Make or Miss League
One of the most frustrating aspects of NBA fandom—especially when you get into the weeds a little bit—is that so much of what we feel when we watch games comes down to the simple fact of whether shots go in or not. Especially early on in the season, the vagaries of 3-point shooting, especially, seem to have an outsized importance on larger league-wide narratives about which teams are good and which aren’t.
Take, for example, my beloved Celtics. Last season, the Celtics took an average of 21.3 catch-and-shoot 3s per game (28th overall) and made 39.1% of those shots (8th). This season, the Celtics are taking 27.1 catch-and-shoot 3s per game (7th) and made 32.9% of those shots (22nd). Pretty wild, right? I’ve noticed, with my dumb-as-hell eyeballs, that the Celtics are missing shitloads of good looks, but I definitely have not noticed that they’re generating more catch-and-shoot looks than they did last season.
Let’s drill down into those numbers a little further. Last season’s Celtics generated 14.8 3s per game considered “Wide Open” (closest defender 6+ feet away) according to the NBA’s tracking data (24th). They made 6.1 of those attempts, or 40.9% (7th). This season so far, the Celtics are generating 17.7 wide open 3s (13th) and are making 5.7 of those shots, or 32.1% (27th). Do you see what’s going on here? The Celtics are shooting almost three more wide open 3s per game this season, but they are somehow making fewer wide open 3s than they did last season.
Add to this the fact that smart people who study numbers have determined that teams can’t really do all that much to control the percentage opponents shoot on these shots. That’s not to suggest that defense doesn’t matter; rather, I’m just saying that the evidence suggests that a lot of this stuff comes down to luck. Here’s another good example. Celtics’ opponents are currently shooting 79.5% from the foul line in a league where the average is 77.1%. Could you argue that the Celtics are a bunch of dummies fouling the wrong players over and over again? Sure, but it is far more likely that the vagaries of luck are involved here.
It’s frustrating, right? You want to suggest that the Celtics played shitty defense last night, and then you realize that if each team shoots their normal percentage on catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts, it’s a 2-point loss instead of an 11-point loss—in a road game, without Jaylen Brown and Rob Williams, etc., etc.
On the other hand, this feels, at least to me, like an important reminder about how games work. In a game, what you’ve done in the past and what you might do in the future stop mattering for a little while. You’ve done your preparation, and now it’s time to play. Play! It’s not work, right? You just go see if you can do the thing you are trying to do as well as you can do it. Yes, our predictions for the future can only really be based on the data we have, but it’s also true that the data is all behind us. As the fella says, “Anything’s possible.” If you popped in to last season’s playoffs halfway through Bucks/Nets game three, you would have thought the Bucks were toast, but—and this is key—the Bucks changed over the coming hours, days, and weeks. Giannis Antetokounmpo changed, and the Bucks won the title. I think that’s cool. I think that’s lovely. You can change. You can make the past obsolete.