The Best Worst Shot

Erik Spoelstra likes to text.

It took Goran Dragic a little while to get used to having a coach show up in his phone so often. Breaking down the game. How this can improve. What they need to tweak. Before he arrived in Miami, Dragic had never had such two-way communication. It caught him a little off guard.

“I never had these kind of coaches who are communicating, who are texting you,” Dragic said. “I was a little bit uncomfortable at the beginning because I was never in this situation.”

Dragic eventually opened up. With the HEAT’s roster being fluid, to say the least, over the past two and a half seasons, more was asked of the team’s starting point guard to be a vocal leader. As his role on the team changed, so too did his relationship with Spoelstra.

Now, Spoelstra says, he’s the one who sometimes has to say it’s time to put the phone down.

“This game means so much to Goran Dragic,” Spoelstra said. “When we lose, he doesn’t sleep. He takes it hard, like a coach would. I get text messages from him about things we could have done better or differently. Hours after the game. I just text him, ‘Go to bed.’ But that’s what I love about Goran.”

“I feel like I’ve never had this kind of communication with a coach before,” Dragic said. “It makes my job easier. He tells me what I see on the floor, I tell him what I see. We can correct mistakes.”

Having your head coach be in constant communication, to be on the same page as much as possible, is an obvious boon. It doesn’t solve all problems, but it provides an easier, often more creative, avenue to solutions – not to mention avoiding other issues altogether. Sometimes, we can speculate, it might not even matter what they’re saying to one another. Having an open line of discussion builds a certain degree of trust.

So when Spoelstra sent Dragic an email last summer detailing all the things the veteran could work on to improve, it wasn’t a message falling out of the sky like a work acquaintance hitting you up on Facebook for the first time in a year. Dragic knew where Spoelstra was coming from, so he chose to listen.

What was one of those offseason goals? Improve your mid-range, off-the-dribble shot.

In a league obsessed with efficiency, and coming from a coach who has often been at the forefront of modern offense, that might seem like an odd request. With everyone focused on getting open threes and shots at the rim, why ask your point guard to focus on what is considered the least efficient shot in the game?

The mid-range shot is not evil, even though we may stigmatize it as such at times. Yes, if you shoot 50 percent on two-point jumpers you still aren’t as efficient as someone shooting 40 percent on threes. But percentages play out over time, and time is not an infinite resource in an NBA game. Sometimes you just need a point, any point, to take the lead and the 50 percent shot is the better shot when most every defense in the league is geared towards eliminating the aforementioned threes and at-rim shots.

Very few players, if any, are going to shoot 50 percent in the mid-range, but you see the point. If the defense is giving you the space to take that shot by default, and you can make that shot, it can be a good opportunity. Just look at Portland, where Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum regularly torch teams with dribble-jumpers if the pick-and-roll coverage is too soft. Even the Houston Rockets, setting records for three-pointers taken, will throw up some shots from mid-range.

“Those are the kind of shots that keep the defense honest,” Spoelstra said. “Often times, going down the stretch in close, fourth-quarter games they’re the only shots you’re going to get.”

Email received, Dragic got to doing his homework. Working with Miami’s shooting coach Rob Fodor, Dragic’s jumper was already undergoing a few tweaks. He had a tendency to bring the ball across his body as part of his shooting motion so they were working on keeping the ball on the left for a cleaner, smoother, more consistent release. In the mid-range, however, the instructions were specific – eliminate the step-back and stay in rhythm.

Here’s Dragic taking some pull-up jumpers out of pick-and-roll last year.

Not every shot he took was like this, but it was a bit of a habit. Probe the space, draw the attention of the big, create room with a step-back and launch. It worked well enough with Dragic shooting 42.2 percent on pull-up two’s that season but he shot just 29 percent on similar threes. Overall, a pull-up jumper from Dragic was worth an effective field-goal percentage of 42.5. Of the 63 players taking at least four of those shots a game, Dragic ranked 35th. Spoelstra saw room for improvement.

“Usually that mid-range shot, I was always doing step-backs,” Dragic said. “Not anymore. Now it’s like a rhythm shot.”

Why? Taking a step-back can give a big man enough time to close the gap and contest, or give the smaller defender time to fight around a screen. A shot in rhythm keeps the action moving forward and the defense on its heels.

“When you come out of pick-and-roll, it’s really tough to step back and shoot because the defender is coming,” Dragic said. “Basically, I’m going to his direction and he can block my shot. Right now I’m just coming from pick-and-roll and I just pull-up, I go a little bit [mimes floating forward].”

For example, the shots he hit against a conservative Dallas defense Thursday night.

“The only guy who can block it is a big guy, but usually they’re so afraid of a Hassan lob, [those shots] are open,” Dragic said.

“I never practiced this shot before. This season, I did with Coach Rob.”

While Dragic’s overall pull-up numbers are actually worse than last season, that’s in the context of Dragic dealing with some arm and elbow issues in November which limited his shooting. Since December 1st, he’s shooting 43.4 percent on pull-up two’s and an additional 46.2 percent on pull-up threes for an effective percentage of 49.5.

Extrapolate that over the rest of the season and Dragic is a Top 10 pull-up shooter.

Of course a big part of that is the improved three-point shooting – up to 39.2 percent from 31.2 last year – which Dragic also worked with Fodor on. It’s all part of the larger package. Dragic might not be seeking these mid-range shots, but if he hadn’t worked on that part of his game he might have scored six fewer than his 32 points on Thursday. Had Dragic instead had to step-back on some of those jumpers in what was a four-point victory, it’s entirely possible Miami loses.

“Every opponent is different,” Dragic said. “Some guys are going to be in pick-and-roll a little bit higher, and then you have opportunities to drive for layups. Some guys are going to zone deeper and then the mid-range shot is open. I think at this point of my career I have all three aspects, threes, mid-range and drives. It makes my game easier than before.”

A sentiment echoed by Dirk Nowitzki.

“[Dragic] was shooting the ball well today,” Nowitzki said. “When he’s shooting like that, he’s got the in-between game, he’s got the drive-to-the-hoop and he’s tough.”

Dragic acknowledges that he has more work to do, but being able to shoot efficiently in all three of the major on-ball zones – corner threes are almost exclusively catch-and-shoot – is the path to an idealized point guard. If you’re good everywhere then defenses won’t be able to find a comfort zone against you. If they then default to soft coverage conceding the mid-range, you then have a guaranteed shot in close games. For a Miami team that has struggled to score in the clutch, you can do a lot worse than having a guaranteed shot for a good shooter.

“Offensively, this is the best he’s ever shot the ball from deep,” Spoelstra said. “Just as important, he’s able to really take advantage of the mid-range, which is so vital in close games.”

It may not seem like much, being able to comfortably dribble into a floating jumper, but its yet another signal of Spoelstra’s organizational philosophy. Player development applies to everyone, not just the young players that conveniently fit into standard growth curves. As important as it is to get a Tyler Johnson or a Justise Winslow to expand their games, it’s just as important to help set up veterans like Dragic for the second half of their careers.

“The older you get, the more you need to work on your game and try to survive with those young fellas out here,” Dragic said. “I feel like I’m evolving with my age.”