Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Season Preview — Nowhere to Go But Up: How the Grizzlies Could be a Better Three-Point Shooting Team

Posted By on Wed, Oct 17, 2012 at 7:59 AM

Three-point shooting — okay, and back-up point guard — is to this successful iteration of the Grizzlies what a true “big man” was to Jerry West's version: That elusive target, constantly pursued, never obtained. The back-up point guard job seems to have been shored up this summer, while personnel moves related to outside shooting seem, on the surface, to be lateral at best. What are the chances the Grizzlies could actually improve their three-point shooting this season? Let's sort it out.

The Way They Were

Last season, the Grizzlies were among the NBA's least prolific and effective three-point shooting teams, finishing 25th in three-point field-goal percentage (.326) and 28th in attempts (12.9 per game). And these lackluster shooting numbers weren't outliers. This has been the norm in the three seasons since the Grizzlies, abetted by the Zach Randolph-Marc Gasol post tandem and Lionel Hollins on the sidelines, have clawed back to NBA relevance. In the team's 46-win 2010-2011 campaign, the Grizzlies were 27th in percentage (.333) and last in attempts (11.3). The prior season, in which they broke out of the basement on the way to 40 wins, they were 26th in percentage (.337) and last in attempts (12.4).

Though Hollins does not emphasize three-point shooting, these struggles have been much more a matter of personnel than strategy, the result of rosters heavy on post scorers and slashers but without anyone you would consider a significant three-point specialist, and more significantly, without multiple good shooting options with which to spread the floor.

Last season, the Grizzlies built their lackluster team three-point performance from this, with negligible contributions from Gilbert Arenas, Jeremy Pargo, Josh Selby, Sam Young, and Josh Davis:

O.J. Mayo — 36% on 4.2 attempts per game
Rudy Gay — 31% on 2.7
Mike Conley — 38% on 2.6
Quincy Pondexter — 30% on 1.1
Tony Allen — 31% on 0.4

Going and Coming

Though three-point shooting was identified as a major need this offseason, losing Mayo and having little financial flexibility limited what the team could have done to address it absent a major trade.

Instead, the primary personnel difference this season in regard to three-point shooting will be replacing Mayo in the guard rotation with a couple of viable shooters in Jerryd Bayless and Wayne Ellington.

Here's what Bayless and Ellington did from three-point range last season, for Toronto and Minnesota, respectively:

Bayless — 42% on 3.4 attempts per game
Ellington — 32% on 2.1
Combined — 38% on 5.5

Bayless' 42% three-point shooting was above his career 35% mark and seems likely to decline. But Ellington's 32% was almost as much below his career 38% and thus seems likely tick back up. Assuming some regression to the mean for both players, their combined percentage is likely to still be somewhere around that 35-39 range. And if you also assume that Bayless and Ellington's combined minutes are likely to be down slightly from last season's 41.8, then their attempts are likely to land pretty close to Mayo's 4.2 as well.

So, purely in terms of three-point shooting, exchanging Mayo for a Bayless/Ellington combo is likely to be a push for next season.

Returnees

This means that if the Grizzlies are going to get better from beyond the arc, that improvement is more likely to come from returning players than new additions, especially from the three incumbent rotation players with three-point ability — Mike Conley, Rudy Gay, and Quincy Pondexter.

“We need Rudy to shoot a higher percentage, Quincy to shoot a higher percentage, Mike to continue to shoot a high percentage, and then Ellington and Jerryd to shoot well,” Hollins says, asserting that improved three-point shooting has to be a group effort. “That's what will make us a good three-point shooting team, if most of our perimeter players are shooting well. If you only have one or two guys, you're probably going to shoot a low percentage from threes.”

Any conservative projection has to assume similar production for Conley who, over the past four seasons, has put up percentages within the relatively narrow range of 37% to 41% on attempts within the remarkably narrow range of 2.6 to 2.7.

With Gay, by contrast, there is reason to assume improvement. Gay's 31% was a career low and was driven down by a horrendous 0-19 shooting slump in the spring. Gay's previous low was 33% and his career high is 40%. In half of his six seasons, he's been right around his career average of 35%, a percentage that has to be the most reasonable expectation for this season.

What isn't reasonable is to assume Gay will shoot the three more frequently, even if his percentages bounce back. Gay's been between 2.5 and 3.1 attempts per game for four straight seasons and Hollins doesn't want him relying too much on long-range shooting.

“Rudy's not really a three-point shooter. He can get it going and make some, but he's a slasher, a driver, who can pull-up in the lane and use his athleticism,” Hollins says. “That's his game, so we aren't counting on Rudy to stand on the perimeter and shoot threes.”

Pondexter is not really considered a three-point shooter, but the hunch here is that that will change to a decent degree this season, with the third-year swingman a good bet to increase both his three-point shooting percentage and number of attempts.

