60 percent True Shooting aint what it used to be
Here’s something so wild that when I first saw it (h/t u/ghrghr_) I thought I read it wrong: the list of the top 250 seasons by True Shooting Percentage includes 36 players from this season.
Let me say that again.
36 of the 250 most efficient scoring seasons of all-time are happening right now.
Things have been trending this way for a few years. Last year, Mitchell Robinson set the all-time single season record for True Shooting at 72.6 percent and now this year DeAndre Jordan (73.3 percent) will likely smash it so long as he takes the requisite number of attempts.
The league as a whole has seen a sharp rise in scoring efficiency in recent years. As of this writing, the league-wide True Shooting is 57.2 percent. That’s a little more than a half percentage point higher than last year and five and a half percentage points up from the 2000-01 season.
Since True Shooting takes into account points scored from 2s, 3s, and free throws1, it’s worth quickly reviewing how efficiency on each of those shot types has changed over the years.
The chart above shows the percentage point change in the league average two-point, three-point, free throw, and True Shooting percentage relative to the 2000-01 season. The league average conversion rate on 2s is nearly seven percentage points higher this season than it was 20 years ago. Meanwhile, the league average conversion rate on 3s has also increased, but less noticeably. However, since teams are taking more threes as a share of all their attempts, the rise in three-point efficiency contributes more to the overall increase in league average True Shooting than it might seem.
The majority of the gains in scoring efficiency have been captured in the last five years. In fact, scoring efficiency has increased so much and so quickly in the last couple of years that I haven’t taken a step back to rewire my brain to account for the change. As recently as this season I was still using 60 percent True Shooting as a rule of thumb to quickly distinguish the most efficient scorers from everyone else. That’s not a good rule of thumb anymore.
In 2016, Steph Curry became the first unanimous MVP by averaging 30 points a game while leading the league in True Shooting at 67 percent. One of the things that made Curry’s offensive season that year so special was just how far above the rest of the field he was in terms of scoring efficiency.
While 67 percent True Shooting would still be considered elite this season, it wouldn’t quite pack the punch it did in 2016. This year, there are 85 players2 with a True Shooting above 60 percent compared to just 27 in Curry’s unanimous MVP season.
I think this rise in scoring efficiency also explains why it feels (at least to me) like fewer players are labeled as “chuckers” these days. High volume, low efficiency scorers have been replaced with similarly high volume, slightly (in absolute terms) more efficient scorers. Which is to say, the new Baron Davis looks a lot more like Caris LeVert than you might have realized.
The folks over at Basketball-Reference recognized this issue long before I did because they recently added an “Adjusted Shooting” page to help contextualize scoring efficiency. There, you can view a player’s scoring efficiency relative to league average. For instance, after adjusting for the the league-wide inflation of scoring efficiency, Curry’s 67 percent True Shooting in 2016 would be roughly equivalent to a player with a 71 percent True Shooting this season.
Scoring efficiency inflation at the individual level trickles up to at the team level as well. Last year, the Dallas Mavericks set an NBA record for offensive efficiency by scoring 116.7 points per 100 possessions. This year, there are six teams with an Offensive Rating equal to or higher than last year’s Mavericks team and another two are within striking range. To see how teams rank in offensive and defensive efficiency relative to the league average, you can head over to pbpstats.com.
I’m not here to say that scoring efficiency inflation is good or bad (based on Ben Taylor’s recent interview with Evan Wasch, the EVP of analytics for the NBA, it sounds like the league is happy with it). Rather, the point here is to show how citing a player’s True Shooting or a team’s Offensive Rating without consideration of the overall distribution can be misleading, especially when making comparisons across seasons. Unless you’ve been aware of the rise in scoring efficiency and have been updating your mental heuristics accordingly, you can be fooled into thinking a player or team is having a better season than they really are.
The “haha j/k…unless?” fake trade of the week
I’d be a terrible GM. I make no bones about it. But we’re about a week away from the trade deadline so I need to fire off a couple of fake trades before they become irrelevant. These are two that have been on my mind lately.
If you believe the numbers, Justice Winslow is a monster defensive wing and would give the Nuggets a legitimate option to throw at the LeBrons, Kawhis, and Lukas of the western conference. Meanwhile, Brandon Clarke can either slide in next to Nikola Jokic in the frontcourt or act as a backup to him.
The Grizzlies are in desperate need of someone who can pull up and make threes and that’s all Michael Porter Jr. dreams about.
This is selling low on Michael Porter Jr. so Memphis should have to add draft compensation to even the scales, but don’t underestimate what it’s going to cost the Nuggets to get off Gary Harris’ contract.
Isn’t Larry Nance Jr. exactly the type of frontcourt partner you’d want to play next to Zion? He’s undersized for a Big, but has wonderful defensive instincts and his contract alone is worth the most valuable of the Pelicans’ many future first round draft picks.
I’m pro-Sexland, but I don’t see how much longer the Cavaliers can pretend a starting backcourt of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland makes sense. Move one to the bench and let’s see what Nickeil Alexander-Walker can do as a starter.
Find a third team to re-route J.J. Reddick for additional draft compensation and it’s a no-brainer for Cleveland.
State Of The Race
Alright, so this was a bad year to try and predict the MVP. When I first rolled out The F5 MVP Tracker I had this belief that someone would emerge as a clear frontrunner early in the season and would ride that momentum throughout the season. But that hasn’t happened this year.
Instead, what we’ve gotten is a legitimately awesome MVP race. Even better than in 2017 for my money.
I think you can separate the field of MVP candidates into three tiers.
Tier 1 MVP Candidates
Nikola Jokic, LeBron James, and Joel Embiid
This is the tier of candidates where I don’t need to hear why you think they should win. I already get it. All three have compelling cases and any reasonable fan would agree. Because of his injury, Joel Embiid is the most likely candidate to move down a tier, but early season impressions stick and as long as he doesn’t miss more than a couple of weeks he could still be in the mix.
If you believe the projected records for each team, then I think Nikola Jokic has the best case for ascending to a tier unto himself. FiveThirtyEight currently projects the Nuggets and Lakers to finish with the same record and if that happens then Jokic’s statistical case will be too overwhelming to ignore.
Tier 2 MVP Candidates
Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden
If you strip away voter fatigue, previous postseason shortcoming, narratives, social norms and other factors that shouldn’t have any impact on a regular season performance award, then both of these players would be in the tier above based on their on-court play. But because those things do matter in the eyes of fans, and more importantly votes, Giannis and Harden are in a tier below by themselves. I’d be totally fine if someone decided to vote for either of these players, but I’d like to know how they would rationalize it.
Tier 3 MVP Candidates
Kevin Durant, Luka Doncic, Donovan Mitchell, Kawhi Leonard, Damian Lillard, Jimmy Butler, and Chris Paul
You’ll hear a lot of “[Tier 3 MVP Candidate] belongs in the MVP conversation” over the next couple of months. Even though none of these players have a realistic shot at winning the award, I’d be fine with a voter casting a first place vote for any player in this tier (I have a very expansive view of the MVP award). But that ballot better come with a 500 word column that defends their vote.
The formula for True Shooting Percentage is:
Points Scored / (2 * (Field Goal Attempts + 0.44 * Free Throw Attempts))
Minimum 150 True Shooting Attempts