Ryan Anderson was one of the first big men to start shooting threes, and at his peak, he was shooting over 12 3’s per 100 possessions. This was efficient offense because Anderson was shooting them at 38.3% (1.149 PPP) between 2009-2018. This was part of a bigger theme of teams starting to take an increase of 3’s and have players such as Anderson who were there to primarily shoot 3’s. Besides this, Anderson created extra space, because defenses don’t want to leave someone like that open from three. As valuable as Anderson can be, Anderson should never be the primary option. Why? Simply put, Anderson cannot create shots with the ball and attack the rim. So what position did Anderson play? In my opinion, and offensively at least, basketball is a game of roles. What are the roles? Also, what is a valuable shot?
To understand what the roles are you need an understanding of what is a valuable shot. A valuable shot relies upon a few factors. How often you can make the shot, how many points the shot is worth, and how often you can get fouled.
For example, player X shoots 58.2% from the FT line. If every possession for the whole game player X went to the FT line and shot 2 FTs, you would have the best offense in the league. This is how awesome getting to the FT line is. So clearly getting to the FT line is very, very valuable. Sidenote, when a player’s scoring efficiency is judged, how often and how well they shoot at the FT line should be considered.
Going along with this, getting to the rim is also valuable because the average player will shoot around 60%-61% from the rim (0-3 FT). Once again this is efficient offense. Player X shoots 58.2% at the rim, and once again, this is still the best offense in the league, if this is the only shot taken.
What people forget is shooting a “midrange” is worth the same amount of points as a layup. DeMar DeRozan is considered one of the best “midrange” players in the league and he shoots 50% from the “midrange,” according to Dunks & Threes. Out of the 143 players who have taken enough 3’s, 121 of them shoot 33.4% or better. DeRozan shooting 50% from “midrange” is equal to 1.000 points per possession, and if this was the only shot in the offense, it would be the worst in the league. To quantify, 33.4% from 3 is equal to 1.002 points per possession, and although not good, it is still better than DeRozan’s “midrange.” To put it all into perspective, the Thunder score the least amount of points per possession and they score around 1.031 points per possession.
To beat that, you would need to shoot 51.551% from “midrange” or better or 34.367% from 3 or better. Shooting 51.551% from “midrange” on high volume is extremely hard while shooting 34.367% or better is not that hard. After this, you should have a good understanding of what constitutes a good shot. Later we will get into gravity, creating shots, etc. For defenses, giving up these low-quality looks will lead to a better defense.
Player X is the focal part of the offense, and his coach Coach A is deciding which player to start around Player X. Assuming Player X has the ball in his hands a lot, with whom would you want to surround him? Ryan Anderson, a perfect pairing! The defense would have the choice of playing no help defense on player X or leaving Anderson open for a 3. These players play different roles, but how can these roles be differentiated? I will try and separate into offensive and defensive roles.
Primary Creator: The focal point of the offense, and someone who the offense revolves around. Skilled shot creator, playmaker, and passer. In terms of the draft, projecting someone to be a primary creator is not easy as there are only a handful of players who can fill the role on a championship team. Something I will always reference is Russell Westbrook during his time during the Wizards. Westbrook’s athleticism was declining, and because of his lack of ability to make Catch and Shoot threes, be an effective cutter, and set screens, he was never going to be effective as someone who was not the primary creator. I said that Westbrook would be best suited as a bench player on a championship team where he leads the second unit and is playing with players who can play off the ball.
Secondary Creator: Oftentimes will play with the second unit, but someone who can also handle the ball and play off ball. I could lump a few of the none primary creator roles together, but I think the secondary creator also has the ball in his hands a lot. Simply in terms of ball-handling, the secondary creator needs to be able to attack with the ball and attack without an advantage. An elite secondary creator right now would be Kyrie Irving who not only can create open shots for himself or teammates with the ball but also knows how to play without the ball. Although some players are better suited as a secondary they are sometimes used as primary depending on the situation of the team.
Off Ball (Shooter/Slasher): In a dream world everyone would be able to shoot, cut, and screen. Oftentimes players who shoot the ball efficiently are not effective cutters/slashers and vice versa. Now cutting has to be done correctly where the paint is not clogged. Someone who can shoot the ball and understands how to move without the ball fills this role perfectly. To add on the ability to attack a closeout is also important. The last important two skills are the ability to be a good connective passer and a quick decision-maker. Everyone needs to know how to pass! Everyone needs to make quick decisions! Simply, if this player can make 3’s at a high level, attack closeouts, cut in a timely manner, and be a good connective passer he is extremely valuable. JJ Reddick made a perfect off ball player because he spaced the floor at a high level; as did Ryan Anderson.
Screener/Roller: Teams like players who can shoot, and yes those players are extremely valuable, but so are players who set good screens, finish at the rim, short roll, and get offensive rebounds. After watching some film, I was debating my thoughts on Derrick Lively. This was my second time watching him and I thought to myself how bad of a screen setter he was. This sounds weird, but his 3 point shot wasn’t good enough for him to play as an off ball player and he didn’t provide much other value. His screens got nobody open and he didn’t roll hard.
