For the last time, a midrange game is not important

Are you one of those people who bemoans the death of the midrange game? Do you find yourself nodding your head when you hear, “You have to guard him, because he can hit that 16 foot jump shot?” Are you constantly yelling at the TV when your team doesn’t guard the opposing stretch 4 outside the paint? If so, this piece is for you.

I know I’ve said this countless times before, but we are so much smarter now. It’s not just about what data we collect, it’s also about how we use data to think about basketball. Cliches that used to be sacrosanct are now consistently criticized. Some have legitimately been debunked. Some are well on their way to the same graveyard. Curmudgeons who grumble about how the game is not the same (ahem, Charles Barkley, Charles Oakley, or anyone else named Charles) are basically old men complaining about how they didn’t need cell phones when they were growing up. Nostalgia is adorable. Unimaginably greater communication capacity is better.

Just to prove how much smarter we are now, and what that increased intelligence means, I offer this example. That Larry Bird guy. He was really good. He shot threes like whoa and is considered one of the best shooters ever. Are you ready for me to tell you how many three point shots Bird attempted per game? It’s 1.9. Per 36 minutes he attempted 1.8. Per 100 possessions he attempted 2.4. In contrast, Patrick Beverley, that Patrick Beverley, attempts 4.4 threes per game this season. He attempts 5.8 per 36 minutes, and 8.0 every 100 possessions.

The reason for this disparity, of course, is we now know just how important three pointers are. They’re so important that even Patrick Beverley, who might as good at basketball as Bird’s left index finger, shoots them 3.5x more than Bird. Put it this way, if Larry Bird were coming into the league right now, do you think he would shoot fewer than two three pointers per game? It would be like Kyle Korver shooting 10x more two pointers and three pointers. We now know that would be an awfully inefficient distribution of possessions.

Enough historical blabbering, let’s drive a sword into the heart of this dying midrange dinosaur once and for all. Take a look at this table.

Shot type (past 5 seasons) Attempts FG% eFG%
Midrange 165,137 40.4% 40.4%
Three pointer 223,707 35.8% 53.6%

According to, over the past five seasons there have been 165,137 attempted midrange shots (any two point shot between 16-24 feet away from the basket). The FG% on those shots is 40.4. Over the same period of time, there have been 223,707 three point shots attempted. The FG% on those shots is 35.8%. The effective FG% of those shots, or the equivalent FG% when accounting for the fact that 3 > 2 (simply multiplying the FG% by 1.5), is 53.6%. In other words, the average three point shot is A LOT BETTER than the average midrange shot. And it’s not even close.

But what about the WIDE OPEN midrange shot? Those ones that opposing big men can make that, in theory, force defending big men to leave the paint in order to respect their midrange games? Over the past five seasons, the FG% on wide open (defined as the closest defender being at least 6 feet away) midrange shots is 43.3%. This means that the average three point shot is still much more efficient than a wide open midrange shot. Just to beat this dinosaur after it’s already dead, here’s the complete breakdown. Defended shots are considered a shot when the closest defender is less than four feet away.

Shot type (past 5 seasons) Attempts FG% eFG%
Midrange (all) 165,137 40.4% 40.4%
Midrange (wide open) 16,689 43.3% 43.3%
Three pointer (all) 223,707 35.8% 53.6%
Three pointer (wide open) 38,499 38.7% 58.1%
Three pointer (defended) 20,171 30.3% 45.5%

Not only is a wide open midrange shot not that great (43.3%?), but even a defended three point shot is more efficient than a wide open midrange shot (eFG% of 45.5 vs 43.3). This addresses a somewhat common basketball scenario–a defender is rushing at a shooter behind the three point line and the shooter has the option of taking the shot or pump faking to send the defender into the air, then dribbling in a few steps and taking an uncontested midrange shot. In this situation, the player should actually take the contested three point shot instead of the uncontested midrange shot. The defender, on the other hand, should do everything he can to run the shooter off the three point line, even if it means flying three rows into the stands. Yes, a three point shot is that important, and a midrange shot is that unimportant.

Also worth noting is that a greater percentage of three point attempts are wide open than midrange shots (17.2% vs 10.1%). That’s probably just due to the fact that three point shots are farther away from the basket, and therefore opposing defenders. But it further supports just how inadvisable midrange shots are. Players essentially choose between an inherently less efficient and more likely to be defended shot and an inherently more efficient and less likely to be defended shot. Not exactly brain surgery.

There are two caveats to the ineptitude of the midrange game. One is select players who have a larger than average gap between their their defended 3pFG eFG% and their wide open midrange eFG%. Dirk Nowitzki, for example, shoots 33.6% on defended 3PFGAs, or a roughly 50% eFG%. All things considered, that’s actually pretty good. His FG% on wide open midrange shots, however, is 61%. Since players who shoot long two point shots tend to be good at shooting three point shots, there aren’t too many players that fit this description.

There are also players who alter the script slightly. They are very proficient at midrange shots, but don’t extend themselves to the three point line. David West leads this very very small group of players (in fact, it might just be him). West shoots 59% on wide open midrange shots, certainly good enough that he warrants defending in that area, even if it means vacating space in the paint. Other players who might be in this group (the only ones) are Pau Gasol and Al Horford, who shoot 53% and 52% on wide open midrange shots. It is debatable, however, if vacating paint space (potentially leading to a very efficient shot) is worth defending a 52%-53% scoring opportunity. Anyone else, despite his reputation or salary, does not shoot well enough to merit guarding.

About the author: Richard Li is an independent researcher and consultant. He likes numbers and pictures.

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