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How do we know if the Blazers are getting better shots?

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How can we tell as the season progresses if the Trail Blazers are getting better shots than they did last season?

NBA: Houston Rockets at Portland Trail Blazers Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Last week we looked at some of factors that may have contributed to the Trail Blazers’ league-low assists-per-game average. I used Coach Terry Stotts’ media comments to guess how he thinks they could improve:

Some of it was poor shooting inside and outside. We’ll try to improve on that this year by shooting less off the dribble, using more movement and getting better shots.

I touched on the areas he thought they could work on but stopped short of answering the question of how do we know if they are “getting better shots.”

I threw this out to the other Blazer’s Edge writers to find out what they think Stotts meant. Here are the responses, from Perry Waggoner and akicks:

  • It depends on if they value open shots, or if they’ll continue to value shots for Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. It seems that their over-reliance on contested jumpers from the backcourt was nationally exposed as Portland’s weakness against New Orleans in the playoffs last season. Kicking it out to an open Aminu or Harkless even 3 or 4 times will go a long way to raising percentages and challenging defenses more. - Perry Waggoner
  • Getting the ball to a guy who has a little bit of space at a spot that they can reliably score from. Too often last year shots were being taken by guys who were covered or guys were shooting shots they weren’t good at because Dame and CJ were covered and the clock was running down. - akicks

My intention in asking the Blazer’s Edge hive mind was to figure out how we might measure if the Blazers’ shots are “getting better” this season. From their answers I suggest we keep an eye on two things: open shots and shots from a player’s preferred spots.

How open were the Blazers on their shots?

To see if the Blazers get more open shots this season, let’s look at how they fared last season. This chart breaks down how close the nearest defender was for all shots, two point attempts and three point attempts. The farther away the defender, the more open the shot.

How open were the Trail Blazers’ shooters

Distance of closest defender FGA (Total) 2PA 3PA Total FREQ 2PA FREQ 3PA FREQ
Distance of closest defender FGA (Total) 2PA 3PA Total FREQ 2PA FREQ 3PA FREQ
0-2 (Very tight) 10.1 9.4 0.7 12.40% 11.50% 0.09%
2-4 (Tight) 29.9 26.1 3.8 36.70% 30.20% 4.70%
4-6 (Open) 23.8 13.4 10.4 29.20% 16.50% 12.70%
6+ (Wide open) 17.6 4.8 12.8 21.70% 5.90% 15.80%

You can see here that they took the bulk of their shots from two point range with defenders between 2-4 feet away.

One thing to keep an eye on will be if the “open” and “wide open” field goal attempts increase. Will their presence on the team impact the number of open shot attempts?

How open were Lillard and McCollum?

To address how often Lillard and McCollum took contested shots last season, let’s look at how frequently they shot with defenders within four feet (“very tight” or “tight” according to stats.nba.com).

Lillard and McCollum contested shots

Player ALL FG w/ defender less than 4 ft 2PA w/ Defender less than 4ft 3PA w/ Defender less than 4ft
Player ALL FG w/ defender less than 4 ft 2PA w/ Defender less than 4ft 3PA w/ Defender less than 4ft
Damian Lillard 46.90% 33% 13.90%
CJ McCollum 47.10% 39.30% 7.70%

For comparison, Stephen Curry last season took 40.2% of his shots with a defender within 4 feet and Klay Thompson took 43.8%. On the championship team anyway, the stars took fewer contested shots.

Will Lillard and McCollum find more open shots for themselves and will they be able to create open shots for others? While the Blazers’ starting five stayed fundamentally the same, the new players off the bench may draw enough attention for Lillard and McCollum to get open. In limited preseason play, both Curry and Stauskas have shown they can sink catch-and-shoot 3s. It is entirely possible (to see through preseason rose-colored glasses) that the Blazers will get more open shots this season.

What are the preferred spots for Trail Blazers’ shooters?

Akicks suggests that “better shots” could mean that players are getting the ball in their preferred spots. Time to pull out the shot charts! Since we are trying to puzzle out how the Blazers can get more assists, let’s look at the players who score most frequently off assists to try and discern where they like to get the ball.

First, a quick look at how often each player scores off of an assist. Here is a list of the current Blazers plus Seth Curry and Nik Stauskas. The list shows how often their field goals are assisted. (Statistics for Curry are from his year in Dallas.)

