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The NBA landscape is about to explode into a compressed fusion of free-agency. You can’t take two steps without tripping over a rumor about someone headed somewhere. For every rumor there’s also an opinion being offered on who fits where. I don’t mean to criticze, I’ll be doing my fair share of blathering in the next few days. I just find over-optimism to be the defining characteristic of many of these evaluations.
Reading through Chad Ford’s breakdown of the top 20 free agents, I found this blurb describing Marcus Thornton:
He’s undersized for his position, he isn’t a lights-out athlete and he struggles shooting the ball, but as far as pure scorers go, he’s one of the best young players in the league. While the Kings like him a lot, there may not be enough shots for him, Tyreke Evans DeMarcus Cousins and Jimmer Fredette. Look for teams in need of a scoring lift off the bench to make a run at him.
As a teacher who just finished parent teacher conferences, I’m familiar with the idea of balancing praise and criticism, but this seems extreme. How can you struggle as a shooter, and at the same time be counted among the congregation of pure scorers? The term pure scorer has also been used recently to describe Thornton’s fellow free agent, Jamal Crawford. How do you define a pure scorer and what have Crawford and Thornton done to deserve such gracious praise?
My first thought would be that a pure scorer is a player who can kill a defense from anywhere on the floor. Feel free to disagree with my placement of thresholds here, but I don’t think Crawford or Thornton fit that pattern. The table below shows their shooting percentages from each area of the floor last season and compares them to the league average. (Thornton’s numbers are the combination of his time with the Hornets and Kings.)
[table id=31 /]
I’m aware that league averages take into account all players, not just players at their positions or who fill their roles. Still, Thornton and Crawford don’t do much to stand out in terms of efficiency. Both are above average free throw shooters. Thornton is slightly above average from 10-15ft. and on three-pointers. Crawford is above average on mid and long range two pointers. Still there is nothing here that screams overwhelming scoring acumen.
So if their pure scoring ability is not manifested by delivering barrages from a variety of locations than it must appear in their potential to score in a variety of ways. My assessment of the possession data from Synergy Sports Technology says that isn’t really the case either.
Thornton ranked no higher than 33rd in offensive efficiency in any possession type. He was ranked in the top 100 in offensive efficiency for spot-ups, off screens and the mysterious “other” category. However those possession types accounted for just 27.7% of his total offense last year. 36.1% of his possessions were used on what I would typically think of as the domain of the pure scorer, isolations and pick-and-rolls as the ball handler. In those situations he averaged 0.85 and 0.78 points per possession, ranking 102nd and 106th in the league
The story is a little brighter for Crawford. He was ranked in the top 10 in offensive efficiency for off screens and hand offs, but they accounted for just 7.9% of his total offense. 47.8% of his offense came in isolations and pick-and-rolls as the ball handler. He averaged 0.88 and 0.86 points per possession, ranking 74th and 54th in the league. Crawford’s numbers are certainly better than Thornton’s but it’s hard to identify anything he does regularly that could be classified as elite.
I did locate one scoring associated area where Crawford and Thornton’s numbers were significantly above average, and that was the number of shots they took. Thornton was 18th in the league last season in FGA/40. Crawford was 52nd. The table below shows that broken down by location.
[table id=32 /]
I know it’s not good for my soul or general mental health to be spending so much energy railing against a euphemism, but the descriptor “pure scorer” being applied to either player seems overly generous . They’re pure scorers in that it represents the vast majority of their basketball skills, but I don’t think their skills in this area can be declared pure by nature. What they are is high volume, moderate efficiency scorers. Now that doesn’t quite roll of the tongue in the same way, but it seems to me a more accurate description.
There are plenty of teams who could use a pure scorer heading into next season. Unfortunately, some franchises may end up paying pure scorer money for high-volume, moderate efficiency production. I’ve been guilty of cherry-picking details and there are a few other positives for each. Crawford is a solid passer and could provide veteran leadership. Thornton is still young, and perhaps his shooting percentages haven’t yet settled into their career ruts. Some fans will say that their team would definitively be better off having added Thornton or Crawford in the next week. To me, acknowledging that either’s skill set fills a crucial hole, seems a soul-crushing acknowledgement of that team’s near future ceiling as “meh, pretty good.”
This is an endless debate that won’t be settled here, by me or anyone else. This is not a questions of specialist or versatilist. Both Crawford and Thornton are specialists, but their specialty is versatile offense of average efficiency. Is that preferrable to a specialist who provides hyper-efficiency along a single avenue? It depends on the situation, but it seems to me that the teams who are consistently successful are those who build systems requiring those singular specialists to succeed. My personal palate responds to special specialization, over broad versatility. I believe that’s why I find a dogged pursuit of Crawford or Thornton as midly distasteful.