When people ask the brain trust of the Houston Rockets how the team is able to achieve success even though, on paper, it doesn’t look like much, they’ll often say, “Our guys know their limitations.” For instance, watch how little Chuck Hayes has the ball in his hands, and how rarely Shane Battier looks to take anything other than an uncontested spot-up jumper.
With a few exceptions, most rotation players in the NBA have skills and attributes on the basketball court people like you and I can’t imagine: the raw athleticism, the balance, the precision. Even the guys who aren’t particularly proficient from distance still hit shots at an incredible rate when you consider the speed and length of most NBA defenders.
But even these otherworldly talents have limitations in the context of the NBA game, and you know what?
Not every baller can be LeBron James or Kobe Bryant and perform almost every basketball task at a proficient level. The challenge for the other 275 or so players who log minutes on a consistent basis is to leverage their assets and attenuate their weaknesses. 94 percent of Joakim Noah’s shots come inside, because the guy knows he’s a 24 percent jump shooter. Gerald Wallace appreciates that he’s better off the dribble, so 2-point jump shots compose only 15 percent of his attempts — which is one reason his career PER stands at 17.5 (and that’s before factoring in his dogged defense).
Last season, Al Thornton’s jump shot/close range ratio was 64/36 — this despite the fact that his eFG percentage on jumpers was .367, and his eFG percentage on inside shots was a very, very nice .611. You don’t have to be an advanced statistician to understand the implications of these numbers, and why his shot selection hurt his basketball team.
But more important, these numbers also tell you that Al isn’t a lost cause. Like Baron Davis, what if Thornton redistributed his shots? What if he exploited his size, length, and flashy first step against flimsier defenders closer to the hoop?
Did you see Al last night? His performance was a revelation. He started his spurt with a terrific back door cut, resulting in a pretty feed from the perimeter from Craig Smith for an easy uncontested layup. A minute later, he beat Jeff Green to the rim, where he received another feed inside five feet for another layup. In the third quarter when Kevin Durant foolishly left Al to double Marcus Camby 20 feet from the basket, Baron swung the ball to Al, who attacked the rim with impunity for a vicious slam. On the night, Al went 7-for-8 from inside, earned another two trips to the line on his inside work, and was the x factor in the Clippers’ big road win.
Now for the bad news, though it’s certainly instructive: On shots beyond three feet, Thornton went 0-for-8.
Still, that’s 10 true shot attempts inside to only eight from outside, good for a 44/56 outside/inside ratio — that’s as good a shot selection as we’ve seen from Al in a long time. Overall for the young season, Al’s outside/inside ratio is down to 55/45, a marked improvement from last season’s aforementioned 64/36.
That distribution isn’t a coincidence. Frustrated with Al’s settling for long, contested jumpers, Mike Dunleavy has given Al an imperative — any time the defensive help sloughs off Thornton on the weak side, Al should dive to the basket. And when the opposing defense assigns a weaker defender at the 3, there are now sets in the Clippers playbook that utilize Thornton in the post (tomorrow will be interesting to observe if the Hornets stick Peja Stojackovic on Al). Now this still doesn’t solve the spacing problem, but there’s only so much you can do until Eric gets back — and this re-positioning of Al is a nice adjustment.
And that’s what you want from players and coaches — a recognition of a team’s (or specific player’s) weaknesses and the creativity to adjust accordingly.