Analyzing Cal MBB's Offensive Struggles and Shot Selection

Or: 2 point jump shots are draining my Cal fan life force

That Cal men’s basketball is struggling offensively is not up for debate. By any metric – point/possession, adjusted efficiency, shooting splits, turnover percentage – scoring points is a challenge for the Bears. In fact, by some metrics you could argue that Cal’s offense is worse than last year’s offense under Wyking Jones.

But, one might reasonable argue that it makes sense that this team may be marginally worse offensively than the year before. After all, the Bears lost Justice Sueing, Darius McNeill, and Connor Vanover, and are also potentially working through the transition costs of a new coaching staff and a new system. What more, you might ask, could Mark Fox reasonably do to wring more scoring out of this team in year one?

Well, my concern is that there are fundamental flaws in the shots Cal’s offense tends to look for, flaws that I think go beyond pure questions of talent or experience. And those flaws are blatantly obvious if you look at a few pretty simple shooting splits.

  • 28.4% of Cal’s field goal attempts are three point attempts, which ranks 339th in the nation. In other words, only NINE teams in the country take fewer 3 point shots than the Bears. Unsurprisingly, the Bears are also last in the Pac-12 in 3 point shot attempt rate.

  • Meanwhile, Cal is shooting 33.8% on their rare 3 point shots, which is essentially identical to the national average of 33.3%.

So Cal really rarely shoots 3s, but when they do they shoot them at a solidly average rate. Matt Bradley and Grant Anticevich are both above average shooters, and Kareem South is at least average for his college career (34.5%), even if he’s a bit below his four year average this season (30.3%).

At first blush, it seems like Cal should self-evidently be shooting many more 3 pointers. But, to play devil’s advocate – perhaps if Cal shot more 3s, their solid shooting percentage from behind the arc would decline? When asked this very question, that’s exactly the argument that Mark Fox made earlier this year:

I think we’re shooting it as well because we’ve taken the right ones and I think if you take contested ones your percentage will go very far south, and so we have to take the right ones. If we can get more shooting developed on our team then we’ll take more and more of them, but we have to have more guys that can hit open shots.

But talking about 3 point shots in isolation isn’t very valuable. We need to talk about them within the larger context of Cal’s offense. So, let’s compare them to the value Cal is getting from other types of shots.

Bart Torvik is a basketball analyst who runs a Kenpom-style site with some fun bits of data. One of the useful pieces is shot type splits. In play-by-play data, shots are classified as dunks, close twos, farther twos (typically, 2 point jump shots) and threes. Let’s look at Cal’s Farther Twos data.

  • 34.8% of Cal’s field goal attempts are classified as ‘Farther Twos.’ That’s the 31st highest rate in the country (or, depending on your point of view, the 323rd worst rate in the country).

  • Meanwhile, Cal is shooting 33.7% on their 2 point jumpers, which ranks 266th in the country, solidly below average.

Now, scroll back up to Cal’s 3 point shooting percentages. Notice anything interesting?

Yes, that’s right – our Bears are shooting identically on 3 point jumpers as they are on 2 point jumpers, yet attempting 2 point jumpers at a significantly higher rate.

This is bad. This is a crime against math. Mobilize the denizens of Evans Hall and storm the basketball offices with powerpoints and spreadsheets.

To exercise some simple math:

2 points x .337% = .67 points/shot
3 points x .338% = 1.01 points/shot

This rather simplistic formula doesn’t include the possibility of a foul (which happens at a low rate for any kind of jumper, whether 2 or 3) or an offensive rebound (which isn’t a strength of Cal’s offense anyway) but the difference in value between a 3 pointer and a 2 point jumper is so massive as to make little difference to the larger point. Cal is throwing away value on a huge number of possessions with their shot selection.

No, I’m not advocating that Cal sends DJ Thorpe and Lars Thiemann out to the 3 point line to bomb away indiscriminately. But it’s also true that there are only so many kinds of shots Cal’s offense can reasonably produce that are valuable. On that list of shots are 3 pointers from Bradley, South, and Anticevich (and maybe Kuany Kuany, who has flashed intriguing shooting in limited playing time). It’s a problem that Matt Bradley is 5th in the conference in 3 point shot attempts, rather than 1st. It’s a problem that Grant Anticevich hasn’t even made/attempted enough 3s to qualify for the Pac-12 leaderboard.

If Cal started taking more 3 point shots, would their 3 point shooting percentage decline? That seems probable. But it would have to decline by a significant amount to even come close to making Cal’s 3 point shots as inefficient as the 2 point jumpers that make up the bulk of Cal’s offense. The real problem here is that Mark Fox’s offensive system doesn’t appear to be designed to get Cal open 3 point looks. And if you’re a longtime Kenpom reader, then you already know that teams have a high degree of control over the types of shots their team attempts based on how they construct and coach their offense.

If this Cal team had the raw athleticism to drive into the paint and finish and/or draw fouls, then great. Kentucky gets away with never shooting threes each year because they have NBA-ready talent that can earn layup attempts at will. But Cal can’t do that. So the Bears need to work on producing the next best thing – 3 point shooting opportunities.

Which gets at my concern about long term offense. If this were just a one year blip, I’d be inclined to be more patient. But in his 15 years as a coach, Mark Fox’s offenses have almost always* had 3 point attempt rates that rank from below average to rock bottom, regardless of whether or not his team had good shooters. This year’s rate of attempting 3 point shots 28.4% of the time would have roughly matched the national average in 1995, which implies that Cal’s offensive strategy is roughly 25 years behind the times.

That’s a problem in modern college basketball. It’s particularly a problem for this team, because 3 point shooting is the one relative strength of this offense, and it’s not being used effectively. Maybe this isn’t a big deal this year, which is mostly about rebuilding and skill development. Right now, maximizing potential efficiency isn’t the difference between making or missing the tournament. But in future seasons, it very well could be, and all the evidence of his coaching career suggests that Mark Fox doesn’t value the 3 point shot.

It’s concerning that, with a year off to rethink his coaching style and with modern basketball moving decisively in the direction of taking more 3s to maximize offensive value, the 2019-20 Cal Bears are swimming against the current.

*Fox’s only team that shot 3s at an above average rate came at Georgia in 2012, when his team was bizarrely not a particularly good shooting team.