Being able to set good screens or occasionally “set” a ghost screen and knowing how to roll is extremely valuable. To go along with screening being able to be an automatic finisher at the rim is also very important. When a defense decides to double the ball handler off a screen or hedge, the ball handler will likely put the ball in the hands of the screener. Now at this moment, the screener will have a split second to make a decision with a 4-on-3 advantage. If a certain player can constantly take advantage of these situations, then the team will become a lot better in pick-and-roll situations. Lastly, in a game decided by very few points, every possession is extremely valuable so getting offensive rebounds are extremely valuable. Players who can get these extra possessions while still being able to get back on defense are very valuable.
Offensively there are three major factors: scoring efficiently, limiting turnovers, and getting offensive rebounds. Sometimes there needs to be a balance between these factors because you have to turn the ball over some to score and to get a maximum amount of offensive rebounds you’re going to have to sacrifice transition defense.
A “position” I don’t like is “stretch big;” in my eyes, you are either an off ball (a knockdown shooter) or your value as a shooter is greatly overstated. If I’m a coach, I don’t mind for example Myles Turner shooting 3’s. On the season Turner is shooting 33.3% from 3, so only 0.999 points per possession. Turner only shot 32.5% from 3 on open shots (nearest defender 6+ feet), which equates to 0.975 points per possession. On 3’s classified as open (nearest defender 4-6 feet), Turner only shot 36.0% from 3, which is respectable, and worth 1.08 points per possession. By no means bad offense, and late in the shot clock this is fine, but in general, this is not a great shot. However, Turner excels at finishing near the rim, because he shoots an awesome 74% from the rim and 78.9% from 0-3 feet. It is awesome finishing from the rim in general as his 74% from the ranks puts him inside the top 4% of all players. In general, that number is absurd offense as it is 1.48 points per possession. Now I am not saying Turner shouldn’t be taking any threes, but he should be taking a majority of his shots at the rim. I don’t like the modern positions to begin with, but the one with the most variation is the “point guard” position. Trae Young, Jalen Brunson, and Lonzo Ball all play the same position, yet they all have very different roles. Young is a primary creator, Brunson is a secondary, and Lonzo is an off ball. To some extent, they’re all good passers, and skilled players, but what separates players is the ability to create. Although many projected Ball to be a primary in the NBA, he luckily can be an effective connective passer and has developed into an efficient shooter from 3 off the catch as well. What can make a team truly elite is having an elite secondary, this is semi-obvious because having two elite offensive options will probably make the team elite. A primary creator who can also play off ball is also valuable especially when they play next to another superstar. In terms of projection, some might say they have two power forwards, but those players can play extremely different roles offensively. One could be an off ball yet the other could be a primary creator.
Defense is a whole different issue because every player has to do multiple things and every player needs to buy in. Just like very few players can single-handedly create a good offense, even fewer players can make a great defense. For the simple part, offenses can often manipulate matchups. No matter your perimeter defenders, defense is built from the paint. Having a game-altering rim protector is the single most important defender on the team. This doesn’t always entail blocking shots, but being able to alter as many shots as possible. I just want to highlight that blocking shots doesn’t automatically make you a great rim protector. If you can block shots without fouling or jumping too often then it is great, but some players will block a lot of shots though their block shot total doesn’t represent their value as a rim protector. On ball defense is also important. Primarily, on-ball defenders are players who are laterally quick and oftentimes long for the simple reason that their job is to make it hard for the offense to get past them and/or shoot over them. They also need to navigate screens well, because screens are extremely common. The issue is the offense can set a ball screen and now there is a mismatch. To some extent, everyone needs to be able to guard the ball. Lastly are non-rim-protecting off ball players who do a good job of playing help defense, rotating, and in general playing strong defense. If players who are awesome on ball defenders can also play good off ball defense, the defense takes a massive step up. Below are my attempts at creating roles.
Rim Protector: The prototype is someone who can alter shots at the rim while also doing a decent job defending the pick and roll and not being a total liability as a perimeter defender. Oftentimes the rim protector is the most important player in determining defensive success.
Secondary Protector: Similar to how a primary creator needs a secondary creator to help create shots, having a second player who can help protect the rim is extremely valuable. This player needs to be able to be solid defending the pick and solid as a perimeter defender. Some of the best defenders in the league function in this role because they can be the secondary rim protector while being elite POA (Point-Of-Attack or On-Ball) defenders.
Perimeter defenders: So this is by far the widest range, but I’ll explain. These players can have vastly different skill sets, but at the end of the day, if you aren’t protecting the rim, you’re on the perimeter. Two skills can create elite perimeter defenders. The first one is elite POA defenders. Simply put, players who can guard the league’s top primary creators are not easy to come by and having someone who can guard them, especially defenders who can guard all shapes and sizes, is valuable. Unfortunately for defenses, offenses can manipulate matchups using screens and other tactics so defenders must also be able to play good off ball defense. The second skill is off ball defense In basketball, good help means different things, it could mean “no middle” or “force middle.” In general, teams filled with good off ball defenders make elite defensive teams. No matter how good your POA defense is you’re going to have to help and make rotations. Being able to rotate, stunt, etc. helps a lot. Although not ideal, even if you can’t play good “POA” defense as long as you are solid as an off ball defender, you aren’t a complete liability.
For a defense to be successful, like an offense, it needs players to fit different roles.
No singular statistic can define a player’s value, because basketball is a situational game. Basketball is a game of points, where one point can make a huge difference. A singular hockey assist (secondary assist) or a stunt will never show up in the box score but could be the difference in a win or a loss.
Combining players who fit different roles and mesh well together is a winning formula.
*Some numbers mentioned are from earlier in the season.