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Shot Creation: Just How Important Is It?

280/365: New Lego Toys

Shot creation is a loosely defined term in basketball discussions that means different things to different people and in different contexts. But as a general matter, it describes the ability of a player to get a decent shot in isolation when set offensive plays break down or are blown up by savvy defenses. Shot creation, when defined this way, usually requires a certain baseline level of ball handling skill and speed with which to collapse the set defense all on one’s own or, alternatively, an ability to work efficiently from the post. The league’s best players are so overwhelmingly talented that, generally speaking, they are also the best at operating within these disorganized, talent-over-execution contexts.

I’ve often heard and read that the need for players with shot-creating, isolation skills increases in the playoffs as typically the defenses being played against are superior and, due to the extra time between games in the playoffs, those defenses have an ability to go with much more intensity in each game and also have a better chance to figure out exactly what it is their opponents wants to get and how to deny them. Certainly, the Miami Heat being the back-to-back champions of the league, with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh‘s reputations on their own as isolation killers, would seem to indicate that the conventional wisdom of the need for multiple “shot-creators” is still present. What’s interesting to me, though, is that there’s plenty of evidence that this isn’t the only way to win, even in the playoffs. In fact, the Miami Heat of the last two years are actually a great example of the principle I’m exploring here. The Heat of the last two years didn’t really make use of Wade and Bosh’s isolation abilities in the same way as in their first season together.

LeBron has become the fulcrum of the Heat offense, with Wade and Bosh, despite all their talent and accomplishment, becoming primarily an incredibly dangerous off-ball cutter and spot-up shooter, respectively. Of course, that’s not all Wade and Bosh do. When LeBron has to take a seat, having those two is incredibly valuable in keeping the rest of the role player flotsam that makes up the Heat afloat, by being able to draw the primary focus of the defense. But LeBron only rests a very small amount so Wade and Bosh have, essentially, become the world’s most talented and overqualified role players. Bosh protects the rim on defense and stretches the floor, keeping his man from occupying the paint. Wade opens up space for shooters and LeBron’s post-ups by being so dangerous off-the-ball that defenders are forced to sneak a peek at him from time to time. Those peeks provide all the time LeBron needs to fire a precise pass to a corner three-point shooter, duck into the paint for a lay-in or dunk, or deploy any of the many other weapons in his seemingly ever-expanding toolkit.

The Heat play this way not because Wade and Bosh couldn’t still dominate games using their isolation skills, but because it’s the most efficient deployment of the team’s talents. There’s only one ball and LeBron is by far the Heat’s best option with the ball in his hands. He’s the best passer, the best scorer, and really, the best everything, the Heat or anyone in the league has.  Surrounding LeBron with shooters and guys who can blow by defenders over-zealously closing out on the open looks LeBron creates is just the smart thing to do. In fact, it’s probably the smartest thing any team can do with its best player, provided that player is a good and willing passer (and if your team’s best player is not a strong passer that’s probably a pretty big problem with the construction of the team).

Going back a couple of years, the way the Dallas Mavericks beat the Heat, despite being clearly outclassed in overall talent, was to operate using a more efficient distribution method for shots and touches. While the Heat’s trio seemingly took a “okay, my turn to isolate” approach, the Mavericks used Dirk Nowitzki as the focus of the offense and surrounded him with shooters and guys who could dribble drive enough to get a shot at the rim or a wide open midrange shot.  They had ball handlers, to be sure, in Jason Terry, Jason Kidd, and J.J. Barea, but not anyone outside of Nowitzki that you would really call a shot creator. It didn’t matter. The floor was spaced, the ball moved, and the Heat for all of their defensive intensity and overwhelming talent, simply couldn’t stop the Mavericks.

Even this year, the Heat were six seconds away from falling to a team that they were clearly more talented than, the San Antonio Spurs. It seems weird to say that the Spurs, a team with future Hall of Famers Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan, was less talented than any team, but the Heat have LeBron and, due to his failing body and questionable decision-making, Manu Ginobili was, all things considered, probably a net negative for the Spurs with how he played in the Finals.

Still, the Spurs were right there and probably should have won it all. How were they able to accomplish that? Well, they had Tony Parker acting as their offensive hub, operating off the ball and on it, attracting defensive attention. Then, when Parker created opportunities, they moved the ball quickly, smartly, finding open shots from behind the three point line or at the rim. They managed to keep changing their offense, adding small little wrinkles to keep the Heat guessing just enough that, even with the advantages the playoff format confers on the defense, the Spurs were able to keep pouring in the points.

This understanding of how to best deploy and structure an offense is what is probably driving the three-and-D wing craze. Smart teams have come to understand that while it’s essential to have one or two star players who can act as the focal point of an offense, most players in the draft simply won’t be that guy. So looking for guys who can create their own shot and do it often, outside of the top half of the lottery,  is probably the wrong play. If you’ve already got one of those offensive centerpieces, the much bally-hooed shot creator, getting a player who can make open shots, competently dribble drive past a hard close-out, and become a plus defender at their position on a cheap rookie deal becomes very enticing, and likely the smartest play.

Basically, while shot creation is very important for team construction, not everyone needs that skill. In fact, most players do not need to be “shot creators” to be useful, good players. A team probably only really needs one person on the floor, at a time, who is really excellent at isolating or “shot creating”, so long as they have a sound offensive system based on off-ball movement, penetration, and spacing, and properly execute that system. Aside from each team’s offensive centerpiece, inflating a player’s worth based on his ability to create shots in isolation is unwise. Having more overall talent, and thus more players with one-on-one skills, is nice, as the Heat can attest, but even the league’s most talented team needed to re-configure their offensive system to make LeBron the centerpiece and the lesser talents orbit around him in order to maximize their full potential.

For an interesting look at these same sorts of ideas, check out this post from Nima Shaahinfar, “BLUEPRINT FOR NBA SUCCESS: How to Build a Team Greater than the Sum of Its Parts.”

Image from exalthim, via Flickr

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