the midrange is having a moment
in each of the last two postseasons, offenses have made the midrange a point of emphasis
The shot making in the midrange by players like Chris Paul and Khris Middelton in this year’s playoffs has some people wondering, is the midrange back?
I wouldn’t go that far, but I do think it’s fair to ask if were in the midst of subtle change in the way playoff teams approach shot selection. The chart below shows the proportion of shot attempts by distance from the hoop in each postseason since 2000.
Before this season, the percentage of shot attempts taken between 16 feet and the three point line — so-called “long midrangers” — had declined every year for 12 straight years. But this postseason teams are taking just as many long midrangers as they did last postseason. Meanwhile, the proportion of shot attempts taken between ten and 16 feet — so-called “short midrangers” — is actually trending upward.
The significance of this part of the court — sometimes referred to as the “floater zone” — has increased in part because more defenses are relying on schemes that goad offensive players into settling for floaters and pull-up 2s. Think of Brook Lopez backpedaling and daring Trae Young to take a floater that is typically reserved for games of HORSE.
Last year in the playoffs, teams took 10.4 percent of their attempts from the short midrange. That’s up to 12.1 percent this postseason, the highest mark since 2012.
So in nominal terms there has been a renewed focus in at least one part of the midrange.
But I think the main reason why it feels like the midrange is getting more play than usual is because the natural comparison point for fans is the regular season. And compared to this year’s regular season, the percentage of shots coming from the midrange — especially the short midrange — is way up.
During the regular season, the league as a whole took 9.6 percent of their attempts from the short midrange. Again, that’s up to 12.1 percent in this year’s playoffs.
Similarly, shots from the long midrange are up as well. Teams took 7.2 percent of their attempts between 16 feet and the three point line in the regular season. That number is at 8.1 percent in this year’s playoffs.
In the visualization below, teal areas indicate where there’s been higher proportion of shots coming from in the playoffs compared to the regular season. Meanwhile, purple areas indicate the opposite — areas of the court where we’re seeing a smaller proportion of shots coming from in the playoffs compared to the regular season. You can probably guess who’s responsible for the proportional increase in shot attempts coming from the right elbow.
But there’s also some survivorship bias at play here. This is just looking at league-wide values in the regular season and in the postseason. But the teams that make the playoffs are a smaller and materially different group than the 30 teams that play in the regular season.
For example, we know from Seth Partnow’s work that the midrange never died, it just became the province of star shot makers. Well, teams without star shot makers aren’t making the playoffs nearly as often as teams with them. So it makes sense that we’d see more of an emphasis on the midrange in the playoffs because there are more high-level shot makers on the floor than we would normally see in a typical regular season game.
But even when we look at the difference in shot distribution between the regular season and the playoffs just for teams that made the postseason in each year there’s still a bump in attempts coming from the midrange. Postseason teams have increased the proportion of their shot attempts coming from both the short and long midrange in each of the last two seasons. It’s not dramatic, but it’s real.
It’s possible that the differences here are driven by the fact that star players log more minutes in the postseason and as a result take more star-level shots as a percentage of all shots. But as Jordan Sperber recently explained in a video for the Thinking Basketball YouTube channel, modern defenses have rolled out the red carpet for shooters to take these kinds of shots. It’s a reasonable strategy over the course of an 82-game regular season when a defense can play the percentages and make adjustments as needed. But in the playoffs, when the margin for error is small, conceding these types of shots can result in four losses and an early round exit before you know it.