October 12, 2022
Who might be playing a new role in his team’s offense next season?
We used Synergy’s play type- and shot type-rates to organize players into 11 offensive roles:
- Playmaking ball handlers
- Secondary ball handlers
- Scoring ball handlers
- Playmaking wings
- Slashing wings
- Dynamic-shooting wings
- Spot-up-shooting wings
- Playmaking bigs
- Post-up bigs
- Stretch bigs
- Rim-finishing bigs
We’re going to save the technical details of the sorting process for a separate post, but before the upcoming NBA season kicks off, let’s dig into the recent history of offensive-role transitions, to look back at the most common types of “job promotions” that have occurred and make a few predictions about whose roles might change this year.
For every player that had at least 125 scoring chances in each of the last two years, we found his offensive role during the 2020-21 season and compared it to the role he played during the 2021-22 season. Then, for each initial offensive role group we calculated the three subsequent offensive roles that were most likely to follow. So, for example, three of every four dynamic shooting wings from 2021 remained a dynamic shooting wing in 2022 (76%) and the ones who didn’t mostly became playmaking wings (12%) or spot-up shooting wings (9%).
In general, the most likely outcome was for a player to remain in the same offensive role from one year to the next; however, there were also plenty of players who changed their roles. Excitingly, when we looked closely at the characteristics of players making specific role transitions, some themes emerged. Like how, of the 33% of secondary ball handlers who “climbed the usage ladder” to become scoring ball handlers, several were returning players who were filling a vacuum left by departing teammates. Fred VanVleet stepping into Kyle Lowry’s shoes in Toronto or Reggie Jackson covering Kawhi Leonard’s absence in LA, to name a couple.
In general, there is a lot of job mobility between players who fill the roles of secondary ball handler, scoring ball handler, playmaking ball handler, and playmaking wing. These role changes can be subtle – maybe nothing that would bump a player out from under the umbrella of “guard” or even enough to flip his official tag from “PG” to anything else – but they are not insignificant. And, in some instances, these role changes were accompanied by surprising changes in scoring efficiency.
Do you remember that 2019-20 season Dennis Schröder had in OKC? The one where he was on fire all year to the point where he was getting some All-Star buzz? He even earned a Western Conference Player of the Week nod.
What was that all about?
Well, that was the one season he has played in a secondary ball handler’s role. Alongside teammates Chris Paul (a playmaking ball handler) and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (a scoring ball handler), Schröder’s playmaking and on-ball responsibilities were dialed back a smidge and more of his offense came from catch-and-shoot opportunities. The result was that Schröder had an easier shot diet and the most efficient shooting season of his career.
The same pattern is apparent for Reggie Jackson. During two seasons he spent in LA as a secondary ball handler alongside Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, his playmaking and on-ball rates were at career lows and his catch-and-shoot rate and points per possession were at career highs. As a playmaking ball handler in Detroit and as a scoring ball handler in LA last season (without Kawhi), Jackson’s scoring was less efficient. The same can be said for his former Clipper teammate, Patrick Beverley. Beverley also saw his playmaking and on-ball rates dip and his catch-and-shoot rate rise in LA, as he shifted from playmaking ball handler to playmaking wing.
So, who’s a candidate to repeat this pattern during the upcoming season? A combo guard who can play on or off the ball, slotting in from playmaking ball handler to slashing wing? Maybe somebody like Malcolm Brogdon.
Brogdon’s most efficient shooting season to date came in Milwaukee during the 2018-19 season where he shared playmaking duties with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton (not to mention Eric Bledsoe and George Hill). This season in Boston, Brogdon will find himself in a similarly supportive environment alongside Celtics Jayson Tatum (a scoring ball handler), Marcus Smart (a playmaking ball handler), and Jaylen Brown (a playmaking wing) plus Derrick White, Payton Pritchard, and Al Horford – that’s a lot of playmaking help! Brogdon should see a bump in his catch-and-shoot rate this year and likely a jump in his point per possession numbers, too!
