How do the Pelicans generate so many open shots with so little ball movement?

By Stephen Shea, Ph.D.

February 16, 2015

Better ball movement should lead to more open shots.  That’s the rule most are taught at the early stages of basketball development.  The general trend holds true in the NBA.

For this article, ball movement is measured by total team time of possession divided by the team’s frontcourt touches.  This is roughly how long players hold the ball on offense per touch.  The following chart scatters this ball movement statistic with the percentage of a team’s FGA from greater than 10 feet where the nearest defender was at least 4 feet away.

Chart 1 2 16 15

In the NBA this season, the trend supports the claim that ball movement will lead to open shots.  However, there is one significant outlier in the data.

The New Orleans Pelicans hold the ball longer per frontcourt touch than any team in the NBA.  They also hold the ball the most per touch (front or backcourt) at about 3.1 seconds per touch.  Yet, they have the 3rd highest percentage of open jump shots.  On 76.6% of the team’s FGA from greater than 10ft, no defender is within 4 ft.  The Pelicans only trail Atlanta and Philadelphia in this category.

How do the Pelicans generate such a high percentage of open shots with minimal ball movement?

We are considering all shots greater than 10ft.  Are 3-point shots typically less closely guarded than mid-range jumpers and could this difference be part of why New Orleans gets so many open shots?

This season in the NBA, 80% of 3-point attempts have occurred with no defender within 4 ft.  By comparison, 59% of the 2-pointers from 10 or more ft have occurred with no defender within 4 ft.  The following chart summarizes the defender distance this season for 2-point vs. 3-point attempts.

chart 2 2 16 15

2-point attempts are typically guarded more closely than 3-point attempts, but this does not explain the New Orleans anomaly.  Looking back at Chart 1, we see that the Pelicans are one of the 15 teams in the NBA currently taking more mid-range 2s than 3-pointers.

Furthermore, the Pelicans are seeing larger than average percentages of open 2s and 3s.  88% of the Pelicans’ 3-point attempts have been open, and 66% of their 2-point attempts have been open.  (Again, the league averages are 80% and 59%, respectively).

Percentage of open shots is related to another new player tracking metric called touch time.  Touch time measures the number of seconds a player possesses the ball before taking a shot.  In a recent blog, I discussed how shots after less touch time were more efficient.  This is not surprising since shots of less touch time tend to be open catch and shoots.  Chart 3 plots ball movement to the percentage of FGA taken on less than 2 seconds of touch time.

Chart 3 2 16 15

We would suspect % of FGA on less than 2 seconds of touch time to correlate with % of open FGA.  So, we would expect New Orleans’ anomalous behavior in Chart 1 to appear again in Chart 3.  That is not the case.  Instead, the Pelicans’ touch time numbers are directly in line with the Lakers, their minimal ball movement brethren.  While not what we might have suspected, the touch time statistics start to shed some light on New Orleans’ open shot numbers.

The low percentage of shot attempts after less than 2 seconds of touch time suggests that the Pelicans feature at least one ball dominant perimeter player that likes to create his own shot off the dribble.  In fact, the Pelicans’ Tyreke Evans leads the league with 645 total drives this season.  551 of Tyreke’s 798 FGA (69%) this season have come from less than 10ft.

Our search for an explanation of the Pelicans’ open shot statistics moves next to where the search should have started.  When looking for an explanation to anomalous production in New Orleans, one should first look at one of the NBA’s most anomalous players.  Anthony Davis is a remarkably athletic and gifted 6’10” forward.  He plays the game like no one else in the NBA currently.  It turns out that over 73% of Davis’ long 2-point attempts are open.  (Recall that the league average is 59%.)  While New Orleans’ offense probably creates some of these opportunities for Davis, his ability to attack the hoop is probably the biggest contributing factor.  It’s hard to imagine many power forwards or centers closing out hard on a mid-range Davis jumper.  Doing so would almost certainly result in Davis blowing by the defender for a thunderous dunk.

When Davis is taken out of the equation, 63% of the remaining Pelicans’ 2-point attempts (from > 10ft) are open.  That number is still above league average, but far closer to reasonable given the teams’ low ball movement.

We have partially solved the Pelicans’ mystery.  We do not yet know how the Pelicans have managed such a high percentage of open 3s.  Davis has only taken 9 3-pointers this season.  His only make was highly contested (and amazing).

Ryan Anderson is responsible for 317 of the team’s 1010 3PA.  Over 90% of Anderson’s 3-point attempts have been open.  Anderson is a true stretch 4.  As such, he often draws larger defenders that may not be so quick as to recover on kick outs to Anderson, which leaves the big man open more often.

If Anderson were the only Pelican to see an above average percentage of open looks from 3, we might conclude that Anderson’s rare combination of size and 3-point shooting ability is the answer.  However, Anderson is not the only Pelicans player to see significantly above average open looks from the perimeter.  The rest of the team is still seeing over 87% open looks from 3.

Over 90% of shooting guard Eric Gordon’s 3PA have been open, even though he is shooting 44.9% on these attempts.  Over 85% of Jrue Holliday’s 127 3PA have been open.  And even though Luke Babbit is shooting 50% from behind the arc, and 3-point shooting is almost his entire offensive repertoire, 89.5% of his 3PA have been open looks.

All of the numbers combined suggest that while New Orleans doesn’t move the ball as much as other teams in total, they make meaningful passes.  It appears that the team is able to exploit opposing defenses that are prioritizing defending attacks at the rim (from Evans and Davis most prominently).

I will save the specific details of how the team finds these consequential passes for a later post.

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  1. Mark Santucci

     /  February 28, 2015

    I wonder what percentage of New Orleans’ possessions are inside-out possessions. What is the correlation between possessions in which Anthony Davis is double teamed in the post to how open the shooters are on the resulting shot attempts after the ball is kicked back out?

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