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Midrange shooting, floor spacing, and Anderson Varejao

The Cavaliers appear to be a team that will rely on midrange jump shots. Is this a good thing?


On Wednesdays over at Waiting for Next Year, Jacob Rosen publishes The Diff, wherein he delves into the statistical world of Cleveland sports (usually the Cavaliers or Tribe) and produces really good analysis. You should read him (and Waiting for Next Year in general). This past week, Rosen looked at three statistical areas of the Cavaliers last season and what bearing they might have for this upcoming one: 1) whether the Cavaliers could limit turnovers despite losing Luke Walton, Wayne Ellington, and Shaun Livingston; 2) whether the Cavaliers could increase the number of corner threes they attempt; and 3) whether Anderson Varejao should be taking midrange jumpers.

It is the third point with which I want to discuss- and disagree with- Rosen's conclusions. Here is his main argument:

Narrative: Anderson Varejao’s improved mid-range shooting has been a key reason for his impressive All-Star-esque development over the last two years. Going by PER, such a narrative might have some weight: After posting no better than a 15.8 mark for a six-season stretch, he was at 18.9 and 21.7 over the past two years while undoubtedly taking more jumpers.

But, Varejao’s PER jump is actually in spite of his mid-range shooting tendencies. As I’ve shared before in The Diff on Feb. 6, PER is flawed in one major aspect: It tends to be a counting statistic when it comes to scoring, not just serving as an efficiency-based statistic. Most significantly: A player with equal shooting ratios to another but with more field goal attempts per 36 minutes will have a much higher PER. This has been the case with Varejao of late.

Rosen's analysis of Player Efficiency Rating isn't wrong. The metric rewards high usage players. If Varejao takes more shots and makes them at the same rate as he was making them when he wasn't taking as many shots, his Player Efficiency Rating will be higher. The issue is whether or not this is an actual problem or a flaw in the PER statistic. I don't believe it is, as long as you are informed about why a PER is what it is. Usage rate is generally the percentage of possessions that end with a certain player either taking a shot, going to the free throw line, or turning the ball over. Usually, good players will have a high usage rate. Usually, coaches don't want bad players to have a high usage rate.

Further, a player with a high usage rate is more likely to be the focus of defenses. Maintaining efficiency when carrying a larger load of the offense is to be commended; if PER is supposed to measure the value of a player isn't taking on a larger role within a team something that should lead to a higher PER? But let's get back to Rosen's analysis of Varejao. Here is a look at two stunningly different Varejao seasons, while keeping in mind that last season involved an admittedly small sample size:

2009-10: GP: 76, PER: 15.8, TS%: 60, USG%: 13.1, Total RB% 15.9, Shots 10 feet out from the rim or further: 25-93 (27%).

2012-13: GP: 25, PER: 21.7, TS%: 53, USG%: 18.7, Total RB% 23.2, Shots 10 feet out from the rim or further: 36-95 (38%).

So, the first thing is that these look like two entirely different players. The first player has a tiny usage rate but is effective when actually shooting. He is a terrible jump shooter who offsets his weakness by scoring efficiently around the rim. The second player took more jump shots from 10 feet out or further than his counterpart in 1100 fewer minutes, and made them at a much more respectable mark (though certainly not setting the world on fire). The other major difference is that Varejao went from a competent rebounder to perhaps the best rebounder in the NBA. I have a suspicion that this is doing just as much to help him boost his PER by almost six full points as his increased usage is.

But this is me just descriptively commenting on the good work Jacob has already done, and maybe illuminating it in a little more depth. I really don't like his conclusion, which is that Varejao should stop taking so many midrange jump shots.

Overall, Varejao is choosing to take a jump shot on 7.5% more of his overall field goal attempts during this span. That’s not a good thing – Varejao’s only barely improved his jump shot efficiency field goal percentage. Considering he shoots nearly double the percentage on non-jump shots, this practically mitigates this entire experiment.

Holding shooting efficiency at what actually occurred the last two years, but reverting shooting ratios to the previous norm, and Varejao actually would have scored 20 more points than he did in reality.

I’d much prefer for Varejao – and heck, even Tristan Thompson – to stay where they are most comfortable. They aren’t stretch forwards and never will be; that’s just not their strength.

Respectfully, I want Varejao to keep shooting. Is 38% on long twos a great figure? No. And do I want to continue to see Varejao rolling hard and using his soft hands and nimble feet to finish from pick and roll or distribute to a waiting Tristan Thompson under the basket? Definitely. But Varejao's counterpart in the frontcourt, Thompson, has no jump shot to speak of, and thus no hope of helping the floor. Hat tip to Rosen for providing this list which shows nearly 88% of Thompson's shots came within 10 feet of the rim. Varejao may be miscast as a spacer of the floor, but he proved last season that he could make the shot. And if Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters want driving lanes through the paint, Thompson and Varejao can't both be near the rim with their defenders right next door.

Ideally, this is where Anthony Bennett comes in, as Michael A. Young of outlines in this tweet:

Young's opinion is that team's don't respect Varejao's jump shot and up to this point that may be the case. But the Cavaliers offense will flow much better if Varejao can force teams to do it. Many people wondered why a switch seemed to suddenly switch on for Thompson once Varejao went down for the season. Part of it was simply that he was forced to play with Tyler Zeller, who spent a lot (too much) of time taking midrange jump shots. It probably created more space for Thompson than there had been before.

Bennett, when he is ready, could be an ideal midrange floor spacer (and perhaps even from the three point line). Time will tell if that is this season. Offensively, Thompson and Bennett project to complement each other nicely. Whether they can play consistently together defensively is another matter entirely. But for the purposes of this post, suffice it to say that even if taking midrange jumpers isn't Varejao's best offensive skill, or anything approaching it, the Cavaliers have to feature it for spacing purposes. It has improved by leaps and bounds, and that versatility allows him to play with Tristan Thompson.