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The Corner Three and the Adaptability of Ray

One of the starkest changes between the 2008 NBA champion Celtics and the 2009 non-champion Celtics is this: 

2008 three-pointers attempted: 1565, 12th-most in the league (25 percent of total team field goal attempts)

2009 three-pointers attempted: 1355, 21st in the league (21 percent of total FGAs).

There’s not necessarily anything wrong with this drop in three-point attempts. The Celtics lost James Posey and filled his minutes (mostly) with players who can’t shoot three-pointers (i.e. Big Baby). And even with the decline in three-pointers, the Celtics improved their offensive efficiency, albeit by a tiny margin. That’s not what you’d necessarily expect, considering that taking a lot of three-pointers is generally good for a team’s offensive efficiency, according to John Hollinger.

So how’d the Celtics do it? Mostly, they made more of their shots:

• They shot the ball better overall–48.6 percent in 2009 (2nd-best in the league), up from 47.5 percent the year before;

• They shot a league-best 39.7 percent from three-point range—the 12th-best mark ever for an NBA team

But why did they make more of their shots? Was it just luck? Neil Paine of Basketball Reference recently wrote about the low level of year-to-year consistency in team three-point percentages as compared with shooting percentages on other types of shots. In other words, a team that shoots well from deep one year isn’t necessarily going to shoot well from deep the following year. 

But teams can distribute their shots in a way that maximizes their efficiency, and the Celtics did that last year. They are going to have to work equally hard to do it this year, because they still haven’t found a player who can hit the most efficient shot in the game—the corner three-pointer—nearly as often as James Posey did in 2008. 

Before we go there, let’s check out the C’s year-over-year shot distribution to understand why their shooting percentages and offensive output remained steady despite the drop in three-point attempts. The C’s “lost” 210 three-pointers between 2008 and 2009. Where’d they go? Here’s what a quick analysis of NBA Hot Spot data tells us:

                                                                     2008                               2009

Total FGAs                                              6286                                    6333 (+47)

Shots at the rim                                    2572                                      2637 (+55)

Floaters/mid-range                                822                                       881 (+59)

Long two-pointers                                1326                                      1397 (+71)

Corner threes                                        409                                           417 (+8)

So the Celtics took those 200 or so three-pointers that disappeared with James Posey and re-distributed them in about as smart a way as possible—by taking more shots from 15 and in. That’s not rocket science. But taking more of those scrumptious short corner three-pointers even as the team’s total number of three-point attempts dropped—that’s calculated brilliance, and it’s one reason the team was so good offensively.

The Celtics hit 45 percent of their corner threes last season, the best mark of the 18 teams that hoisted at least 400 corner triples last season, according to this love poem to the corner three over at Nets are Scorching.

How’d they do it? Jump with me.

Two words: Ray Allen. Last week, we talked about how Ray Allen might have to adjust his game to remain effective as he ages. He may have begun that adjustment last season, when he significantly increased his number of three-point attempts from the corners. 

In 2008, Walter Ray jacked 125 of his 452 three-point attempts (27.6 percent) from the corners. 

In 2009, Walter Ray shot 184 of his 486 deep attempts (37.8 percent) from the corners.

That’s a big increase, and one that can’t be an accident. If you’re reading this, you probably know the corner three is nearly two feet shorter than a three-pointer from anywhere else on the court, and that it’s a smart idea to get your good shooters as many decent looks as possible from that spot. 

The team is going to have to keep working to find Ray in the corners again this season. Paul Pierce has attempted just 85 corner threes combined in the last two seasons, and Rasheed Wallace, the only long-distance threat the team has brought in since Posey left, prefers shooting from the wings and the top of the key, according to his hot spot data from last season:

Picture 34

The Celtics are not likely to shoot 39.7 percent from deep again next season. No team is every likely to shoot that well from deep. To maintain their high level of offensive efficiency—and despite the focus on the team’s defense, the C’s are a very good offensive club—they are going to have to continue to distribute their shots intelligently. 

You know what’s good for that? Having smart veterans who can shoot well from all over the place and an unguardable point guard who can break down the defense and find them. Pencil the C’s in for a top-5 offensive season again this year.

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