ANALYSIS: In a make-or-miss league, which Nets will make shots?

In the NBA, offensive efficiency tends to win in the playoffs. But what determines offensive efficiency? The single most important factor is shooting. As pundits are fond of reminding us, it’s a make or miss league.

As a result, true shooting percentage is one of the most underrated statistics in basketball. Like effective field goal percentage, it takes account of the added value of 3-point shots; but it goes a step further by also taking account of the value of getting to the line and making free throws. Over the past two seasons, there is a very strong relationship between teams’ true shooting percentages and overall offensive efficiency (points scored per 100 possessions). A few teams have done noticeably better or worse than one might expect based on their shooting proficiency, but offensive efficiency generally rises or falls in lockstep with true shooting percentages.

The Nets’ recent fortunes are quite consistent with the overall pattern. In 2020-21 the best true shooting in the league (.611) produced the best offensive efficiency (118.3). In 2021-22, the 11th-best true shooting percentage (.576) produced the 11th-best offensive efficiency (113.6).

The most important factor in that decline was 3-point shooting. The Nets took fewer 3-point shots last season (31.9 per 100 possessions, down from 36.0) and shot them less accurately (their 3P% fell from .392 to .361). Their two most prolific 3-point shooters in 2020-21, Joe Harris and Kyrie Irving, both missed most of last season, Harris playing only 14 games and Irving 29. Meanwhile, the 3-point-shooting role players were traded (Landry Shamet ) or let go (Jeff Green, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Tyler Johnson) or lost their touch (Blake Griffin regressed from .383, well above his career average, to .262, well below). The only saving grace was the addition of Patty Mills, who made a team-leading 227 threes—more than Harris, Irving, and Seth Curry combined—while shooting .400 from beyond the arc.

Even better than threes, the best shots in basketball are shots at the rim. The Nets were worse last season in that area, too, taking fewer shots within three feet (down from 23.6 to 21.8 per 100 possessions) and making fewer (.659, down from .693). Nic Claxton and Andre Drummond only took about 70 percent of their shots at the rim (compared to DeAndre Jordan’s 88 percent). Bruce Brown’s shots at the rim declined from 51 percent to 39 percent, Griffin’s from 41 percent to 34 percent, Irving’s from 20 percent to just nine percent. One reason for those declines is that a less potent 3-point offense allowed defenders to better protect the rim.

Last season’s Nets did excel in mid-range shooting. LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Durant, and Seth Curry were all among the league’s most prolific and accurate mid-range shooters. Unfortunately, even unusually efficient mid-range scoring tends not to be very efficient. Despite his mid-range prowess, Aldridge’s true shooting percentage ranked 49th among NBA centers, because he took just 21 percent of his shots within three feet, a remarkably low percentage for a big.

Will the Nets regain their offensive dominance next season? Obviously, their prospects hinge on who is on the team once the off-season chaos subsidies. But the histories of the players currently on the roster provide some clues about where shooting could come from. Below, I’ve projected each player’s contribution to the team’s offensive efficiency based on his career true shooting percentage and shot volume. (For those following along at home, this is the player’s career true shooting percentage minus the 2021-22 league average of .566, multiplied by 2, multiplied by field goal attempts per 100 possessions adjusted for free throw attempts.)

Then, there’s a bit of a dropoff…

Not surprisingly, Durant—a versatile and very efficient high-volume scorer—is the biggest projected contributor. Irving also takes a lot of shots, but over the course of his career he has been only slightly more accurate than last season’s league average. (His true shooting has been better with the Nets, .604, which would be worth an additional 1.6 points per 100 possessions.)

Harris and Curry are both high on the list of projected contributors, a testament to the value of accurate 3-point shooting. So are Claxton and Day’Ron Sharpe, a testament to the value of taking high-percentage shots at the rim.

Another point these projections make clear is that “scorers” subtract from offensive efficiency if they are below-average shooters. Cam Thomas is a case in point. Some fans have suggested that he could play a big offensive role off the bench next season. But unless his accuracy improves dramatically, every shot he takes away from his teammates—even those who project as reserves—will make him a bigger drag on the team’s offensive efficiency.

Of course, none of this is set in stone. Ben Simmons, TJ Warren, and Edmond Sumner have all missed a year—or in Warren’s case—more and may need time to regain their form. Last season’s rookies, including Thomas, may improve. However, big jumps in true shooting are rare, and more often reflect improved shot selection than across-the-board improvement. Claxton is a good example. His true shooting percentage has improved significantly from year to year, not because he has become a better shooter, but because he has stopped attempting shots he seldom makes. (As a rookie, he already made 80 percent of his shots at the rim, but those were only 52 percent of his attempts; last season they were 70 percent of his attempts, while his attempts from beyond 10 feet fell from 19 percent to just two percent.)

These projections take no account of likely differences in playing time. Barring trades or major injuries, the guys near the top of this list are likely to play a lot more than the guys near the bottom, pushing the team’s overall shooting efficiency even higher, if not to the league-leading level of 2020-21. On the other hand, if Durant and Irving are struck off the list, even ignoring the likely negative impact on the shooting efficiency of the remaining players, the Nets look much more like an average or slightly above-average shooting team.

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