(Note: all stats are of January 26th)
In Part 1, we covered the large-scale evolution of the NBA, and the Milwaukee Bucks’ place in that movement. To sum things up, the Bucks under Jason Kidd were way behind the curve, while the Bucks under Mike Budenholzer lead the way. “Let It Fly” is more than just a hype-inducing slogan, it’s a movement.
What we want to look at now is how the three ball might treat the Bucks in the future; given what we know about Milwaukee and the other contenders in the Eastern Conference, using the arc to fuel your offense is probably the best way to pull off an upset. And yes, any readers who are fans of other franchises, your favorite team will be considered an underdog. That’s what happens when only one team has single-digit losses in late January.
The Bucks vs. The Field
To gauge the effectiveness and reliability of teams’ shooting performance, we need to look deeper than a simple season average. For example, Milwaukee makes 35.9% of their attempts from behind the line, which is just a hair above the current league average (35.5%). But that doesn’t come close to the whole story; the Bucks feel as likely to get hot as they are to go cold. And that feeling is backed up by the data: Milwaukee has had 9 games this year where they’ve shot below 30% from deep, and 11 where they eclipsed 40%.
That variance is precisely what we want to better understand, and it calls for combining the average with another measurement: standard deviation. We’ve leveraged this measurement a number of times before, but for anybody new to the concept, a standard deviation (shorthand for this article: “st.dev.”) essentially calculates how far apart the numbers in a range are. The smaller the number means that there’s less variance, which is an indicator of reliability. You want your st.dev. to be small, especially over a larger sample size.
Making these two measures work together helps us map out the state of the NBA when it comes to which teams are the most effective with three-point shots, which teams are most consistent, and what that might mean for their outlook for the remainder of the season and the playoffs. It also could clue us in on which teams are the most dangerous, depending on whether they depend on predictability (high accuracy) or unpredictability (high variance). The table below gives us a starting point, ranking the 30 NBA teams in terms of their current accuracy, as well as the standard deviation for their 3PT% on the season.
The Bucks are, as of today, right at the cusp of “average” and “above average” when it comes to accuracy (11th in the NBA, only 0.4% higher than league average). However, they are one of the league’s more consistent teams based on st.dev. (t-2nd overall, at 6.9%), which means that their ceilings and floors are closer together than the teams that are on the opposite end of the list.
Knowing where those ceilings and floors are is the key to good game-planning, and can be the difference between winning and losing. We’ve all heard about teams “shooting their averages,” but the truth is that teams rarely shoot exactly how they shoot when you compare all their games in aggregate. Instead, there’s a range that teams can expect to fall within and still have it be within the normal range of expected outcomes. That’s what st.dev. comes us; generally, a performance that’s within one standard deviation (above or below) is still worth planning for, since it’s relatively likely to fall within that window. So how big (or small) is each team’s window?
One of the more striking observations from this data is the lack of correlation between good teams and bad teams. Teams with the largest range (aka the widest variety of expected outcomes) include the lowly New York Knicks and neutered Golden State Warriors, as well as the West-leading Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers. Of course, the variance of three-point shooting can affect any team, at any time. Even the best shooters can have a bad night, and the worst shooters can have a flawless performance. Moreover, this is nearly impossible to predict! There’s a reason NBA players don’t hit 100% of their open shots; shooting threes is hard, and shooting them in-game is even harder, regardless of whether it’s contested or not.
But the benefit of having a smaller window in this context is that you can plan for it. If the percentages you’re working with include a narrower set of possibilities, flying the plane by pulling other levers gets much easier. This is where the Bucks find themselves, with one of the league’s highest floors and lowest ceilings in terms of three-point percentage. 8 of their 46 games (17.4%) have seen them shoot below the 29% mark (their season average minus one st.dev.), and only 6 games (13.0%) did they eclipse 42.8% (season average plus one st.dev.) That means that nearly 70% of the Bucks’ games are going to fall within that window (between 29.0% and 42.8%), which when combined with their mastery of the paint on both ends of the court, leads to winning a ton of games.
The Other Eastern Conference Challengers
When considering the Bucks’ potential playoff opponents, the field we’re legitimately concerned about only runs five-deep in the Eastern Conference. The Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat, Philadelphia 76ers, and Toronto Raptors are (as of January 26th) each within 2.0 games of one another, and the distance between the 6th and 7th seeds (8.5 games) is equal to the advantage the Bucks have over second place (8.5 games).
Of those five, Miami, Indiana, and Toronto are all in the top-5 in 3PT%, while Philly and Boston are much closer to average. However, it is Boston and Miami that have a lower-than-average st.dev, whereas Indiana’s is average, and Toronto and Philadelphia have a higher variance. An interpretation of these results is that Toronto and Philly are the teams that are more dangerous when it comes to three-point shooting...which is precisely what knocked the Bucks out of the Eastern Conference Finals last postseason, and what fueled the Sixers’ victory on Christmas Day. What’s interesting here is that Toronto has the eighth-largest window (18.0%), but still have one of the highest ceilings and floors in the league, while the 76ers’ window is only marginally larger (18.4%) but their floor ranks much lower overall (with an average ceiling).
On the other side, Boston, Miami, and Indiana (who also comes in dead-last in the NBA in 3PAr, indicating a lower reliance on threes) will have a more predictable set of shooting performances, meaning you can more safely assume what they’ll do and figure out ways to overcome it. Miami in particular stands out with one of the NBA’s smaller windows (in terms of expected 3PT%), but because they consistently shoot so well their floor is the 2nd highest in the league (29.9%). This tells me that, when comparing playoff opponents, the Heat are most likely to avoid going cold from deep...which makes them fairly dangerous.
While we’ve been able to glean some things about larger trends, using standard deviation in combination with shooting averages won’t mean as much when it comes to a playoff series. The sample of games (each team has played between 41-46 so far) is relatively small, and a seven-game series is smaller still. We may be in store for some surprises (which in this context, would assuredly be unpleasant) unless we look one level deeper, and that’s what we have planned for Part 3.
So let us know what you think, and what other questions you might have, below in the comments, and we’ll conclude this series later this week!