CourtVision: Big Al Jefferson and the Symmetry of the NBA
In the time of attack guards, small ball, and stretch 4’s, Big Al Jefferson’s game is unapologetically old school. He’s the kind of post player that was once so ubiquitous in the league, but now seems to be an endangered species. Like Adrian Peterson rushing as if it’s still the 1980s, Jefferson’s throwback style is strangely comforting to fans of a certain age, and the scarcity of those who play like him also offers commentary on the state of the NBA in 2013.
When you watch the Jazz offense trot down the court, chances are you will see Jefferson quickly assume his position in his native ecosystem, down on the left block. Simply stated, Al Jefferson loves the left block. If all the NBA players were on Foursquare, Big Al would definitely be the mayor of the left block. He has compiled a collection of effective pivots, drop steps, half hooks, mini-jumpers, “weezies,” and up-and-unders that are highly calibrated for the left side, not the right. This asymmetric love affair is so torrid that Big Al has become the most lopsided shooter in the NBA. No player in the NBA has a more asymmetric shot chart than Al Jefferson. Out of the 137 players who have attempted at least 200 field goal attempts this season, Al Jefferson is the most one-sided shooter.
Jefferson’s lopsided nature provokes obvious questions about NBA symmetry. The answers to the FAQs:
The league as a whole is very symmetrical. Fifty-one percent of the league’s 70k shots so far have been on the right, and 49 percent have been on the left. The league shoots 45.6 percent from the right, and 43.7 percent from the left.
While this is kind of interesting, it is probably more enlightening to look at these effects for different players. Which players are the most one-sided offensively?
Top six left-side biased:
Al Jefferson, 76 percent
Kevin Love, 73 percent
Thaddeus Young, 66 percent
Marc Gasol, 63 percent
Kevin Martin, 63 percent
David Lee, 62 percent
Top six right-side biased:
Al Horford, 65 percent
Jeremy Lin, 65 percent (insert obligatory “Lin can’t go left” comment here)
Ben Gordon, 64 percent
Chris Paul, 64 percent
Patrick Patterson, 63 percent
Deron Williams, 63 percent
By far, Jefferson and Kevin Love are the most lopsided shooters in the league. Whether it’s due to the spatial nature of their teams’ sets, or because of personal preference, there is no denying that these guys are much more likely to shoot from the left than they are the right. Although asymmetry is not uncommon in the NBA — a lot of players tend to prefer one side over the other; Kobe and Durant both shoot about 56 percent of their shots on the right — some players are incredibly symmetrical. Luis Scola, Russ Westbrook, and DeMar DeRozan all shoot almost exactly the same amount on either side.
Shooting frequencies are one thing, but efficiencies are another. Some players are much more effective from one side than the other. Even the most “advanced” shooting stats commonly group shot efficiency by distances (e.g., 3-9 feet, 16-23 feet) but neglect the equally important effect of direction, even though every pickup player knows some guys are much better shooters from one side of the court than the other. For example, this season Anthony Davis is shooting 57 percent from the left side, and only 37 percent on the right. He’s not alone; here are three other notable examples:
Tayshaun Prince: 54 percent on the left, 39 percent on the right
Elton Brand: 54 percent on the right, 32 percent on the left
Blake Griffin: 58 percent on the right, 43 percent on the left
While it’s relatively easy to expose these asymmetries, it’s more difficult to figure out their root causes. Obviously, some derive from offensive strategies while others derive from individual preferences and/or shooting abilities. Big Al represents a great example of a team’s offense being spatially aligned with a player’s strengths. Pau Gasol represents an opposite example, but also reminds us that (1) every player exhibits unique spatial strengths and weaknesses, and (2) every NBA player is affected by the schemes of his coaches. It seems self-evident that coaches should design their offenses after diagnosing the spatial strengths and weaknesses of their personnel as opposed to implementing some tone-deaf one-size-fits-all offense everywhere they go. Good offensive scheming can’t be done in seven seconds or less.