For over a decade, analysts and journalists have fretted over the possibility that all basketball teams will start to play the exact same style, making a completely homogeneous game in which every game plays out the same way.
That possibility is now a reality.
In the 2010-2011 season, teams averaged 18.0 3PA/game, a .222 3PA rate. Both of those numbers have gone up every season, up to 34.1 3PA/game and a .384 3PA rate in 2019-2020, and the trend shows no sign of slowing down. In the 2020 playoffs? That jumped up to 36.3 3PA/game and a .427 3PA rate. The lowest volume 3 point shooting team this past season, the Pacers, finished at 28.0 3PA/game and a .317 3PAr. That would’ve been 2nd and 6th in the league respectively in 2014-15.
It cannot be overstated how massive of a change this has been in such a short period of time. Every team creates space with 3 point shooters, uses that space to get to the basket, and then either finishes at the rim or kicks out for 3. Just look at these team shot charts. Every year, I write about the importance of adjusting player value to fit the current NBA rather than an NBA that no longer exists, but it’s time to take it further.
Moving forward, all players need to be judged on how they fit into the very specific roles that exist in an NBA where teams will likely be averaging 40+ 3PA/game. How they fit into this year’s NBA is irrelevant. By the time they get off their rookie contract, the NBA game will be so different, so much further pushed in this direction. And this creates two major problems:
- The college game has absolutely no relation to the NBA game anymore, meaning very very few players get to show any of the skills that are actually relevant to the NBA game.
- 3P% is the single most important stat for success at the next level, but it is also the single most difficult to project and often does not stabilize until a player hits 25 or 26 years old.
Being good no longer matters. The criteria I used to judge players in 2014 when I first started doing this are irrelevant. The criteria I used to judge players in 2018 are irrelevant.
What is relevant?
Turn on any NBA game and you will see the same thing. A player stands in each corner. A player stands on the wing. A player stands at the top of the key with the ball. The last player is either a big ready to set a pick or a player on the other wing. Then, the player with the ball either jacks up a 25 foot 3 or takes the ball to the rim and gets fouled or kicks it out if help comes for an open 3. That’s it. Occasionally, a team will throw the ball to the player inside, who isos closer to the basket, but the most successful offensive teams don’t do that.
So, what you’re left with are very few positions:
- Primary ballhandler, who must be able to shoot the 3 at a high percentage off the bounce and must be able to find the open man to kick to when driving.
- Shooter, who must be able to hit catch and shoot 3s
That’s it. Those are all of the modern NBA positions. To succeed at the highest level, you usually need a Shooter on the court who can act as a secondary passer/creator, and a Shooter who can act as the Point of Attack defender, but they’re not separate positions as much as useful secondary skills. If you cannot fill one of these roles, you are not a useful offensive player, and if you cannot defend one of these roles, you are not a useful defensive player.
Which means, yes, traditional centers are no longer useful. Take a look at the DRtgs from this year’s playoffs. The worst teams? Dallas (Porzingis), Brooklyn (Allen), Utah (Gobert), Philly (Embiid), Denver (Jokic), Indiana (Turner), a group of fantastic rim protectors (and Jokic). The best teams? Toronto (Siakam), Boston (Theis), and Houston (Tucker), a group of Power Forwards who can stand their ground in the post but are far from the traditional center. Rim protection doesn’t matter if you are always 20+ feet from the basket, and in the playoffs, teams put traditional rim protectors in pick and roll over and over, generating either wide open 3s or wide open paths to the basket.
It also means that what makes a defender good has completely changed. Defense now requires the ability to provide some resistance if switched on to the primary ballhandler, a basic understanding of a few key defensive principles, and…that’s about it. Players who can’t defend at all can sometimes even stick on the floor by defending somebody in a corner, chasing them around, and scheming to avoid them getting pulled into the primary action, as the Heat did with both Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro.
This is all to say that scouting for the draft now is so very different than it was just a few years ago. Instead of 3P shooting being one of a few significant factors, it is now the only significant factor. If a player does not project to be able to shoot the 3 at a league average level, they don’t even belong on a draft board, because it is a required skill. I only have a first round grade on three players with a 3P% under 35% this season and two of them are centers who project to be able to add it to their game with time.
And being honest, it’s a lot less fun to do draft analysis when all that really needs to be written is “Can shoot and defend a little”. You can write thousand word pieces on these guys. You can do 10 minute video breakdowns. But all that really needs to be written is “projects to be a good catch and shooter who can hold his own on defense” for Shooters and “projects to be a good off the bounce shooter who can create for himself and teammates” for Primary Ballhandlers, with just another sentence or two of notes for all the secondary skills.
But hey, that’s where the NBA is at. So let’s just do the Big Board, eh?