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Shooting for Success: Monty's Influence

Is it the players? Or is it the offense? Let's find out!

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

Three point attempts, most times, are more valuable than long two point attempts. This is a generally agreed upon fact throughout most basketball discussions. Watch enough NBA basketball and you find a great number of three point shots occur outside of the confines of set plays. Either these attempts occur in transition (thank you Stephen Curry), off offensive rebounds (the dreaded kick to a wide open player when the defense collapses or runs out), or after rotating the ball after a sequence of screens and movement (we could debate how much that is a play and how much it is just smart basketball). The key to creating such shots outside of a set play is for players to make themselves available, something I rarely find Pelicans, not named Ryan Anderson, doing.

The Data

During the debacle that was the November 12th loss to the Lakers, I had a number of choice tweets about the game plan and Monty's effect on shot selection. If you have been following along with me since last season, shot selection is high on my list of pet peeves (right beside terrible Pick and Roll defensive philosophies). One of which resulted in this exchange between Michael McNamara and myself:

There was more discussion focused mainly on the divergent viewpoints both of us hold rather strongly. Specifically, I am of the mind that Monty's system eschews the three point attempt in favor of long twos. McNamara's point of view is more nuanced, putting some blame on the coaching but focused more sharply on the relative basketball IQ of the players on the roster. While I agree that there are certainly lapses of judgement to support that position (the "pure basketball idiocy" comment was directed at the team failing to understand time and reset after an offensive rebound to attempt the last shot in a quarter), the volume of evidence I was sure to find on my side. So I went to find out. To Microsoft Excel!

Player - Departure Date 3ptA/36 w/ Monty 3ptA/36 Since
Jerryd Bayless - 20NOV10 3.4 4.1
Marcus Thornton - 23FEB11 4.5 6.6
Chris Paul - 14DEC11 2.3 3.5
Willie Green - 22DEC11 3.3 4.7
Quincy Pondexter - 24DEC11 2.5 3.7
Trevor Ariza - 20JUN12 3.3 5.3
Marco Belinelli - 1JUL12 5.6 4.2
Jarrett Jack - 11JUL12 2.4 3.1
Xavier Henry - 1JUL13 1.2 3.4
Greivis Vasquez - 10JUL13 3.1 3.7

Stare deep into the abyss. This list include every wing who has played significant minutes here in New Orleans and gone on to any real minutes elsewhere (which is why Roger Mason Jr., with 24 total minutes of NBA time since leaving NOLA, is not on the list). Every single player except Marco Belinelli had an increase upon departing the Bayou. Many saw dramatic increases (30% or more)!!! While few of these players could be considered knockdown shooter (at least in a Hornets uniform), all shot 33% or better except Ariza.  The equivalent of shooting 50% on mid range jump shots. Even Ariza's relatively horrendous 31% from deep as a Hornet translates to 46.5% from mid range.  Why have all these players shot more three point shots per 36 minutes elsewhere while the one three point expert has attempted fewer?

There are two simple reasons that could explain why former Hornets go on to shoot more three pointers elsewhere.  First, the pace has increased by leaving NOLA for literally anywhere else in the NBA. We can go ahead and check this as likely. The Hornets under Monty Williams finished 29th, 30th, 29th in pace over the previous three seasons according to Basketball Reference. A second reason would be increased usage. Unfortunately, the data shows few of these players with notable increases in usage. (Chris Paul and Xavier Henry have small increases in usage.) Most others have either held steady or show similarly small decreases in usage.


Watching Monty Williams-coached teams now for three plus years, I have found that he has tighter roles for players than most teams. Shooters are supposed to shoot (Belinelli, Anderson), point guards are expected to dribble a lot (Paul, Jack, Vasquez, Roberts, Holiday), and players outside of those two things have very defined methods of getting shots. West and Smith are used almost exclusively on pick and pops. Anthony Davis is afforded the freedom to do whatever he wants because he's the best player on the floor. Aminu is limited to no more than three dribbles at once, after which he must pass or shoot, regardless of circumstance (if a turnover has not already occurred).

