or Morrow and Ryno alone the year before? This anomaly, combined with my own two eyes – which constantly shows me that the guards on this team have painfully slow releases and/or are terrible at making shots off the dribble, lead me to lean more towards the fact that it is a personnel issue combined with some cautious words from Monty. And who knows, maybe the personnel is Monty’s fault too. He was quick to help run Marcus Thornton out of town, and Thornton is the exact kind of quick-trigger, irrational confidence guy that could help open this offense up a bit. Nearly 37% of Thornton’s three-point attempts this season are tightly contested, which would lead this Pelicans team by a WIDE margin.

So, I am not here to draw any definitive conclusions as to who is directly responsible for this issue, and truth be told I feel a little silly pointing to an offensive issue when the problems with this team are so clearly on the defensive side. But, the fact is that this offense could be more dynamic and it does struggle late in games. We all know that a more dynamic offense leads to more set defenses, which theoretically should improve that side of the ball as well. I came to this piece because my eyes told me it was a problem, and low and behold, the stats backed me up. This team is infinitely easier to defend than it should be according to the stat page. I mean, you have a starting lineup with perhaps the best player in the world, two dynamic guards, and a 50% three-point shooting SF, and your net rating is abysmal?

But as a guy who coaches high school basketball, and spends a large portion of his time scouting other teams, it became clear to me when I took off my Pelicans fan hat and started scouting them these last few weeks. I saw a team that was much easier to defend than you thought they would be. The play designs are nice, and the talent is surely there, but they are the quarterback who is trying to place a ball, rather than just rearing back and launching it. And while the first quarterback makes less mistakes than the second (low turnover %), he is also much easier to defend because he is far more predictable.

If you want to see this offense be more consistent and explosive, insert a couple of quick trigger and/or irrational confidence guys into the rotation. People often ask me what small forward I would want this summer, and while there are a couple of nice ones, I don’t care about position as much as skill set. And what this team needs is a gunner. If you can’t get a small forward like one of the Green’s or Demarre Carroll,  go get me Lou Williams or Swaggy P and watch this offense take off. The threat of guys like that on the court effect every possession, not just the possessions that they take the shot. Right now, it’s too easy to defend this team, and it’s simply because they don’t take enough contested threes.

(Stats in this piece are from 12/30, when it was originally written.)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.