NBA Meta: 3-and-D Wings are a Prime NBA Commodity
For most NBA teams, one or two players possess the ability to initiate offense or create in a way that crucially threatens the defense from the wing. Think John Wall and Bradley Beal on the Washington Wizards. However, the number of individuals who can consistently threaten world-class athletes from 24 feet away from the basket is limited. League-wide interest has spiked in wing players who prioritize two different skills: three-point shooting and defense.
The idea of the three-and-D wing is that their offensive value is rooted in their ability to stretch the defense and hit timely catch-and-shoot three-pointers. When an offense has a superstar that it revolves around to generate scoring opportunities (see: Harden, James), the other players on the court must be skilled at utilizing the opportunities given to them. While some players utilize their opportunities not with triples, but with timely cuts to the basket (see: Wade, Dwyane), the shift in the meta towards three-point shooting and spacing as an offensive priority has made solid to elite deep shooters incredibly valued.
Offenses in the 2010s are predicated on screens and spacing in order to generate mismatches and open shooting opportunities. Throughout the 2017 NBA Finals, savvy offensive players hunted down Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, all poor to middling defenders, on countless possessions because their involvement on defense meant better scoring odds for the opposition:
The ball is rotated around the court to start the possession, and Irving is guarded by Klay Thompson. After a handoff to J.R. Smith, who may have a mismatch against Curry, Thompson is forced to switch onto the ball-handler. Noticing this, Smith passes to Irving.
The rotation and movement stops because Irving, who was guarded by a defensive dynamo (Thompson) at the beginning of the possession, finds an easier matchup and opportunity against the mighty Golden State defense in Curry. Although Irving does not score, it is clear in the clip that the Cavaliers (or at least Irving) are chasing an opportunity to attack the weaker defenders in the Warriors lineup.
In the second clip, Curry performs a quick pick-and-roll off a handoff to confuse Irving. The Cleveland point guard is lost on the play, leaving Curry with a choice between an open jumper or an easy pass to the rolling Kevin Durant. This is possible because Durant’s defender attempted to hedge on the pick toward Curry, but ultimately, Irving’s disappearance for a split second as a result of the screen is what resulted in a basket.
This isn’t a chance occurrence; this poor screen navigation is systemic to Irving’s game and was a key part of Golden State’s attack plan.
Players who cannot be hunted down in this fashion are invaluable. As NBA math documented throughout the 2016-17 season with its total points added (TPA) metric, point guards are almost always negative contributors on the defensive end:
Logically, this makes sense; they are usually the lightest, shortest, least lengthy and most physically overmatched players on the court. Their inherent weakness, especially if compounded with another poor defender on the wing, can mean death for a team (particularly in the playoffs).
Defenses have looked toward switching defenders as a foil to the heavy screening and increased spacing of modern offenses. But to do this, a team needs wing players, ideally 6’5” to 6’8” (the center of the NBA’s player-density curve), who can comfortably switch onto any sized ball-handler.
BBALLBREAKDOWN gave a tremendous analysis of the San Antonio Spurs’ switching policy on Steph Curry during the 2016 playoffs. Switching is viewed as a foil for ball-screen-heavy offenses. In every clip above, the man who Curry is able to score against (with some difficulty) is LaMarcus Aldridge, a big. Most teams would resist consistently putting their big man into a one-on-one defensive situation with a nifty ball-handler. It is for this reason that they collect wings like trading cards: to give their roster the flexibility and defensive composition to be successful in switching situations.
Front offices have pressured themselves to find players who can make these switches on defense. Conversely, because spacing is so important on offense, it is ideal that these switching defenders be able to shoot, as well. Though other skills, like a player’s ability to penetrate a defense, connect on mid-range attempts or post up are still valued, they are seen as auxiliary to the two core abilities of three-point shooting and effective team defense.
Defense is difficult to measure.
In my opinion, player tracking offers the best potential measure in the future for understanding it, though it still leaves much to be desired. In order to compensate for the shortcomings of summative defensive statistics, I decided to take four metrics (NBA Math’s defensive points saved, ESPN.com’s defensive real plus/minus, defensive win shares and on/off measures) and find how many standard deviations away from the mean each player was. I then averaged those z-scores.
To measure shooting for these three-and-D players, I found each wing’s three-point percentage for 2016-17. I also looked at catch-and-shoot play-type metrics but decided overall shooting percentage was more representative of ability. My goal was not to rank players, but to use metrics as a way of grouping them.
These players vary on age, contract size and other abilities outside of shooting and defending. However, every team in the league is looking for players that can fill the coveted three-and-D role. These 136 players are grouped by how well they play within those constraints, with the clusters determined by three-point catch-and-shoot attempts per game and shooting percentage, their average defensive z-score and their overall three-point shooting percentage.
Note: Superstars are in a separate set that is not included. I kept borderline players like Andrew Wiggins, Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes because they play the three-and-D role on their respective teams, but others like Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James do not.
