Much of the new-age thinking has been applied at the offensive end. Houston is probably the archetype of this analytics-based approach, with a philosophy centered around layups, threes, and free throws. Of all these shots, corner threes are the most efficient. NBA players sank them at a 37.7% clip this season (slightly down from the 38.6% and 39.0% rates from 2015 and 2014, respectively). That's 1.131 points per possession, which is just above the Warriors' mark for offensive excellence this season (1.125 PPP).
I wrote about it last week and it bears repeating – the secret is out on corner threes. Every team is trying to take them. Most teams try to prevent them. The debate around threes from the short corner is a fairly interesting one. Those who advocate for a wider court cite the market inefficiency that exists in the corner. A wider court would theoretically allow the three-point arc to be what is should be – an arc – rather than having straight lines extend 14 feet from the baseline before intersecting the semi-circle.
It doesn't take more than a tape measure to see why players excel in the corner. Most of these shots are about 22', 4''-8'' from the basket, much less than the standard 23'9'' on above the break threes. NBA players shot just 34.9% on such shots in the 2016 season.
The corner three has long been a part of teams' offensive and defensive gameplans, but its influence is not only limited to the court. With free agency approaching, organizations endeavor to find and accurately evaluate talent. And guys who fit the "3-and-D" trope are the hottest commodities. Yet many times, these players are not elite shooters – rather their percentages are inflated due to a steady diet of corner threes. Kent Bazemore (an upcoming UFA) is squarely in that camp, as his shot chart indicates (data via StatMuse).
Take just a cursory glance at his year-long numbers, and one can easily conclude that Bazemore has blossomed into a semi-efficient, high volume shooter. That is not necessarily wrong, as he upped his 3PA from 1.8 to 4.1 per game while maintaining a fairly steady 3P% (36.4% in 2014-2015, 35.7% in 2015-2016). But the process behind his improvement is obscured by that results-centric analysis.
Bazemore's role with the Hawks transformed this season in the wake of DeMarre Carroll's departure. He started 68 of his 75 total games, and his MPG shot up from 17.7 to 27.8. He became a crucial part of Mike Büdenholzer's offense, often serving as an ancillary shooter. For a second consecutive season, Atlanta's pass-heavy offense generated the most wide-open three point attempts in the league (per SportVU data). Bazemore often found himself alone behind the arc. Of his 4.1 3PA per game, 3.1 were catch-and-shoot attempts.
Golden State notwithstanding, Atlanta may have the most distinct offensive style in the league. It has many parallels with San Antonio's offense in years past. Guys pass up good shots for better ones. Everybody is constantly moving. While these principles may sound like clichés, they manifest themselves on the stat sheet. Atlanta assisted on 66.3% of made field goals, the second highest rate in the league. They ran back cuts at the 7th-highest frequency. And 54.1% of their FGA's were in catch-and-shoot situations.
It's hard for a wing to be indoctrinated into Büdenholzer's offensive philosophy. Tim Hardaway Jr. serves as a reminder of that. The third year wing racked up DNP-CD's for weeks, and was on a short leash when he did play. Bazemore endured similar treatment last season before figuring out his role within the offense. Once given the opportunity, he flourished. Perhaps it just takes wings a year of apprenticeship before Büd trusts them with the offense. But while it's difficult to carve out a role on the Hawks, it may be even harder to maintain efficiency in another scheme. Which is where Bazemore's shot chart comes in.
He shot 41.5% from the corners, but just 30.1% elsewhere. That's one of the biggest disparities in the league, and looms large as free agency nears. Teams will have to figure out whether or not he can succeed outside of Atlanta. Is he a good enough shooter to improve from above the break? Or has he prospered from his role within the Hawks offense, and will falter on another team?
Bazemore is not the only upcoming UFA who fits this mold. Wesley Johnson had a passable season for the wing-starved Clippers, and is due for a pay raise come next season.
Johnson's shot chart is even more stark than Bazemore's. He's absolutely knockdown from the corners, shooting 44.2% on the year. Outside of those two zones? That drops to a laughable 21.7%. He is literally twice as efficient from the corner compared to above the break.
Rarely entrusted with much this season, Johnson's role was clear. He primarily stood in the corner in order to space the floor. Occasionally he would shoot, and was never asked to create off the dribble. Of his 3PA this season, over 90% were catch-and-shoot. Over 40% were wide open attempts. And 48% them came from the corner.
Bazemore will probably fetch over $14 million/year on his next contract, and will be asked to create off the dribble. No one is figuring Johnson into that role, which is why there is less concern surrounding him. He can serve as a corner specialist on any team. His shot chart may look the same next season, regardless of what team he is on.