Back in the early 2010s, general manager of the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey, was looking to apply big data to the NBA. The result was a theory that proved viable; that a player’s chance of scoring a shot is determined by their location on the court.
The results were undeniable as the Houston Rockets as the team racked up wins. While it wasn’t enough to win Morey or James Harden the NBA Championship, their tactics changed up the sport. Soon, teams across the league were crunching stats to figure out where their players should shoot from and which players they should direct the ball to.
The results were immediately tangible; by 2016, over 30% of attempted shots in the NBA were three-pointers. Mid-range shots, on the other hand, had dropped off. With Moreyball’s emphasis on technical perfection, there’s less room for creative flow in the sport and more demand for robotic repetition.
But this isn’t unique to the NBA, and could just be a symptom of its evolution. Pros in similarly competitive fields also feel the pressure to seek perfection, down the most minute detail. Even poker pros, once the dusky heroes of a seemingly mythical profession, are now the subject of extreme stats breakdowns.
They spend countless hours in repetitive gameplay to perfect their skills, as well as paying personal trainers to optimize their schedule down to their meals, sleep cycles, and even physical workouts. It offers them an edge over their competition—but it also mitigates the likelihood that a pro player will use a creative bluff over a tried-and-true tactic, similar to basketball’s new emphasis on three-pointers.
In the case of basketball, some pundits are worried that the old ways of creative genius may disappear. Regardless, it’s clear some teams are reaping the benefits of Moreyball with high shot selection percentages and an emphasis on three-pointers. But which teams have integrated Moreyball philosophy the best?
Though it may not be enough to help the LA Clippers to take home an NBA Championship, the team’s high scoring percentage on three-pointers helped them slide past the LA Lakers in the 2020-21 post-season. This is largely thanks to two of the league’s most lethal shooters, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
Leonard finished the season with a 39.7% three-point field goal percentage and George with 40.3%. Though not as high as fellow players like Luke Kennard and Marcus Morris Sr. (both posted 45.3% at the end of the season), Leonard and George move off the ball more frequently and are able to create plays while also sinking three-pointers.
This year, the 76ers were eliminated in the conference semifinals by Atlanta Hawks. The team’s star players are Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, neither of whom emphasize three-pointers to the degree that Morey (or Snyder, below) would approve of.
However, the team has one of the most lethal three-point shooters in Seth Curry (50%), while Tobias Harris (41.6%) isn’t far behind. The 76ers are on the cusp of three-point dominance, though Embiid and Simmons will need to shift from their preference for mid-range shots.
Last year, the Jazz ended their 2019-20 season with the highest three-point shooting percentage in the league at 38%. However, they made waves by breaking the record for the team to sink the most three-pointers in a regular season in the NBA, with a total of 16.8 three-pointers per game.
Clearly, head coach Quin Snyder has taken a page (or a whole chapter) out of Daryl Morey’s book. However, it still wasn’t enough to help them defeat the Clippers in this year’s conference semifinals, which indicates that offensive aspects like movement and driving are still important for a well-rounded team.
But the argument could also go the other way—the only reason the Jazz made it to the conference semifinals was that they used three-pointers so strategically. In late February, they posted 50 three-pointers in two games, which helped launch them into the offseason.