Of course, the career path that everyone wants to emulate is that of the breakout star. Somebody like Khris Middleton transitioned from playmaking wing to secondary ball handler to scoring ball handler over the course of a four-year stretch. He had fewer chances to catch-and-shoot or to operate away from the point of attack and he took up more on-ball responsibilities as his role grew.
The fascinating thing about Middleton’s journey is the way his PPP yo-yoed as he took on a heavier burden, resulting in, first, a false step and then a subsequent bounce-back year. The same thing happened to Kawhi Leonard – he had a dip in efficiency after making the leap to scoring ball handler followed by a recovery the next year – as he climbed the career ladder from playmaking wing in San Antonio to the lead dog of a championship team in Toronto. Jamal Murray had a similar experience in Denver – making the move from playmaking wing to secondary ball handler and then to scoring ball handler. And he, too, had that z-shaped scoring efficiency pattern as his first year as a scoring ball handler was a minor misstep before he found his footing as the Nuggets reached the Western Conference Finals in 2019.
Who will be the next big breakout star to follow this trajectory? Tyler Herro, Dillon Brooks, and Shake Milton have all made the step up to scoring ball handler recently. But unlike Middleton, Leonard, and Murray, these young stars have yet to achieve top-end scoring efficiency in any of the roles they’ve filled so far.
Pascal Siakam, on the other hand, has shown that he can score at a hyper efficient level. During his Most Improved Player season of 2018-19, Siakam was a slashing wing on the deep and talented Leonard-led Raptors and one of the most efficient scorers in the league. Since then, he’s graduated through playmaking wing and secondary ball handler assignments to the scoring ball handler role that he took on last season. The Raptors are his team now, but he won’t realize his full star potential unless he can crank his scoring efficiency back up a notch or two. Maybe this will be the season that things fully click for him.
The offensive role with the least amount of upward mobility is rim-finishing big; 81% of these players remained in the same role from 2021 to 2022, more than any other role. The most common transformation for this type of player has been becoming a stretch big.
Wendell Carter Jr., for example, came into the league as a rim-finishing big for Chicago. In his second year, he did fewer rim-finishing things (less rolling, cutting, and offensive rebounding) and more picking and popping. After his trade to Orlando, these trends accelerated, leaving him as a full-fledged stretch big.
Aron Baynes was another rim-finishing big (with Detroit and Boston) who turned into a stretch big (in Phoenix) after his pick-and-pop and catch-and-shoot rates increased. And nobody has made this type of stretchy move more emphatically or more impressively than 7-foot-tall Buck, Brook Lopez, who went from post-up big in Brooklyn to a spot-up shooting wing in Milwaukee (on offense, at least). Coincidentally, Lopez, Baynes, and Carter each made an improvement in scoring efficiency after stretching to the perimeter (although this is surely not always the case).
Because every big man from Dwight Howard all the way back to Shaq has some grainy video evidence of a secret-weapon three-point catapult that he has unveiled in an empty gym on a random day in August, it’s a bit hard to say which rim-finishing big has the most legitimate prospects for stretching out to the perimeter this season; but we can still take a guess. Isaiah Hartenstein is in a new situation in New York and he’s already hoisted several threes during the Knicks’ first few preseason games. Plus, his pick-and-pop rates have been on the rise and – although he’s never been a volume 3-point shooter – he’s actually shot well from deep during his career (making 38%). So, he’s my pick for most likely to become a stretch big this year.
Understanding a player’s role in his team’s offense helps explain otherwise mysterious fluctuations in scoring efficiency from year to year. And our preliminary research suggests that we can anticipate possible career paths based on historical patterns. We’re excited to keep digging into this topic in search of other useful insights for coaches and scouts.
Let us know what you think about these offensive role labels and keep an eye out for future posts on the topic!
Todd is building tools to help coaches, scouts, and players find winning team strategies as part of Synergy’s Analytics and Insights Team. He creates inviting infographics, engaging charts and interactive displays that make data compelling and accessible. Follow him on Twitter @crumpledjumper