Collin Sexton and the Cavaliers' Mid-range Barrage

The Cleveland Cavaliers shot fewer three-pointers than anyone else in the league over the first two months. Rookie point guard Collin Sexton had 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 were not good. The Cavs finished tied for the second-worst record in the NBA at 19-63. Per Basketball-Reference, they paired the 25th ranked offense (out of 30) with the 30th ranked defense. They fired their coach, lost their best player (Kevin Love) to a five-month injury, lost Tristan Thompson for months, traded their best three-point shooter (Kyle Korver), revamped the roster mid-season, and set adrift JR Smith, one of the last remaining players from the 2016 NBA championship squad. They were led by rookie point guard Collin Sexton, bench-scoring stud Jordan Clarkson, and (for 22 games) Kevin Love. It's not exactly a murderer's row. There are no bona fide superstars on this squad. In fact, Love is the only player on the team even close to All-Star caliber. There are also not a lot of wins.

Despite all that, they were pretty fun.

I wrote the following in December:

"Cleveland is taking a lot of mid-range jumpers. As everyone tries to erase the mid-range and focus on three-pointers, the Cavaliers are a bit 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 inching upward, taking about 30% of their shots from beyond the arc, up from 25.8% through the first six weeks. Highlighting this "zig when everyone else zags" philosophy is Collin Sexton, who is leading the Cavs' nonsensical mid-range jumper revival."

Things have changed.

The Cavs were shooting all the wrong shots

In December the Cavs ranked 30th in three-pointers attempted per game. In a league that's clearly more and more dependent on threes, that wasn't necessarily a death sentence, but it was a bad sign. During Cleveland's four-year Finals streak, they finished second, third, second, and fourth in three-point frequency, per Cleaning the Glass. At the time the Cavs were making just over 36% of their three-pointers, which was good for eighth in the NBA, per Basketball-Reference. 

Let's get back to Collin Sexton. I wrote this in December:

"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."

Sexton's overall FG% ended at 43% and his three-point percentage managed to tick just over 40% on the season. The latter still feels unsustainable, as he was 33% from the much shorter line in college, but he managed to keep it going.

While mid-range shots are often relatively open (because they're inefficient), Sexton was taking a ton of them. He was one of five players in the NBA to average 3.5 or more shots from 16-24 feet away. The other four were Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Victor Oladipo, and DeMar DeRozan. Sexton was shooting 10% worse than Thompson, Oladipo, and Durant on those shots.

Sexton righted the ship. Despite that high number of long mid-range shots in the early-going, Sexton averaged just 1.3 jumpers from 16-24 feet after January 15th. He went from 5th most in the first two months to 77th most in the final three months. It was a shocking change, brought about at least partially because his teammates yelled at him.

Among point guards, Sexton ranked in the 98th percentile in shots attempted from the long mid-range and 90th percentile from mid-range overall. He was only in the 36th percentile when it comes to field goal percentage on those shots. 

That was a problem. But those numbers dropped to 94th and 87th percentile by season's end. That wasn't an enormous change in final numbers, but we know that he was taking a lot less of them, so it just goes to show how many he took at the start of the campaign.

Take a look at Sexton's shot chart from the first week of December. Whether or not his above-average percentages would hold, the distribution was decidedly inefficient. It was good to see Sexton getting to the rim, albeit unsuccessfully, but all of those mid-range shots were troubling.

Now, look at Sexton's shot chart from late in the season.

Volume is up from nearly everywhere, but Sexton is shooting way more long-range shots instead of mid-rangers, and the results are clear for the Cavaliers. Prior to the All-Star break, the Cavaliers had inched up to about 27.5 3PA/game. Since then? 36.1 3PA/game. The results speak for themselves, as the Cavs were 12-46 at the break and started 7-10 after the break, before more or less leaning into their draft-tank.

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 probably isn't magically a 40% three-point shooter. 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.

Look at the difference a few months later.

He confidently steps into a three from nearly the same spot. The only stutter-step he does is because he was anticipating Marcus Smart getting into better defending position. But upon realizing he had space, Sexton calmly and confidently nailed the shot.

Of course, that earlier long-two was in Sexton's first NBA game, so maybe that was unfair. Here's a clip from a game against the same Timberwolves squad a month or so later.

The shot clock is fairly low, so he's most likely going to create his own shot, but look at the one he took. 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.

Look at how he handled shooting off the dribble by the end of the season.

In the opposite way of how he had previously just stepped into a long two, he simply stepped back and hit the three. Sometimes basketball is very simple.

On the bright side

Perhaps the Cavs didn't shoot a lot of three-pointers early in the season because they didn't have a lot of three-point shooters. Did the Cavs really want Larry Nance, Jr. to start shooting from deep? (Note: the answer appears to have been yes, as almost 60% of Nance's career three-point attempts came this season.) Matthew Dellavedova can shoot them occasionally, Jordan Clarkson will toss them up, and Cedi Osman & Kevin Love will send them all game long, but aside from Love, who do you really want shooting them? 

As it turns out, the answer was Collin Sexton.

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