It is a much different era of basketball. The amount of information available to the public is vast, and there is more and more added to it each day. The average fan has exponentially more knowledge about the numerical meanings behind each play than we could have even fathomed 20 years ago. This isn’t a shockingly new concept, the NBA is only a microcosm of the entire pool of issues we have added access to. It’s just in basketball, like everything, the pursuit of knowledge is hopeless and eternal.
As a result, many have fallen in love with certain player types that we hadn’t even identified in the past, with names coined by their specific roles. The rim protector, the 3-and-D guys, and many other roles have emerged as NBA buzzwords. The chase for efficiency is a valiant one. What offense wouldn’t want to make a few tweaks to be more efficient? It would be silly to strive for anything else.
At the macro level of basketball, this is pretty black-and-white. The most efficient offense is the best. End of discussion. And that is how it should be.
At the micro level, the picture gets more gray.
As detailed here — and here, because more samples to give to the reader is good — the relationship between usage and efficiency at a player level is a tricky one. A low-usage player finds it easy to be much more efficient than a high usage player through simple concepts such as shot difficulty, fatigue, and defensive attention. It is much more surprising to see Shane Battier take a shot than LeBron James, nothing breathtaking.
But the point that seems to get lost — as pointed out in that first link — is the incredible difficulty of raising a player’s usage without watching the entire offense to cave in like a white dwarf going supernova. Throw out two 3-and-D guys, two rim protectors, and a passing point guard, and you don’t just create a system of ball movement that becomes basketball utopia. Eventually the natural selection of the league will make a player become more of a higher usage guy, and that typically results in their abilities being put into question by the masses.
There are exceptions, like in most rules. James Harden raised his usage up a couple notches to 29% and still was able to put up a 60% TS% — though, I find it easy to be able to point out his 66% true shooting the year before was far superior, but that is besides the point. And Tracy McGrady was able to transcend statistical common sense and was able to up his usage and true shooting after he left for Toronto for Orlando. While these prove that the task at hand isn’t impossible, there are plenty of Paul George type cases — who went from an effective three-and-D to an offensive focal point after the Danny Granger injury — that show that going down that road is certainly tough on both the player and the team.
So, why hate the gunner? Sure their unconscious aura with the basketball is frustrating, but somewhere down their basketball path their behaviors were reinforced. Is it frustrating to see Rudy Gay clank another 20-footer to the tune of 49.4% TS%? Yes, it is excruciatingly painful. However, for team reasons and for player reasons this is a cross they have to bear. It is an evil, but it is also a necessary evil.
Look around the league, there are plenty of examples. DeMarcus Cousins, Monta Ellis, Brandon Jennings, Greg Monroe, and Gay — to name a few — are all players that would be much better served in a different role of some kind, but just weren’t able to fill that role for the time being. Some chalk it up to a lack of data being around the front office and in the locker-room, which certainly would impede this kind of behavior from going forward, but the fact that they were on their rosters last season doesn’t help.
If every team had a LeBron or Kevin Durant to eat up the number of possessions they do while scoring at Hall of Fame rates, then they certainly would build their offenses around those players versus a Monta Ellis type player. However there are 30 teams in the league, and not even half of them come close to sniffing a title. Being a focal point in any offense is a hard job in the NBA, and just because a more human player tries to fill it doesn’t mean building blocks of the sport just change. Someone’s got to do it, and being a human punchline all at the same time is hard.
Should you love that guy who has a less substantial role on the offensive end any less? Of course not. The kind of potential they show on both ends of the floor in short bursts makes a soul think about the sport harder than anything else this sport exhibits. It’s just not an evil thing to be wrapped up in the pure innocence we once had for the gunner. They are the bane of statistic movements in many ways, but are also in many ways the facilitator for the stat-sheet stuffing wunderkinds we adore.