Danny Green continues to light it up in this year’s NBA Finals against the Miami Heat, shooting an unheard of 67.9% (19-28) on threes in the Finals. Frustrated Heat fans might be cursing Mike Miller and Dwyane Wade for drifting too far from the Spurs sharpshooter, like Wade does in the picture above, instead of sticking close so that they can contest his jump shots.
But could they actually be following the game plan and intentionally leaving Green open?
As you might expect, not many people would like to leave an opposing team’s three point gunner wide open. But for the Heat’s situation, it might actually be their best option in some scenarios. The Miami Heat defense is known for its swarming ability to force turnovers. It, like all NBA defenses, relies on solid communication, rotations, effort and talent to disrupt the offense.
Most important for the Danny Green scenario are the defensive rotations. Anyone who has played basketball can attest to the fact that defense is not all about preventing your own man from scoring. Rather, it’s about limiting as much as possible the opposing team’s scoring, irrespective of whose man scores and whose man doesn’t score.
When Heat players help hard on pick and rolls, drives and cuts to the basket (especially by Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili) and post-ups (especially by Tim Duncan), they disrupt the Spurs offensive efficiency much more than when they stick to their primary assignment, like staying on Danny Green. But is there a way to verify or quantify this reasoning? We can see with some insights from STATS, LLC’s SportVU data.
The SportVU data uses cameras originally designed for Israeli missile tracking technology to track the X and Y coordinates of all players and referees on the court 25 times per second, as well as the X,Y and Z coordinates of the ball 25 times per second, allowing us a much more detailed picture of what is happening on the court at all times. The cameras are currently installed in 15 of the 30 NBA arenas and, as such, the data is incomplete, but it still allows us to analyze parts of the game otherwise unavailable.
According to Brian Kopp, Vice President of Strategy & Development and Head of the Sports Solutions Group at STATS, over the course of the season the Spurs as a team have shot 39% on threes when the defender was 4+ feet away, and 30% when the defender was closer than 4 feet to the shooter.
However, Danny Green shoots 44% when the defender is 4+ feet away but that only drops to 41% when the defender is less than 4 feet away. This contrasts hugely with players like Gary Neal, who shoots 40% on threes when open, dropping to 31% when the defender is less than 4 feet away.
Of course the Heat don’t want Green, with his exceptionally high three point percentage, to shoot threes in the first place. But because his drop in his percentage from open to guarded is not quite as big as one might otherwise expect, it makes more sense for Heat players guarding Green, which has included Wade, Miller, Ray Allen and LeBron James, to help hard on other players getting close to the basket.
Allen does so in response to the Kawhi Leonard-Tiago Splitter pick and roll above, causing James to rotate to Allen’s man on the perimeter and leaving Green open for the eventual three.
Even though the outcomes of the small sample size so far have been bad for the Heat in this situation, knowing that staying on Green won’t make quite as big a difference as helping on the drive, pick and roll, cut or post-up gives the Heat a strategy to minimize the Spurs offensive efficiency overall, even if it lets Danny Green take a bunch of open threes.
By no means do I know for sure that the Heat are playing this way, but it presents an interesting way of thinking of how to solve the problem of minimizing an opponent’s offensive efficiency. If the data shows that allowing one player to go off gives the benefit of limiting the team overall, it’s a strategy worth pursuing.
Screenshots via http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TxxD122GVwc
Georgetown University Class of 2016