This can be a good thing, as it limits limited players to the things they do well. This results in the idea that Monty is an above average coach at developing talent.  Players like Jason Smith are asked to do only what they are good at, they become comfortable in such roles and flourish.  It is an excellent method for developing the 6th through 13th players on the roster.  In such a system, only shooters are permitted to shoot three point shots. 59.6% (2075/3483) of three point attempts have come from the designated shooter (Belinelli, Anderson) or the point guard (Paul, Jack, Vasquez, Roberts) in the previous three seasons.  It climbs even higher adding Mason (obvious designated shooter) and Gordon (appears to have the green light at all times).

The clearest negative effect this season has been on Tyreke Evans. He is shooting the fewest three point attempts as a share of all attempts and per 36 minutes of his career.  Even at his (admittedly) horrendous career average of 27.4% from deep that is akin to shooting ABOVE LEAGUE AVERAGE from mid range. No, seriously. 27.4% from deep is .822 points per shot. League average from mid range last season was 39.2% as seen here, or  .784 points per shot. Yup, me too.

This tendency to limit players strictly to their strengths can explain why average three point shooters shoot fewer threes when coached by Monty Williams, while above average shooters (Belinelli, to a certain extent Anderson) actually increase their three point attempts. Watching Ryan Anderson last season, plays are designed when he is involved to the sole purpose of getting him three point attempts. His post ups are created out of mismatches on switches and as improvisation when the shot clock is running low.

All players, even the best on the planet, have limits and flaws. Gregg Popovich dared LeBron James to beat the Spurs with mid range jump shots for seven games. It was successful in six of those seven games. However, three point shots, even from borderline awful shooters in the NBA, are still more valuable than mid range jumpers. Monty Williams refuses to operate in such a world.  His teams have finished below league average in three point attempt rate (percentage of threes as a whole of field goal attempts) every season. Roughly 19% of FGAs (3594/18867) under Monty Williams have been three point attempts. For a point of reference, the league average has been above 19% every year since 2003-2004. For those unaware, Monty Williams retired from the NBA following the 2002-2003 season.

But simply, the threat of three point shots creates space on the floor for others to operate. Ryan Anderson on the floor with Tyreke Evans makes Tyreke much more effective. Not just because of the shots Ryan Anderson takes, but of the THREAT of him taking a shot from three. It functionally creates space on the court by bringing the opposing PF well outside of the lane. Philadelphia, running a similar defensive scheme to New Orleans, continued to pack the paint against the Pelicans. Ryan Anderson made six threes (and missed a couple other WIDE OPEN attempts) as a result.  But beyond that, the Pelicans only attempted 24 mid range jumpers, and 7 shots in the paint but not the restricted area.  31 inefficient shots, or 36% (31/86) of their total on the night. The Pelicans average 51.6% (43.5/84.2) of their shots coming from those inefficient areas on the season.

Wrap Up

This was in reference to my piece last week on just how important Ryan Anderson is to the Pelican offensive scheme. My answer is that as long as Monty Williams runs an offense with so clearly defined roles (Ryan Anderson is THE shooter and floor spacer, Jason Smith only runs pick and pops, etc) then yes, Ryan Anderson is absolutely this important. The three point shot is about more than three points. It is about space to run the pick and roll. It is about making rotations longer for the defense, which ultimately encourages ball movement by the offense. It does not mean that the other players are not good, or that they are woefully overpaid. Just that those players (Holiday and Evans in particular) require space to operate efficiently.

As long as Monty's offensive scheme is so dependent on one player to function as THE three point threat then that player will be incredibly valuable. While Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, and Tyreke Evans all have some overlap in their skills, there is not a player who is capable of replacing what Ryan Anderson brings to this franchise offensively. I do not see it as a terrible stretch to refer to Anderson as the second most valuable player on the roster. Behind Anthony Davis, right Evan Turner?