The numbers and myths of shot creation

Greg, our Houston Rockets expert, returns to talk about much more serious issue. Is there such a thing as a shot creator?

We’ve all heard announcers discuss the value of the rarest player of all – the shot creator. The shot creator, possessed of abilities beyond those of mere mortals (and even other NBA players) provides two key boons to the teams lucky enough to employ them:

  1. They are able to “get their own shot,” putting points on the board without the benefit of an assist to provide them an open look.
  2. They are able to take difficult shots when the shot clock is winding down.

If you’re a thinking fan, you’ll recognize that simply taking shots is no help to a team at all. In fact most teams get roughly the same number of shots a game. Players that “make their own shot” are really just those that do so without the benefit of an assist. Since big men typically depend on entry passes from guards to help them get a shot off, the working definition of a shot creator that is current in most NBA discourse precludes big men from the outset. Only guards and swingmen score many baskets without the benefit of an assist, and it is generally guards and swingmen who are left with the responsibility of chucking up a bad shot to beat the shot clock on failed possessions.

For looking at players that “create their own shot”, we decided to look at a few factors. First off, are there players who are able to create high-percentage shots on their own, without the benefit of an assist? Here are all the players with at least 100 FGA at the rim this season who have made at least 60% (league average is 62.6%, so this list includes all players who could legitimately claim to help their team by driving the basket) and who manage to score at least 50% of those baskets unassisted:
(Numbers courtesy of http://hoopdata.com/shotstats.aspx)

Name Team FGM FGA FG% % Ast.
LeBron James MIA 192 246 78 49.5
Kevin Durant OKC 130 177 73.4 46.2
Paul Millsap UTA 113 156 72.4 47.8
James Harden OKC 87 121 71.9 41
Kobe Bryant LAL 92 139 66.2 41.9
Dwyane Wade MIA 121 188 64.4 47.1
Derrick Rose CHI 113 176 64.2 19.5
Tony Parker SAS 106 166 63.9 20.8
Russell Westbrook OKC 153 240 63.8 22.9
Luol Deng CHI 75 118 63.6 49.3
Monta Ellis GSW 102 162 63 43.1
Mike Conley MEM 83 132 62.9 19.3
Tyreke Evans SAC 163 260 62.7 34.4
Rudy Gay MEM 131 210 62.4 48.9
Carmelo Anthony NYK 89 144 61.8 34.8
Chandler Parsons HOU 76 124 61.3 42.1
Ty Lawson DEN 101 165 61.2 34.7
Kevin Love MIN 141 234 60.3 47.5
Kyrie Irving CLE 106 176 60.2 24.5
Alonzo Gee CLE 62 103 60.2 45.2
Kyle Lowry HOU 76 127 59.8 26.3
Paul Pierce BOS 76 127 59.8 46.1

Note: I included two players whose percentages round up to 60%.

You might notice that, although two big men do appear on this list, it is populated mostly by guards and swingmen. Aside from the demographics, it seems that there in fact are some players who are able to create high-percentage shots for themselves unassisted.
However, the primary argument in support of the value of shot creators depends upon the second ability noted above: the ability to rescue his team at the end of failed possessions by taking difficult shots to beat the shot clock. Someone has to take these shots — or so the argument goes — and so it is unfair to judge shot creators by their overall shooting percentage, when their percentage is affected adversely by shots which their teammates decline to take.

Without specific data on end-of-the-shot-clock shots, I propose to examine two categories of shots which, between the two of them, include most end-of-the-shot-clock shots as a subset – long, contested 2-point jumpers, and 3-point shots. Although the following two charts only correlate indirectly with the supposed shot creator phenomenon, the data will at least identify players who might be better than average at taking difficult shots. Here are the players with at least 80 FGA this season from 16-23 feet who have made at least 37.5% of those shots (the league average from that range) while having less than 50% of those baskets assisted:

Name Team FGM FGA FG% % Ast.
Stephen Curry GSW 54 89 60.7 31.5
Steve Nash PHO 65 111 58.6 16.9
Kevin Durant OKC 84 173 48.6 44
Luke Ridnour MIN 62 135 45.9 38.7
Chris Paul LAC 59 133 44.4 5.1
Jason Terry DAL 51 115 44.3 41.2
Jordan Crawford WAS 56 128 43.8 37.5
Nick Young WAS 83 190 43.7 38.6
Kevin Martin HOU 48 111 43.2 43.8
Mo Williams LAC 58 136 42.6 39.7
Jamal Crawford POR 61 144 42.4 27.9
Kobe Bryant LAL 126 297 42.4 45.2
Jose Calderon TOR 68 162 42 29.4
Deron Williams NJN 70 167 41.9 45.7
Russell Westbrook OKC 81 195 41.5 17.3
Derrick Rose CHI 38 93 40.9 15.8
Brandon Jennings MIL 49 120 40.8 10.2
Rajon Rondo BOS 33 81 40.7 30.3
Jrue Holiday PHI 61 152 40.1 29.5
Joe Johnson ATL 63 159 39.6 28.6
LeBron James MIA 85 218 39 24.7
Jarrett Jack NO 49 126 38.9 28.6
Darren Collison IND 36 94 38.3 16.7
Dwyane Wade MIA 51 133 38.3 51.4
Monta Ellis GSW 83 218 38.1 33.7
J.J. Redick ORL 33 88 37.5 48.5

