The playoffs are in great shape with an ever-changing postseason landscape. Game-by-game scheme and emphasis changes highlight the spirit of strategy and game planning. With all eyes on a subset of games, it only makes sense that some of the most competitive exhibits and the most talented in the world are seen as a lens of understanding.

Every April for the past five years, the same thing has come up: Analytics has changed the game. Their application led to efficiency, moved the defenses and reshaped the dimensions of the court. Its impact cannot be overstated, although the way they are showcased can sometimes be overdone.

Some quick math: The league average for three-point percentage per basketball ref was 35.4 percent during the 2021-22 regular season. Factoring in that per possession, the league average shooting from distance is worth 1.06 points per possession. By comparison, the league average on shooting/getting to the edge (0-3 feet) was 68.1 percent this season, which equates to 1,362 points per possession.

These stats don’t filter out transition plays and wide-opening shots, but I guess that’s part of the point as well. If your low-man on the low side and gets cut back, you’re giving up an absurdly effective shot to the rim, a shot your defense will do everything in their power to account for. If Steph Curry or Jordan Poole lose their man in a relocation to the slot, their defense also does everything to take that into account and tries to erase that mistake, or at least make it harder to shoot. There is no one-size-fits-all approach.

The three points on volume and without hesitation force the defense to close, and the varying degrees of shooting efficiency and the multitude of ways a player might be able to shoot their shot further alters how the defense protects them.

Again though, it’s less than the three-pointer here, and that’s where the debate over the value of two-pointers versus three-pointers falls short. They go together. While looking at the offense from a top-down perspective, magnifying singular possessions and drawing useful data from them, it makes the organic, inorganic.

You lose the seasoning of what makes a possession a possession. The why, the how, the confluence of events that bring you here. This isn’t to denigrate the data in the slightest, but it’s so important to put that data in context.

Let’s step back a bit and consider how analytics are changing the way defense protects players and teams. That’s the key here. I would rather think of applied analysis as a real estate agent than a crushing overlord for TNT broadcasts to make me angry. For the past decade, we’ve basically watched the league live in a good-sized house only to find the revelation of “Wait, we got a basement?”

It’s a question of space! It is what it is ! It’s not about numbers, metrics, or three-point rates going up. Hitting three is fine. Using all three as a tool to remap the ground is what really stands out. Instead of those 18ft loops across a million screens for Rip Hamilton (art, literal freakin art btw) we have Steph Curry performing double pins, elevator screens and the like. to potentially launch from 29 feet. Again, it’s about the potential, the threat.

The three-pointer is, of course, a useful and essential finishing tool, but some of the early stoppers and offensive jumpers that oscillate between feeling forced and forcing your dad to turn off the TV are poorly looked at.

I don’t mean to say they can’t be frustrating, but there’s a reason why some staff emphasize those looks. Think of it like a punch in boxing. Is this the coup de grace? Heck no, but you can’t just run around throwing overhand rights in hopes of winning a title fight. There must be a configuration. It must be trickery and craftsmanship to unlock and open what is most desired: efficient buckets.

“Efficient Buckets” has a whole other world of meanings. The applied analysis certainly reduced the mid-range looks, but not entirely. The best of the best still live there, and perhaps with greater efficiency now that the ground is more evenly distributed, allowing key operators to flourish or pitch their vision.

What’s effective certainly has broader trends that follow for the most part the entire league, but no doubt it depends on the player. Some players may have minimal verticality around the edge, so the slightest contest to the basket can relegate them to a subatomic percentage to the basket. However, they might also be one of the fastest shooters in the league, so a three is more effective for them. Another player might have a 43-inch vertical grip and a willingness to shoot, but they might also have the ability to zap just about anyone. Again, there are trends, but it always depends on the staff.

Looking at this through the lens of multiple possessions or actions, it’s worth trying to sum up the entirety. As mentioned earlier, space is key. Unlocking the ground puts more and more twist/tension on the defense.

Season

Median discs per game

Records high per game

2013-14

33.4

42.6

2014-15

35.7

47.4

2015-16

38

50.7

2016-17

37.9

49.4

2017-18

41.8

52.9

2018-19

44.5

55.1

2019-20

46.5

57.4

2020-21

46.4

61.7

2021-22

44.1

61.7

(All data courtesy of Second Spectrum. Median belongs to the 15th ranked team and High belongs to the first ranked team this season.)

This is the biggest change due to applied analysis, and what I want to highlight the most. It’s easy to lose the plot of the process, and I would say the process is the most important part. The change of pace certainly contributed to more overall possessions, which is worth noting.

How the floor is spaced now is history, though. It’s less than three points and two points and more of what a well-spaced floor with remapped dimensions can allow: traffic lanes (and traffic lanes in abundanceto this).

Timing and speed in decision-making remain paramount as more and more players, regardless of role, need to be able to do reads. As size begins to reshape the terrain again (which I would consider the next evolution to come), it’s even more about having meaningful size. Every player has to handle the ball to some degree. Each player must be able to pass to one degree. No, not everyone will be a primary option, but if you look at some of the best prep schools in the country, you’ll notice how many players are able to do a bit of everything. It sounds incredibly devoid of nuance, but it’s true. The big ones might not be pilots, but they can grab and go. They can do one or two dribbles and a quick decision. If they are open, they pay attention to the defense.

The San Antonio Spurs have been revelatory in observing and understanding the capitalization of space. Don’t get me wrong, they’re not a great offensive team, but they’ve shown a lot of offensive principles over the past few seasons. Although they have struggled as a shooting team, they regularly play a four-wing formation that builds practice after practice after practice. Often possessions will occur with two or three closings attacked repeatedly and evictions with a quick relocation to restart the process. Part of the reason they needed them is their lack of a high power finish and how easily paint can be applied to them. But again, that’s part of the point.

It’s not about twos or threes and their “value”. Rather, it’s about how a shot opens up the field and how it allows teams to shape defense like offense.

The offense is fluid and changes depending on the personnel on each side. It’s not geometry or statistics; it’s an organic architecture, constantly in motion, with both teams trying to capitalize and minimize space, time, and advantage. It’s awesome. It’s much more about the constant push-pull to take up space or not give up an inch. It’s about who can get the other to tie their arm behind their back first.

Basketball continues to evolve slowly but surely in real time. It’s evolving even faster when we zoom out and look at the game on a larger scale, and changes are certainly on the horizon as the game continues to adapt and grow.

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