In a recent game against the Orlando Magic, the team fell behind twice in the last minute, both times on a short three-pointer from the left corner. Afterward, Cheeks explained that this had been the strategy: Thaddeus Young (the player covering the shooter) was supposed to help out on penetration. The corner three is "the hardest shot in the game," Cheeks explained, apparently unaware that the Magic, as a team, shoot 40 percent from that spot — a better percentage than from almost anywhere else beyond the arc.
The NBA breaks down shots into five zones: restricted area, paint non-restricted area, mid-range, corner 3s and above-the-break 3s. This season, here’s how many points were scored per shot from each zone
- Restricted area: 1.15
- Corner 3s: 1.15
- Above-the-break 3s: 1.09
- Mid-range: 0.79
- Paint non-restricted area: 0.77
I could see an argument that the above list overrates corner 3s, because those shots are unlikely to draw fouls and the kickouts that lead to them can became turnovers with the ball already headed the opposite direction and tailor-made for a fastbreak. But it would be very difficult to build a compelling case corner 3s, essentially tied with shots at the rim for most points per attempt (increase the decimal, and restricted area has a slight lead), are “the hardest shot in the game.”
All our best evidence says corner 3s are one of the best shots in the game.
Look, 2008 was a different time. I certainly didn’t know then how valuable corner 3s were – though I wasn’t coaching an NBA team, either – but statistics have become more widely understood in the NBA since. It’s very possible, maybe even bordering on probable, Cheeks has a better understanding of shot value now.
But has he merely caught up while other coaches advanced their understanding of the game even further? Or has he narrowed, eliminated or even reversed the gap?
That will be up to Cheeks to prove this season.
Update: I probably left my point too understated, and the forest has gotten lost in the trees. I don’t care about this specific game against Orlando. I don’t even care are about corner 3s, per se.
But Cheeks calling corner 3s “the hardest shot in the game” of basketball indicates a potentially bigger problem. Corner 3s being valuable is one of the most basic lessons of the stats-based analysis that has swept the NBA in the league’s recent history, and if Cheeks doesn’t know that lesson, what else doesn’t he know? A failure to understand these numbers would leave Cheeks at a significant disadvantage.
Again, hopefully he’s learned since his last season as head coach, when this Magic game occurred, but the burden is on him to prove this story isn’t emblematic of a bigger issue.
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