The clusters are divided thusly:
Cluster 1: House Bazemore
- Average Z-Score: 0.6215
- Average 3P%: 37.186
- Average catch-and-shoot attempt per game: 2.3071
- Definition: Above-average defenders with varied but limited three-point success. No player averaged more than three catch-and-shoot triples per game
- Example Players: Luc Mbah a Moute, Rudy Gay, Andre Iguodala, Kent Bazemore, PJ Tucker
- Outliers: Harrison Barnes, Joe Ingles, Khris Middleton
- Note: Middleton and Ingles stood above the rest, and more three-point attempts per game would have pushed them into the Goldilocks Cluster
Cluster 2: Mad Decent
- Average Z-Score: -0.50294
- Average 3P%: 32.09
- Average catch-and-shoot attempt per game: 1.7828
- Definition: Players who are poor or average in shooting or defense
- Example Players: Jamal Crawford, Rodney Stuckey, Rashad Vaughn, Monta Ellis, Kelly Oubre Jr., Sam Dekker, Richard Jefferson
- Outliers: None
Cluster 3: Goldilocks Cluster
- Average Z-Score: 0.30865
- Average 3P%: 37.468
- Average catch-and-shoot attempt per game: 4.7842
- Definition: Almost every player excels at defense or shooting, but the other skill is still at least decent. These are the reliable three-and-D players every team should strive to find
- Example Players: Otto Porter Jr., Klay Thompson, J.R. Smith, Bradley Beal, Danny Green, Robert Covington
- Outliers: DeMarre Carroll, Nicolas Batum, Josh Richardson
Cluster 4: Jason Kidd’s Court
- Average Z-Score: 0.67478
- Average 3P%: 13.9
- Average catch-and-shoot attempt per game: 0.825
- Definition: Affectionately named after Jason Kidd, who early in his career had no jumper or shooting touch. These are outliers based on their overall aversion to shooting threes
- Example Players: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Justise Winslow, Kyle Singler, DeAndre’ Bembry
Cluster 5: Lacking in the D Department
- Average Z-Score: -0.80705
- Average 3P%: 38.99%
- Average catch-and-shoot attempt per game: 2.8119
- Definition: All players rate below average in terms of defense but demonstrate above-average shooting
- Example Players: J.J. Redick, Yogi Ferrell, C.J. McCollum, Zach LaVine, Devin Booker, Andrew Wiggins, Allen Crabbe
- Outliers: Wilson Chandler, Gary Harris, Avery Bradley
- Note: Harris and Bradley rated poorly in defense, but probably shouldn’t and would be in the Goldilocks Cluster if they had scored higher
Cluster 6: Tony Allen’s Tough but Timid Shooters
- Average Z-Score: 0.59849
- Average 3P%: 27.486
- Average catch-and-shoot attempt per game: 1.1714
- Definition: Above-average to excellent defensive players, but lacking in shooting quality
- Example Players: Tony Allen, Andre Roberson, Dwyane Wade, Evan Turner
- Outliers: None
All of the players are flawed; if they weren’t they’d be superstars. But how adept they are at providing space and contributing on the defensive end defines how they are able to fit as a puzzle piece around their team’s primary pillars. Each player can find a niche in the league, but unless you’re a Goldilocks Player, it may have to be the right team.
For example: Jaylen Brown, of the Mad Decent cluster, rates as a middling shooter and defender.
On the Boston Celtics, Brown is utilized as a bench threat, a defensive foil or timely scorer in some situations. Though head coach Brad Stevens is working with a greater scheme to develop him into something more, his current fit as a three-and-D player is to take what opportunities are given to him. As a developing shooter, placing him on a team like the Chicago Bulls, bereft of effective passers and shooters, would force him to take on a greater burden and struggle. He’s not an elite knockdown shooter. He needs certain enablers to help him thrive in this three-and-D role.
The job of a front office is not just to find superstars; it is collect and develop these kinds of the effective 3&D role players. Every team needs at least four 3&D role players that can be relied upon to shoot and/or defend in order to compete for a playoff berth.
Most players don’t start their NBA careers as effective shooters and defenders. But front offices constantly seek out players who may be able to develop down the line. They must rely on their coaching and developmental staff to get their young wings the rest of the way there.
Teams that can pair Goldilocks Players with their superstars are the ones with the versatility, spacing and defensive chops needed to win in the playoffs. It is no coincidence that the Bulls, who feared wing play may be an issue before this past season, had no player in the Goldilocks Cluster and only two who hit the 300-minute qualification threshold. Jimmy Butler was omitted as a superstar, and while shooting isn’t a strong suit, he didn’t benefit from having wings who could rotate defensively or shoot at a high level from the perimeter when he needed help. Meanwhile, the wing-heavy Houston Rockets had two in the Goldilocks Cluster (Trevor Ariza and Eric Gordon) and five total three-and-D players who hit the minutes requirement.
Teams that are able to acquire effective two-way wings have found assets whose value doesn’t diminish in the playoffs.
As much as there is a fit for men in each cluster, a player’s effectiveness and value to his team changes in the playoffs. A famous example is Tony Allen. His inability to shoot severely handicapped the Memphis Grizzlies in the playoffs, as his position in the offense enabled the opposing team to load the paint.
This was one of the biggest issues throughout the grit-and-grind Memphis Grizzlies era. In order for them to play one of their eight best players, they had to sacrifice on offense. Over and over, teams would create situations like the one above, where Allen (with the ball) would be lightly guarded and see a paint littered with bodies. Whether the rock was in his possession or his teammates (see video below), his appearance on the court made it more difficult for his team to score.
Allen, located on the bottom right, is left alone in the corner as his teammate has to force a more difficult layup than necessary because Allen’s defender does not respect his jumper.
The three-and-D role encapsulates what a supporting-cast wing player should be in the NBA. He must view creating space and playing defense as his primary objectives. If one or the other is not his strength, his time on the court may be used as a detriment to his team on either the offensive or defensive end.
Below is the list of three-and-Ders by cluster for each team. Feel free to see how your squad fared:
Notes on Clusters
- The numbers displayed are pared down to feature only catch-and-shoot attempts per game
- Some players that may have been expected to be in one cluster were placed in another. Khris Middleton and Avery Bradley’s omission from the Goldilocks Cluster popped out. My hypothesis is that Middleton’s low number of catch-and-shoot attempts and good, but not great, defensive scores pushed him out. Bradley also rated surprisingly poorly on each of the defensive metrics.
Follow Ryan on Twitter @jarvrt14.