Small-Sample-Size Theater: How success from mid-range is still possible

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If you were like me and predicted a decline in Tony Parker’s production, you had good reason. Between all the games he played over the summer and the build-up of mileage on his legs, the San Antonio Spurs said their point guard was going to be re-acclimated slowly to start the season. After all, this was supposed to be a breakout year for Kawhi Leonard. So far, Parker has once again been San Antonio’s star.

And the numbers haven’t changed a bit. He’s still playing 33 minutes a night, he’s still averaging 20 points on better than 50 percent shooting, and he’s still dropping seven-plus assists per game. He hit the ground running on opening night, and it’s a good thing that’s the case. San Antonio has struggled badly without him on the floor, so the fact he’s the only Spur that’s currently averaging more than 30 minutes a contest is probably a result of necessity.

San Antonio is shooting 50.7 percent when Parker is on the floor and 39.7 percent when he’s not. When Parker’s on the bench the Spurs have an offensive-rating differential of -12.7 points per 100 possessions. It’s not rocket science to say the Spurs are better off with their star point guard on the floor, but for a team with such apparent depth, the discrepancy shouldn’t be this pronounced.

How has Parker been so effective while others really haven’t? Well, his jumper is falling, for one. Much like he did early last season, Parker has issues finishing around the basket. He’s converted just 45.7 percent of his shots within five feet, but he’s currently locked in from mid-range, especially from 15 to 19 feet. Parker’s current 76.5-percent mark from that area isn’t going to last, but you’d expect the rest of the team to elevate their own numbers.

(Warning: This Tony Parker shot chart might be offensive to the analytical, statistically driven basketball mind.)

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The Spurs are shooting just 33 percent from outside the paint as a team when Parker is off the court, down from 40 percent when he’s running the show. That’s big, considering 30 percent of their shots are coming from mid-range. Now, barring some calamity, this all will change. Last year, San Antonio shot 47 percent from the floor when their starting point guard was on the bench. This team’s ability to keep the system operating when its key cogs are out of the picture is one of its most admirable characteristics, so you’d expect that rhythm and timing to be back soon.

But for now, Parker’s brilliance in the mid-range pick-and-roll is a thing to behold. He’s been doing it for years, but the way he works around screens never gets old. His eventual game-winning 18-footer against the Suns on Wednesday night was a perfect example of it.

 

 

Parker figured out how to get great looks from the least efficient area on the floor, but he’s become elite from that range over the last two seasons. And it makes sense. Not only have offensive game plans been geared more toward inside shots and corner 3s, but defenses have now been fine-tuned to defend the rim and the corners. Parker (who’s never been a great 3-point shooter) mastered the mid-range jumper and he’s having no issues getting into the cracks and finding open spots in the defense.

It’s all part of the continuing evolution of his game. He’s no longer the ankle-snapping speed merchant he once was (though he’ll certainly blow by you), but he’s craftier than he’s ever been, and his jumper has never been better. He shot a career-best 47 percent on mid-range jumpers last season, and he’s at 56.5 percent on 23 such attempts so far this time around. Again, that number will drop, but we’re bound to see the rest of the roster pick up the slack.

As a smarter, more efficient brand of basketball grows more prevalent, teams that intelligently utilize the mid-range area will be the most difficult to defend. The Spurs have found a way to successfully use those spots on the court while still limiting them. Whether it’s Parker darting in and out of picks or strong-shooting big men popping off the screen action, San Antonio is making sure the defense accounts for all areas of the floor.

We saw Parker’s shot kill Western Conference teams in the postseason, and it forced Lakers, Warriors and Grizzlies big men to leave the basket and step out of their comfort zones in space, where the Spurs’ point guard is lethal. As long as Parker continues to make defenses pay in that middle ground by hitting his shots, the rest of the offense will catch up soon.


Stats courtesy of NBA.com.