Assisted Field Goals

Player FGM %AST 2FGM %AST 3FGM %AST
Player FGM %AST 2FGM %AST 3FGM %AST
Meyers Leonard 82.6 77.1 100
Zach Collins 74.8 65 97.1
Al-Farouq Aminu 74.3 48.6 96
Maurice Harkless 72.8 60.2 98
Jake Layman 71.4 60 100
Caleb Swanigan 70.8 69.6 100
Jusuf Nurkic 69.4 69.4 0
Nik Stauskas 66.7 45 77.5
Seth Curry* 43.8 22.9 74.5
Evan Turner 35.7 23.6 97.6
CJ McCollum 33.3 21.8 62.4
Wade Baldwin IV 28.6 0 100
Damian Lillard 27.4 18 43.6

For the purposes of this exercise I will look at the players whose field goals are most frequently assisted. I am removing Lillard, McCollum and Turner from this discussion on the assumption that they will be the primary ball handlers (although we may still wait and see with Turner and the second unit). Creating for themselves and others is their primary responsibility while the other players are supposed to get into position to score.

All shot charts can be found on stats.nba.com.

Meyers Leonard and Zach Collins

Since they are both big men who are encouraged to shoot 3’s, let’s look at Leonard and Collins together. Leonard’s sample size (33 games) is much smaller than Collins’ (66 games).

Meyers Leonard shots are distributed around the perimeter and under the basket. Zach Collins are more concentrated in the right corner and under the basket.

Both players shoot best above the break and in the left corner. Leonard is much more likely to convert near the basket. If he plays more consistently this season and his pattern stays similar, it should provide a puzzle for defenders who will have to decide where he is most dangerous. It will be interesting to see what offensive patterns emerge when these two play together. In the context of “better shots” it appears that Leonard has more versatility while Collins has areas of the floor that he is much more productive than others.

Jusuf Nurkic

Nurkic has a much larger sample size and is clearly best suited to scoring near the top of the paint (although everyone is welcome to keep hoping for Nurkic dunks).

Nurkic took many shots under the basket but was below league average in his ability to finish.

The veteran wings

When you look at the Blazers’ most veteran wings, Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless, side-by-side, you see their shot charts are fairly complimentary.

Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu shot charts side-by-side, Aminu’s is more dense. Harkless prefers the left side, Aminu the right.

Harkless has more success shooting from the left side than the right. His FG% was quite a bit below league average on right corner (31%) and well above it on the left corner (50%). Aminu leans towards the right and excels form both corners, having shot 42% from the left corner and 52% from the right last season.

The new guys

The shot chart for Curry is from his year in Dallas (2016-17) where he averaged 10 shots per game over 70 games. Stauskas’ chart is from last season and is a more limited sample, having averaged 3.8 shots per game over 41 games with Brooklyn and the 76ers.

Seth Curry’s shots are more frequent and accurate fro the right side, Stauskas prefers the left.

The first thing that stands out about Curry’s shot chart is that he is at or above league average almost everywhere. He had a higher FG% on right side 3s and took more right side corner 3s than left. He also had success under the basket. A quick look at his shooting stats shows that those were mostly driving shots, so not the assisted type we are focused on here, like cuts.

Stauskas leans towards a preference for the left side, especially the corner and does not excel under the basket.

Blazers who are still unknown quantities

With fewer front court players on the roster this year, we should expect to see Caleb Swanigan and Jake Layman on the court more than ever, at least while Stotts is working out the rotations. Unfortunately their shot charts don’t reveal much about them except that Swanigan is more likely to attempt shots under the basket and Layman is at least willing to throw it up from the left corner.

Sparsely populated shot charts for Jake Layman and Caleb Swanigan have few marks and reveal little more than they don’t reveal much.

Preferred shots

Here is a summary of where the players most likely to score assisted field goals shoot best. While these are not necessarily their “preferred” spots, they are the areas from where they are most successful.

  • Meyers Leonard: no preference, needs to see the court more to figure out where he is best.
  • Zach Collins: 3 point above the break and left corner 3
  • Jusuf Nurkic: top of the paint, left block/elbow
  • Maurice Harkless: left side, left corner 3s, restricted area
  • Al-Farouq Aminu: right side, either corner 3s
  • Seth Curry: no preference
  • Nik Stauskas: above the break, left side, left corner
  • Caleb Swanigan: need more data
  • Jake Layman: need more data

Do you think that looking at how open shooters are and where players prefer to shoot from are good ways to measure “better shots”? What other ways do teams measure shot quality? Let us know in the comments below. (And thanks for the assists, akicks and Perry!)

xoxo Team Mom | @tcbbiggs