Here is a similar list for 3-point shots, only this time I’ve listed the players with at least 70 attempts who have made at least 33.3% of them and had less than 70% of their makes assisted (I had to adjust the latter number upward, since the vast majority of 3-pointers are assisted):

Name Team FGM FGA FG% % Ast.
Kyrie Irving CLE 41 95 43.2 46.3
C.J. Watson CHI 38 88 43.2 68.4
Chris Paul LAC 41 96 42.7 51.2
Ramon Sessions CLE 23 54 42.6 47.8
Steve Nash PHO 38 93 40.9 36.8
LeBron James MIA 29 73 39.7 55.2
Gary Neal SAS 48 122 39.3 66.7
Kyle Lowry HOU 68 174 39.1 57.4
Jimmer Fredette SAC 45 115 39.1 62.2
Andre Iguodala PHI 43 114 37.7 67.4
Lou Williams PHI 51 136 37.5 56.9
Hedo Turkoglu ORL 67 184 36.4 64.2
Deron Williams NJN 88 243 36.2 53.4
Isaiah Thomas SAC 38 107 35.5 68.4
Shannon Brown PHO 24 72 33.3 62.5

The latter two lists are dominated entirely by perimeter players. These charts distort the shot creator phenomenon by treating all difficult shots as though they were shots at the end of the shot clock. Clearly, some of the players who attempt a high volume of 16-23 foot jumpers do so not because their team needs them to but because their shot selection is poor and because the NBA incentivizes scoring at the expense of efficiency both in player contracts and in media voting for league awards. However, since all can agree that every team sometimes comes to the end of the shot clock without being able to get a good look, the players in the lists above would be good options in such situations since they are able to convert end-of-the-shot-clock shots with average efficiency or better.

Unfortunately, many of these players come with a high price tag. Since we are unable to determine just how much added benefit accrues from above average conversion of end-of-the-shot-clock shots, it seems unwise to pay the high price for any of these players solely on the basis of their ability to convert these shots. As a pricing guide, consider the 12 players who appear on more than one of the three lists: Chris Paul, Steve Nash, Deron Williams, Kyle Lowry, Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Monta Ellis, Dwayne Wade, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James (who is the only player on all three lists). Kyle Lowry and Derrick Rose are the only players listed above who are available at an affordable price (except for Kyrie Irving, who is still on his rookie contract). The rest are currently making very healthy salaries. Since the effect of a shot creator’s abilities is indeterminate, and may thus be quite small, it would seem preferable to employ one of the cheaper players who is on one of the lists above and who can do things other than score: Luke Ridnour, J.J. Redick, C.J. Watson, Ramon Sessions, Gary Neal, Lou Williams, Isaiah Thomas, Chandler Parsons, and Alonzo Gee fit the bill.

However, the data does not support the shot creator phenomenon in general. There are only 12 players, listed above, who can genuinely be described as “shot creators.” There are a number of other players, not among the 12 shot creators, who make very high salaries and earn accolades primarily by virtue of their “shot-creation abilities”. For example, notice that John Wall, Danny Granger, DeMar DeRozan, and Rodney Stuckey are all among the top 50 scorers in the NBA (measured in points per game), yet fail to appear on any of the lists above. Carmelo Anthony and Nick Young are both highly regarded and well-paid players who appear on only one of the lists, despite the fact that most of their value comes from their scoring ability.

We can also conclude that the two parts of a “shot creator’s” description are not equal. Taking difficult shots at the end of the shot clock, while a part of the game, may not a sufficiently frequent occurrence to override the rest of a player’s contributions. In fact, we cannot even distinguish this specific contribution from poor shot selection, a decidedly negative contribution.

Creating high-percentage shots, on the other hand, is a certain positive. Players who are good at taking the ball to the basket increase their team’s chances of scoring, and thus of winning. As such, while teams might do well to identify players who can create high-percentage shots, it appears that end-of-the-shot-clock shots are indistinguishable from poor shot selection and may in fact be a quite minor part of the game. Teams should not overpay for “shot creators,” nor should shot creation be a viable defense for players with low shooting percentages.
Nota bene: Since “shot creation” is a valued aspect in most NBA front offices, a smart team might be able to increase the market value of their available assets by allowing players like these to have the ball in their hands more as the shot clock is running down. These are low-usage guys who can hit 16-23 ft. unassisted jumpers under the same parameters as before, except with 50-79 attempts:

Name Team FGM FGA FG% % Ast.
Jannero Pargo ATL 25 52 48.1 44
Courtney Lee HOU 31 66 47 38.7
Beno Udrih MIL 27 61 44.3 40.7
Sebastian Telfair PHO 24 60 40 12.5
Nate Robinson GSW 24 62 38.7 25
Greivis Vasquez NO 19 50 38 42.1
John Salmons SAC 30 79 38 33.3
Andre Miller DEN 23 61 37.7 13

Shot creation is a very interesting term. It seems more likely it is simply used to mask players that take a lot of shots, many of them questionable. When we look for players who are capable of playing basketball on their own (on offense) without the benefit of a team we con’t come up with many names. We’ll argue — as we always do — that teams would do better to focus on things that win games. It seems this is a better strategy than focusing on vague terminology applied to specific shooting scenarios.

-Greg

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