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How The Blazers Thrive With Mid-Range Jump Shots

NBA conventional wisdom holds that mid-range jumpers are bad. So how do the Blazers take so many and still achieve so much success?

Wes lets it fly.
Wes lets it fly.
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

ed. Today we're featuring some of the best articles from this summer at Blazer's Edge in case you're just joining us and missed them the first time around. Here Evans Clinchy gives the run-down on Portland's mid-range jump shooting habit. Enjoy!


As analytics have risen to prominence in the last decade, people have begun to change the way they think about every single play of a basketball game, dissecting each possession and each shot and quickly coming to a consensus about what's "right" and "wrong." The groupthink has coalesced so fast that we now almost unanimously agree on how to play the game optimally. The layup, the free throw and the corner 3-pointer are good. The mid-range two is bad. There can be no dissent.

Well, yes and no.

There are obvious reasons why all of the above notions have become conventional wisdom. Layups are good because they're the easiest to make; free throws are nice because they're free. You've gotta love 3-pointers, because three points is one more than two. The mid-range shot offers none of these benefits.

Then again, a great many teams in recent years have found success making the mid-range game a big part of their diet. Matter of fact, your very own Blazers are one of them. Portland's offensive game under Terry Stotts has been known for its creative mix of shots from inside the arc and out. This team is no stranger to the long two.

Let's look at the numbers. The following is a graph showing the correlation (or, spoiler alert, perhaps lack thereof...) between mid-range shooting and offensive efficiency. Each data point represents one team's averages for the 2013-14 season - on the X axis is the team's points per 100 possessions, and the Y, the percentage of the team's shot attempts between 16 feet and the 3-point arc. Without further ado:

Right off the bat, let's note four things.

1. There doesn't appear to be much of a pattern here. Some teams shoot a lot from mid-range and are overall effective offensively; others are equally prolific with weaker results. On the whole, this scatterplot is just that - it's scattered. Nothing much to glean in the way of an overall message.

2. The Sixers are really bad.

3. The Rockets, maybe because of their personnel or maybe because of the influence of stathead Daryl Morey, take way, way fewer long twos than anyone else.

4. The Blazers are right up there with the Clippers among the league's best offenses... and both teams are using plenty of long two-point shots to get there.

Let's talk about that fourth point. How is this happening? If the mid-range shot is supposedly so wretched, how are Portland and L.A. both using it to such success? What gives?

Before we get into the nitty-gritty basketball reasons, I'd like to explore this issue theoretically. If you'll indulge me, I have a crazy analogy to try out. Here's a question for you: When you're playing poker, why do you ever bet on a hand that isn't a royal flush?

Think about it. If the royal flush is the best hand possible, and you're guaranteed to win money with it, why not just sit back and fold every hand and wait for the moneymaker? Why risk your chips with a less-than-perfect hand that might lose?

The reason is obvious, right? If you fold everything but a royal flush, the other players at the table will quickly identify you as Folding Everything But Royal Flushes Guy. Once they have you figured out, they'll never want to pay you off. Once your hand finally does come, no one will play with you, and you won't earn a dime. This is precisely why the best gamblers know to mix up their play. Sometimes, if they want to hit the big payoff in the long run, they need to get in there and bluff occasionally.

Here's a relevant excerpt from David Sklansky's "The Theory of Poker," widely considered the bible on strategic gambling concepts like how to bluff effectively:

"An opponent who knows you never bluff is much less likely to play his hand incorrectly. Any time you bet, he will know you are betting for value. He will play only when he figures he has a better hand than yours or when he is getting sufficient pot odds to call with more cards to come. Bluffing, then, or the possibility that you might be bluffing, is another way of keeping your opponents guessing."

See where I'm going with this? The same logic applies to basketball. The corner 3-pointer might be the royal flush of running an NBA offense, but no half-decent defensive team will let you feast on 3s all night - just like the poker player with the tight opponent, they'll make adjustments. The mid-range two in this analogy is the bluff. You're not betting with the absolute nuts, but you're mixing up your play to keep opposing defenses on their toes.

The Blazers are the best at this. Time and time again, they've shown a willingness to branch out offensively, taking the two when you might expect the 3 and vice versa. This degree of unpredictability is just one of many factors that make the Blazers a tough team to guard.

Example time. Here's a clip of Wesley Matthews hitting a 3 in a game between the Blazers and Nets last season:

It's a fairly simple play. Wes gets a quick pindown screen from LaMarcus Aldridge, helping him get some separation from Joe Johnson at the top of the key. He takes the pass from Robin Lopez in stride just as Johnson fights through the screen; Wes has just barely enough time to squeeze off an effective shot for 3. Because he was relatively open, it's a high-percentage shot, and he hits it.

Now here's a similar clip with a different ending:

Again, Wes gets some separation from the defender, in this case the Pelicans' Anthony Morrow, and he probably could have taken the 3 right away. But he switches it up this time, threatening to take Morrow into the post before stopping and catching him off guard with a step-back jumper. The play works because it's counterintuitive - Matthews gets off a shot from the one area on the floor you wouldn't expect. The inefficiency of the mid-range game becomes an opportunity for Matthews to be surprisingly efficient.

Nicolas Batum is another Blazer who benefits from mixing up his play. Here's a look at Portland's versatile small forward getting off a jumper in transition:

Batum is being chased down the floor by the Celtics' Brandon Bass. He's quicker than Bass with the ability to beat him to any spot on the floor in a fast-paced transition situation. So when Damian Lillard looks for Batum on the break and finds him cutting to the corner, Batum does the logical thing and continues cutting until he's behind the arc. The 3-point attempt is a much more efficient shot than the long corner 2. (That Batum actually misses the shot is irrelevant - much like poker, basketball is about making the theoretical best play and living with the results. Besides, Aldridge ends up drawing a foul from Kelly Olynyk going for the rebound.)

Many times before, Batum has shown a willingness to take a step or two back, set his feet beyond the arc and take the 3-point shot. But here's where it gets interesting: He's equally willing to move in the opposite direction.

In this broken play against the Spurs, Batum finds himself recovering a loose ball with both feet planted beyond the arc, and he's got a split-second before Kawhi Leonard closes out and challenges his shot. He can squeeze off a 3 here if he so desires - but instead, he takes Leonard by surprise. He quickly up-fakes, drives baseline and makes a Dirk Nowitzki-style one-legged fadeaway that Leonard is powerless to stop.

Is that two-point shot the better basketball play? It's certainly debatable. But it's hard to deny that Batum will get long-term utility out of his ability to keep opposing defenses guessing. What if, next time he's in that same situation against Kawhi Leonard, Batum similarly up-fakes but drills the 3 rather than driving closer to the basket? The fact that he changed up last time might buy him a little extra credibility on his next attempt.

This, on the whole, is what makes the Blazers such a tough team to guard. They don't need to beat you with one guy going crazy hitting 3s and dunks - they can win with their balance and their versatility. Any one of their five guys can beat you, and he can do it from anywhere on the floor.

Analytics might tell you the royal flush wins every time, but they can't necessarily show you the value of the element of surprise. Sometimes, it pays in the long run to mix it up with a pair of twos.