Collin Sexton is Leading the Cavaliers' Inexplicable Mid-range Barrage

The Cleveland Cavaliers are shooting fewer three-pointers than anyone else in the league. Rookie point guard Collin Sexton is having some success running the offense, but why is he - and why are all of his teammates - taking so many mid-range jumpers?

If you're reading this, you're aware that the Cleveland Cavaliers are not good. Through 20 games, the Cavs have the second worst record in the league at 4-16. They have paired the 29th ranked defense (out of 30) with the 24th ranked offense. They fired their coach, lost their best player (Kevin Love) to an injury, traded their best three-point shooter (Kyle Korver), and set adrift JR Smith, one of the last remaining players from the 2016 NBA championship squad. They are led by rookie point guard Collin Sexton, bench-scoring stud Jordan Clarkson, and rejuvenated rebounding machine Tristan Thompson. It's not exactly a murderer's row. There are no superstars. In fact, there aren't any bona fide All-Star caliber players on this team either. There are also very few wins. The future is murky, the present is rough.

Amidst all of this, the Cavs are undertaking one of the most bizarre trends in the modern NBA: Cleveland is taking a ton of mid-range jumpers. As everyone tries to erase the mid-range and focus on three-pointers, the Cavaliers are resistant. Ten years ago, the 2008-2009 Cleveland Cavaliers took 25.6% of their shots from beyond the arc, which was fourth most in the NBA that season. Per Cleaning The Glass, the 2018-2019 Cleveland Cavaliers are taking 25.8% of their shots from beyond the arc, which is second to last in the NBA this season. Highlighting this inexplicable "zig when everyone else zags" philosophy is Collin Sexton, who is leading the Cavs' nonsensical mid-range jumper revival.

To oversimplify the modern NBA - and to say something ridiculous - three is more than two. If you can make three-pointers anywhere near as often as you make two-pointers, you should take more three-pointers. If you attempt 100 three-pointers and make 33% of them, you've scored 99 points; you'd have to shoot 50% on 100 two-pointers to do better. That's math. That's also why the Houston Rockets and Milwaukee Bucks are shooting 40+ three-pointers per game - you don't have to make all of them for it to be worthwhile.

All of this is to point out exactly why an abundance of two-pointers, and specifically the "long twos," makes fans want to rip their hair out and scream "TAKE ONE MORE STEP BACKWARD!" A 20-foot jump shot worth two points is only fractionally easier to make than a 23-foot three-pointer, but the latter is worth an extra point. It's all very simple.

The Cavs are shooting all the wrong shots

As mentioned above, the Cavs rank 29th in percentage of three-pointers taken in the NBA this season (ahead of only the San Antonio Spurs). They also rank 30th in actual three-pointers attempted per game. (Discrepancy among the rankings is due to pace of play. The Cavs take fewer shots per game than the Spurs, but a higher percentage of the shots they take are threes.) That's not necessarily a death sentence in its own right, but it's not a good sign. During Cleveland's four-year Finals streak, they finished second, third, second, and fourth in three-point frequency, per Cleaning the Glass. 

Curiously, this season the Cavs are making just over 36% of their three-pointers, which is good for eighth in the NBA, per Basketball-Reference. Now imagine if they just took more of them.

Let's get back to Collin Sexton. In his first eight games after being inserted into the starting lineup, Sexton averaged about 20 points on 51% shooting, including 55% on three-pointers. On the one hand, that's wonderful and Cavs fans and Cavs Reddit have been buzzing; on the other hand, it's completely unsustainable.

While mid-range shots are often relatively open (because they're inefficient), Sexton is one of only seven players in the NBA to average 5+ attempts from the mid-range per game. He's shooting a surprisingly good 45.5% on those shots. And while that is a good percentage, it's as effective as shooting 30% on three-pointers, which would be far below league average.

Among point guards, Sexton is in the 100th percentile in shots attempted from both the long mid-range and mid-range overall. He is only in the 63rd percentile when it comes to field-goal percentage on those shots.

That's a problem.

Take a look at Sexton's shot chart. Whether or not his above-average percentages will hold (they likely will not - 55% on three-pointers as a starter is markedly above Kyle Korver's best efforts), the distribution is decidedly inefficient. It's good to see Sexton getting to the rim, albeit unsuccessfully, but all of those mid-range shots are troubling.

Now let's look at someone who Sexton's first 20 games have mirrored pretty closely: Eric Gordon. Gordon started off as a shooting-heavy combo-guard who was maybe going to be a point guard at some point in his career. However, he ultimately remained a shooting guard because he just couldn't shake his knack for getting buckets. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, and if Sexton turns out like Eric Gordon, that's pretty good for an 8th overall pick. Anyway, Gordon has mastered the efficient-shot game thanks to his time with the Rockets and their "threes and frees" philosophy of three-pointers, layups, or free-throws.

Of course, Gordon has been extremely cold to start this season, but that's a shot distribution that every player in the current NBA should be gunning for.

For example

Concerns about Sexton's shot stem from his one season at Alabama, where he shot 33.6% on three-pointers. While he surely put in a lot of work over this past summer, he isn't just magically a 40% (or better) three-point shooter already. He will come back to Earth. He's currently making shots like this one below, but you have to ask why this shot is taken in the first place.

First of all, if Sexton has a quicker release he would have had an open three-pointer, but his jumper is slow-developing. Secondly, with Gorgui Dieng defending him, Sexton should probably try to use his quickness to get to the rim. Lastly, if you're going to take a step-back 22-footer, step back just a teeny bit farther and make it a three-pointer. The degree of difficulty is almost identical.

Of course, that was in Sexton's first NBA game, so maybe that's unfair. Here's a clip from Monday night's game against the same Timberwolves squad.

The shot clock is fairly low, so he's most likely going to create his own shot, but look at the one he chooses. Jeff Teague goes under Tristan Thompson's screen while Karl-Anthony Towns sags back several feet, leaving Sexton a ton of space. Sexton even briefly steps out beyond the arc as he moves to his left, and Teague is a solid 5-6 feet away. However, he comes all the way around Thompson, allowing Teague to get back into the play defensively. Teague contests the shot, and Sexton misses from 20 feet out.

In all likelihood he would've missed from 23 feet out, but the risk/reward would have been better.

It's not all on Collin Sexton, of course, as Rodney Hood's shot chart is similarly chaotic. Hood is better about getting to the short mid-range (5-14 feet), whereas Sexton gets to the hoop more often (inside 5-feet).

On the bright side

The Cavs don't shoot a lot of three-pointers because they don't have a lot of three-point shooters right now. Among guys who shoot three-pointers, JR Smith is no longer with the team and Kevin Love, Sam Dekker, and George Hill are all injured. Do the Cavs really want Larry Nance, Jr. to start shooting from deep? (Note: the answer appears to be yes, as Nance fired TWO three-pointers in the loss to Minnesota.) 

If the Cavs can hang in against decent teams, and they have done a little of that over the past week, then there's not a whole lot to be concerned about. Sexton will grow as a player and get more comfortable with his shot. Time is not exactly a factor with these Cavaliers - there's no LeBron James time-bomb ticking away, so Sexton can work out the kinks in game-action.

Here's to hoping he knows how to make the adjustments.

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