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Striking Quality and Quantity beyond the Arc

The Memphis Grizzlies have been hot from deep in April, while maintaining an appropriate amount of shot attempts. Let’s look at what quality and quantity of shots mean for this team and the NBA’s landscape.

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Golden State Warriors v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

After the April 2nd win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, Coach Taylor Jenkins said something captivating about the Memphis Grizzlies success from beyond the arc:

It is great to make 19 three’s, but even better to take 39 three’s.

It really caught my eye, because it strikes one of the most important elements in the modern NBA: balancing quality and quantity from beyond the arc. You don’t want to be a team that shoots efficiently but not enough, where other teams can just out-shoot you to win games. You also don’t want to hoist so many 3’s that you’re ultimately taking too many bad shots, solely because of a “3s > 2s” mantra.

The Memphis Grizzlies are currently navigating the idea of achieving a balance of quantity and quality of 3-point shooting. They’re achieving that in terms of the number of good 3-point weapons, and now they’re looking to see how it could reflect in overall team performance.

This month, they’re off to a great start. In the 7 April games, the Grizzlies are attempting 33.7 three-point field goals per game — the 2nd-most of any month, excluding the bubble, under Jenkins. That number is smack-dab in the middle of the NBA, as they’re 15th in 3-point attempts per game this month. They’re currently 5th this month in 3-point percentage (41.5%).

Did we ever think we’d see a graphic like this?

The Memphis Grizzlies are currently striking the right balance of quantity and quality from beyond the arc, as it’s led to them starting the treacherous month with a 5-2 record. The job’s not finished, as there’s still work to do in this regard going forward. Building on this shooting performance though could be what helps them taking leaps as a team going forward.

While the Memphis Grizzlies are currently surging from 3, with both volume and percentages, they still trend towards the bottom-half of the league in both categories for the whole season. They’re 20th in 3-point percentage (35.7, a percentage-point behind league average) and 25th in 3-point attempts (30.5).

This doesn’t suggest that the Grizzlies are an awful 3-point shooting team. They’re simply average. They have the extremes of great percentages and — to put it bluntly — bad percentages, as well as the ones that hover around league-average.

The volume trends lower, because of who they have leading the team in shot attempts. Ja Morant (15.2 attempts per game), Jonas Valanciunas (12.2), and Brandon Clarke (9.2) are 1st, 3rd, and 5th in field goal attempts per game, and they do most of their damage inside. Dillon Brooks (15.1 attempts per game) and Kyle Anderson (9.7) are the 2nd and 4th shot leaders, and only about 36-39% of their field goals come from 3. Having your 5 leading shot-takers fire mostly from inside the arc will have that number trend towards the bottom-half of the league.

While the Grizzlies aren’t lighting up the league from 3 as a whole, it hasn’t taken away from them thriving and sticking to their strengths. They lead the league in points in the paint (56.5), taking advantage of the strengths of Ja Morant and Jonas Valanciunas — the team’s 2 best scoring options. They’re also 1st in short mid shot frequency (the floater zone), as 30.1% of their shots come in the short mid-range, per Cleaning the Glass. They’re doing a great job of playing to the team’s individual strengths, as they navigate the season with Jaren Jackson Jr. on the mend, Justise Winslow out for a lot of it, and a revolving door of rotation players as well.

It’ll be interesting to see how it evolves and translates to playoff basketball, especially with this new-found shot diet.

Utah Jazz v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

The good news with what the Grizzlies are doing with their balance of quality and quantity from 3-point range is, it lines up with what the league’s contenders are doing. Am I saying the Grizzlies are Finals Contenders? No. However, they’re emulating a formula that’s been a driving force in the success of several Finals contenders.

The 5 of the 6 leaders in 3-point percentage also trend in the top-half in 3-point attempts per game, and they’re in great position in the standings.

NBA 3-point shooting leaders by attempts/g and record

Team Percentage Attempts/G, Rank Record, Seed
Team Percentage Attempts/G, Rank Record, Seed
Los Angeles Clippers 42.1 34.4,15th 38-18, 3rd in West
Milwaukee Bucks 39.3 37.1, 7th 33-20, 3rd in East
Brooklyn Nets 39 36.3, 10th 37-17, T-1st in East
Utah Jazz 39 43, 1st 41-14, 1st in the West
Denver Nuggets 38.5 33.7, 19th 34-20, 4th in the West
Phoenix Suns 38.1 34.5, 14th 38-15, 2nd in the West
NBA 3-point shooting leaders by attempts/g and record

The anomaly here is Denver, who plays off the interior, post and passing strengths of MVP frontrunner Nikola Jokic. Nonetheless, most contenders tend to find the right balance of quality and quantity of 3-point shots without necessarily trying to just go haywire from downtown to secure wins.

It’s a great model going forward. They use the attention (it’s called gravity, but my boss hates that word) their go-to player requires off the drive — like Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Chris Paul, or Nikola Jokic — to get great looks for their shooters. We’ll see how it fares in slower, more physical playoff games, but the framework is putting them in position to have an easier road to a championship through home-court advantages.

So while the Memphis Grizzlies are on this wicked stretch of firing the appropriate amount of 3’s and making them at a high rate, this information and precedent is going to be a development to monitor going forward as they look to grow into contention.

Houston Rockets v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

It’d be cool to see the Grizzlies keep this trend going forward, as it’s been instrumental in them winning games, and it’s a confidence-booster for the team’s outside shooters. Is it sustainable? I’m not going to predict anything, but we can leave it at a “we’ll see.” They’re playing to the strengths of their players — whether that’s from 3, in the paint, or in the mid-range — and they’re winning games. It’s hard to argue against it.

However, given the makeup of this team, it wouldn’t be too shocking if they eventually trend towards the 3-point attempts number this month (33.7). It’s also been a successful formula.

The biggest key in all this is Jaren Jackson Jr. Granted, we want to see what he’ll look like whenever he’s back on the floor. However, it’s worth noting that he gave a glimpse of what he could become in the NBA bubble. In 3 games played, he averaged 25.3 points a game, while 28 of his 52 shot attempts came from deep — good for a 3PAr of .538. If he’s doing that, he’s a go-to scorer, and that’ll play a massive role in the quality vs. quantity aspect of outside shooting.

Nonetheless, the Memphis Grizzlies are in better position from beyond the arc than they’ve ever been in the modern NBA. They have weapons that can convert at an elite clip, while possessing good volume. They also have a head coach that embraces pace-and space and empowers his players to “let it fly” and to have a “next shot mentality.” Because of those things, the Grizzlies are achieving quality and quantity from downtown.

And if they continue to do that, it can open up the court for their virtuoso point guard to work his magic, and it could elevate the team’s ceiling as well.

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