The Long Two and Josh Smith

The Long Two and Josh Smith

Sep 08

It’s been said that the “long two” is one of the worst shots in the NBA. In general, I believe that’s a fair statement, though certainly there are some exceptions to this rule. After all, some players excel in this area, and an open shot from just inside the 3-point line will at times be the best available shot on the court for a given team during a given possession; however, I do think it’s fair to say the long two is not a smart shot for an average NBA player during an average NBA possession.

The long two is a troubling shot for two basic reasons: 1) league-wide these shots only go in 37% of the time, which is a low value for a measly two-point attempt, especially considering that the league shoots 35% from beyond the 3-point line, which is just a step or two away (and those shots are worth 50% more points). 2) Those frequent misses are rebounded by the defensive team 78% of the time, which is among the highest percentages anywhere on the court; even missed 3′s provoke more offensive rebounds (23.6%) than missed long twos (22%). In other words, when you shoot a long two, your risk-reward ratio is too high.

Speaking of high-risk-low-reward phenomena, there was a time when an search for “Josh Smith” returned the following definition:
“Any ill-advised three point shot taken by a player who should be nowhere near the three point line.”

I swear I didn’t write that, but that’s not the point; it could have been me or millions of other NBA fans. Josh Smith is a wonderful basketball player, but his unique skills are too often hidden from our eyeballs. To be blunt, when his team has the ball he shouldn’t be anywhere near the 3-point line. It’s not just that he’s a below average jump shooter, which he is. The reason  Atlanta fans melt down when Josh shoots a jumper is dualistic: it’s a low-percentage shot AND he is a beast near the rim. Josh Smith is an above average scorer at or near the rim, and he’s one of his team’s best rebounders. Just like LeBron, who recently migrated inward (how’d that work out, you guys?), Josh Smith and the Hawks must realize that good things happen when he is near the rim. When you’re 6’8″, an above average inside force, and a below average jump shooter, it’s probably wise to hang out closer to the basket and leave those jumpers to your teammates.

His stats over the last 3 years show drastic shifts in shooting behavior, but the overall trajectory is not favorable. About 46% of Smith’s field goal attempts last season occurred from beyond 16 feet. That is up a few percentage points from two years ago when it was 43%, but it is way up from the 2009-2010 season, where Smith only shot 23% of his shots from beyond 16 feet. That season, Smith shot 55% of his field goals at the rim, and the positive effects are undeniable: he set career bests in FG%, assists, and offensive rebounds; good things happen when he is near the basket.

Smith’s 3-year run exemplifies the basic relationship between court space and FG%; most of time when we see a year-to-year fluctuation in a player’s FG%, it is likely the result of a spatial adjustment in his shot site selection. This is definitely the case with Josh Smith, whose FG% has declined steadily over the last few seasons. But this recent decrease in his FG% values has less to do with a declining shooting ability, and much more to do with a higher percentage of shots coming from less efficient areas. For many NBA players, including Carmelo Anthony, FG% is a direct spatial function that should be used to indicate WHERE they are shooting as much as HOW WELL they are shooting. When players like Carmelo or Josh Smith experience a decrease in FG%, it doesn’t mean they are declining as shooters, it means they are settling for more jump shots; a precipitous decline in FG% is often caused by a similar decline in at-rim opportunities.

Ok, so back to the long two, which for the purposes of this study is a shot that was released in the 2-point area within 3 feet of the 3-point line.

During the 2011-2012 regular season NBA players attempted almost 9,500 long twos; these shots accounted for 5.9% of all NBA field goal attempts. But some players shoot these shots at a much higher rate, some for good reasons, some for not so good reasons. Which players rely on the Long-2 the most? Well, 16.3% of Josh Smith’s shots qualify as long twos; this is the highest percentage in the league; here’s the top 10*:

1. Josh Smith ATL 16.3%
2. Byron Mullens CHA 15.9%
3. Channing Frye PHX 15.7%
4. Shannon Brown PHX 13.9%
5. Ben Gordon DET 13.2%
6. Gerald Henderson CHA 13.2%
7. Marco Belinelli NOH 11.9%
8. Kevin Garnett BOS 11.8%
9. Antawn Jamison CLE 10.4%
10. DeMar DeRozan TOR 10.2%
*Minimum 500 total shot attempts

But, like I said, long twos are not always bad shots; some guys make these shots at high rates. We can’t uniformly dismiss the long two as a dumb shot when there are guys who are really efficient from these areas. Conversely, we can definitely deem the long two a bad shot for guys who are reliably ineffective from there. So, who is best and worst? Remember, the league as a whole shoots 37% from these spots.

The most efficient long-2 shooters last year were*:
1. Leandro Barbosa IND/TOR 49.0%
2. Jose Calderon TOR 47.8%
3. Dirk Nowitzki DAL 46.7%
4. Kevin Garnett BOS 46.2%
5. Nick Young WAS/LAC 45.5%

The least efficient:
1. John Wall WAS 22.0%
2. Richard Jefferson GSW/SAS 27.8%
3. Tyreke Evans SAC 28.1%
4. Andre Iguodola PHI 31.3%
5. Monta Ellis GSW/MIL 32.0%
*minimum 50 long two attempts

Josh Smith makes 36.9% of his long twos, just under the league average. It’s hard to justify his extremely high usage in these areas when we consider just how good he is at or near the rim. Comparatively, Kevin Garnett’s name appears in both the most frequent and most efficient lists. He is perhaps the best exception to the long-two-is-a-dumb-shot rule for a few reasons. First, he obviously makes these shots at a high rate. But his ability to shoot and make this shot is really helpful for two other less apparent reasons:

1) Since he is often defended by the opponent’s biggest defender, it creates space in the paint for his teammates, including the great spatial negotiator named, Rajon Rondo. Garnett’s ability to make these long 2′s unclogs the paint and forces defenses to stay honest on pick and pop plays.

2) When Kevin Garnett shoots a long two, chances are it’s in front of the basket. When we examine his shooting clusters, we see his favorite jump shot locations are just inside the top of the arc, shaded a bit to his left. So what? Well, in the event of a missed shot by KG, a missed shot by one of his teammates, or some kind of turnover, when he is positioned at that long two location it means that he is much more likely to “get back on defense”. Garnett is one of the best defenders in the NBA, but he is aging, and by anchoring him in this location the Celtics and KG are in a great position for when offense quickly turns to defense. KG only has to run about 70 feet to defend the rim and/or prevent fast break opportunities. The reward is twofold: fewer miles on KG’s odometer, and a stronger transition defense.

All told, the long two is generally not a great shot, but at the same time it can’t be ruled out. In fact the ability to score from the long two areas is a powerful asset. Regardless, teams shouldn’t design sets that end with long twos, especially for players like LeBron and Josh Smith who clearly have more value near the basket: go to the paint, Josh.


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