Pondexter shot 36% from three as a rookie in New Orleans in limited minutes — everything with Pondexter comes with a small-sample-size caveat — then landed on a new team that had come to de-emphasize long-range shooting. He struggled to find a role in the Grizzlies offense early, shooting only 20% from three on 0.6 attempts per game before the All-Star break. After the break, however, Pondexter started to get more comfortable and find his spots better, shooting 34% from behind the line on 1.7 attempts per game the rest of the way. He shot 37% from the corners on the season.

“When you look at the first part of the season, he was just traded here and didn't know anything and only in his second year,” Hollins says about Pondexter. “It could be a little bit overwhelming. I never emphasize the three. I emphasize spacing and playing. He got more playing time [in the second half], but I also think he got more comfortable. There are guys standing out there who won't put them up when the ball comes to them, but if you're comfortable shooting threes you'll put them up and your totals will obviously go up.”

Through three preseason games, Pondexter is showing indications that he'll be a more prominent three-point shooter this season. Never mind the shooting percentage (40%) in such a small sample. More persuasive is how he's playing rather than how well. After taking 30% of his field-goal attempts from behind the arc last season, Pondexter has taken 45% of them from long-range so far in preseason. After putting up a three-pointer for every 14 minutes of floor time last season, that frequency had doubled in three preseason games, to one every seven minutes. Given Pondexter's ball-handling limitations and his regular-season trends as a three-point shooter last season, I feel pretty strongly that these initial pre-season patterns will carry over and that Pondexter is going to develop as the classic “3D” role player, one whose value is based on good defense and spot-up outside shooting, especially from the corners.

Reasonable Expectations and Potential for More

Based on the notion that the Bayless/Ellington combo will roughly duplicate Mayo's outside shooting, Conley is likely to be in the same range as his so-far-steady career norms, and that Gay and Pondexter are likely to be better (and Pondexter more prolific) from three-point range, a reasonable but conservative projection would have the Grizzlies slightly better as a three-point shooting team this season. But slightly better would still be among the league's worst.

If you want to be optimistic and think the Grizzlies could improve more substantially from long-range, there are, I think, three possibilities that could spur a bigger boost in three-point production.

For starters, while it's not realistic to assume more from Conley, I think the team might get it, for a few reasons. One is that I sense Conley may be better across the board this season. He looks stronger and more confident in camp and preseason and while people shouldn't put too much stock in that 5-5 three-point display Conley gave in the most recent preseason game, he absolutely looks ready to break out a little bit. What you can put stock in is that, with Jerryd Bayless on board, Conley will be freed up from his near-total ball-handling burden. We saw an example of that during Conley's three-point barrage against the Hawks last week when, in the backcourt with Bayless, Conley was able to leak out in transition and spot up for a corner three where Bayless, handling the ball, found him.

Secondly, the same factors I cited with Pondexter in terms of putting a greater emphasis on his three-point shooting could — in fact should — apply to Ellington as well. I wrote about this issue in some detail in an earlier post, where I outlined the difference between how Ellington has played so far in his NBA career and how the Grizzlies need him to play, essentially what the difference is between being merely a good three-point shooter and a productive one. On his career, Ellington has taken only 34% of his field-goal attempts from long range and has put up a three-pointer every nine minutes, both numbers too low for a player with such a good three-point stroke but such an otherwise limited skill profile.

As with Pondexter, the early — again, very early — indications are that this much-needed increased emphasis on three-point shooting may be coming. Ideally, Ellington should take, at minimum, 40% of his field-goal attempts from long-range, and it should really be more like 50%. In early preseason games, he's taken 56% of his attempts from three. And he can't keep going nine minutes between attempts. Through three games, his three-point frequency has been five minutes. Both of these numbers should be sustainable.

Another problem Ellington has had is that he's been much better from the corners (45% on his career) than from above the break (33%), but has taken nearly three times as many attempts from up top (162 to 64).

The Grizzlies have been among the league's least-prolific teams at taking corner threes, but with two All-Star level post players who are capable and willing passers and now with more viable spot-up shooters in the rotation, there's a chance for better spacing and ball movement in halfcourt sets, an area where early indications have been promising. And that dynamic could lead to the ball finding Pondexter and Ellington in the corners more often.

“The guys that we have have to make them, but I think it spaces the court a little better,” Hollins says of his deeper cast of potential shooters. “If they do shoot the ball the way they're capable of, it'll open up the inside more, and then the inside will open up the outside more. So potentially it's there to be a better three-point shooting team. Three-point shooting takes a group of guys, it doesn't take just one guy.”

And then there's the wild card: Josh Selby. The second-year guard doesn't have the reputation as a pure shooter, but his three-point barrage at the Las Vegas Summer League was breathtaking. Was that performance a fluke? Is it at all repeatable? No one can say, and Selby's bit to force his way into the rotation hit a speed bump in training camp with a sprained ankle that cost him the first three preseason games. Selby should be back in action starting tonight, and will start to build his case again that he could be the Grizzlies' best bet for bench scoring.

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