The NBA’s Changing Art of Mid-Range Jumpers
The mid-range jumper is dead.
Well, maybe dead is too strong a word. But at the very least, it’s locked in Adam Silver’s basement like an NBA version of the Annabelle doll.
Equating the mid-range game and a demonic toy may seem audacious, but is it really? With the way we ostracize teams and players who still jack up shots that aren’t three-pointers or layups, the comparison is more apt than you may think.
Over the last 15 years, an inverse relationship between mid-range jumpers and offensive rating—one covered extensively—has emerged. In 2002-03, teams averaged 29.8 attempts per game from the mid-range. This season, that number is all the way down to 18.5 (Mike D’Antoni’s Houston Rockets shoot fewer than eight per contest).
That decrease has led to NBA teams posting the highest offensive ratings the league has ever seen. On average, teams have a 108.6 offensive rating in 2016-17, up five whole points from 2002-03, when that average was 103.6. For good measure, the Golden State Warriors currently lead the league at 114.1, which would be the best mark in league history.
In essence, shooting fewer mid-range jumpers makes your offense better. It’s an obvious point and, quite frankly, a boring one. Instead, let’s dig deeper by looking at a few players actively trying to buck the trend. They’re revolutionaries, refusing to succumb to today’s shooting rules.
They dare to be different.
The player who immediately comes to mind —a true renaissance man for his insistence on hucking up shots from mid-range—is Demar Derozan. On the season, Derozan is averaging 10.3 shot attempts from that area, which is more than the Rockets and just 0.5 fewer than the entire Brooklyn Nets roster.
Despite his willingness to fire away, he’s still No. 23 in win shares, ahead of All-Stars such as John Wall and Kyrie Irving. His total points added (TPA, per NBA Math) is a healthy 23.19, which outranks guys like Carmelo Anthony and three-point gunner Klay Thompson. And if we look at just his offensive points added, he ranks 31st in the league.
Furthermore, his team, the Toronto Raptors, currently boasts the NBA’s second-best offensive rating at 111.6.
What gives? How is possible for a team with a player shooting that many “bad” shots to still be so efficient?
It doesn’t hurt that Derozan is one of the best mid-range shooters in the NBA. Of every player averaging over five attempts per night from that zone, he ranks No. 11 in efficiency by shooting 41.9 percent.
The rest of the team’s general avoidance of this area also aids him. Kyle Lowry shoots fewer than two mid-range jumpers per game. In fact, everyone else combined averages just 10.7.
Raptors head coach Dwane Casey does a great job spreading the floor around DeRozan, thus giving him room to attack players one-on-one. More often than not, that leads to him getting a bucket or finding a teammate for an easy opportunity.
Derozan’s distributing is also underrated. He’s averaging just under four assists with a respectable 19.8 assist percentage, which you can see with these pinpoints feeds to Lowry and DeMarre Carroll:
He isn’t the only rogue out there, either.
We can’t forget about guys like Blake Griffin or C.J. McCollum. The former does almost all his damage from the mid-range (or near the basket), and the latter is the NBA’s deadliest shooter from that same area. Among players attempting at least five mid-range jumper per game, McCollum ranks first, making an absurd 51.2 percent.
Each of their teams rank in the top 12 for offensive rating, and both are among the leaders in TPA—92.96 and 71.87, respectively.
For that matter, we can also bring up the San Antonio Spurs. Their 110.2 offensive rating is fifth in the league, and they’ve reached that elite mark despite attempting the third-most mid-range jumpers per game.
Exceptions to the rule do exist. But unless you’re a player as freakishly versatile as DeRozan, Griffin or McCollum, or are a team coached by Gregg freaking Popovich, you should probably still avoid the mid-range jumper at all costs.
The Forefathers of a More Efficient Style
Just as players and teams go against the trend today, various others did so in the 1990s and 2000s. But their rebellion was against the mid-range, not in favor of it.
One team jumps out while searching through NBA.com’s historical databases (which unfortunately only go back to 1997): the 1997-98 Los Angeles Lakers, coached by Del Harris.
Those Lakers attempted just 15.1 mid-range jumpers per game—an obscenely low rate for any NBA team in the ‘90s. For reference, that mark would be the fifth-fewest attempts per contest in today’s game, which shows just how advanced Harris, a basketball savant, was in his thinking. Not only that, but they also shot more corner threes per contest than all but two teams.
With their renegade style, the Lakers found massive success. They went 61-21 and took out the defending Western Conference Champion Seattle Supersonics in the second round of the playoffs, though they’d get swept by Karl Malone’s Utah Jazz in the following series.
Los Angeles’ offensive rating that season was a robust 109.2, which would rank No. 8 in today’s NBA. But if we look at NBA Math’s era-adjusted model, which adjusts to a shifting league average to tell a more accurate story, that number is even more impressive.
The ‘98 Lakers’ adjusted offensive rating is 106.57—the No. 17 mark in league history.
Shaquille O’Neal, Harris and the rest of the team were about 20 years ahead of their time. But let’s also not forget the coach was replaced by Phil Jackson and his triangle, mid-range-oriented offense just two seasons later.
Harris was Icarus, and efficient offensive basketball was the sun. He simply flew too close.
More recently, Stan Van Gundy’s Orlando Magic teams in the late-2000s provided another example.
Those were the squads that surrounded Dwight Howard with four shooters, and they also found plenty of success. In back-to-back years beginning in 2007-08, the Magic were dead last in mid-range jumpers attempted per game, at 17.0 and 19.5. They instead bombed away from the three-point line and bullied the opposition with Howard’s thunderous alley-oops.
Not coincidentally, that approach took them within three games of an NBA title in 2009, and their adjusted offensive rating in 2008 (103.53) would have ranked fifth last season.
But once again, their trailblazing ways received pushback from both pundits and the rest of the NBA.
Analysts like Charles Barkley still lecture about how teams that shoot mostly three-pointers can’t win championships, and the abandonment of the mid-range jumper wasn’t fully supported until the mid-2010s, when the analytics boom took effect around the league.
Now, teams still recklessly firing shots from the mid-range (looking at you, New York Knicks) are seen as the outsiders. It’s a different era in the NBA, one that’s helping teams shatter offensive-rating records.
But who are the new pioneers? The Rockets, who sometimes seem like they’d rather throw up a half-court heave than shoot a simple mid-range jumper? The Spurs, who valiantly stand in the face of change and launch effectively in the area from which most teams are fleeing?
No one knows, but most would speculate the future is in the former.
Follow Frank on Twitter @frankurbina_.