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The Great Debate: Is The Midrange Worth It?

For the past few years, there has been a debate circulating the NBA world that features sharp contrasts of opinion. Many say that the midrange shot has little value in the modern league, as layups, threes, and free throws are far more efficient. However, there are others who argue the value of the midrange, sometimes pointing towards the correlation between great player and team playoff performances and the midrange. For instance, Kawhi Leonard and the 2019 Raptors success. But who’s right? Is the midrange shot worth taking?

(Note: The league-average points per shot (Not player specific) in The Case Against The Midrange section were from CleaningTheGlass, the rest of the numbers presented will be using NBA.com Stats data unless otherwise specified. While there may be some differences in source, in all likelihood differences should not take away from the topics discussed).

The Case Against The Midrange: To first understand why this has become such a debate, it is important to have the knowledge of why teams seem to be taking less and less of this shot. The answer comes in efficiency. On average, during the 2020 regular season, teams scored 1.27 points per shot attempt at the rim, 1.09 points per shot attempt on threes, and 1.55 points per shot on free throw attempts (Assuming two attempts – Via Basketball Reference).

On the other hand, the average midrange shot in 2020 yielded an uninspiring 0.81 points per shot. To further illustrate, Kevin Durant, known for his lethal midrange, shot roughly 1.10 points per shot attempt on it last year. In comparison, Stephen Curry, a player known for the three similarly to how Durant is known for the midrange, scored an astonishing 1.31 points per shot attempt from downtown in 2019. 

Given this information at the surface level, it seems clear to take as little mid range shots as possible. In fact, when dissecting the best playoff offenses of 2020, the teams that shot the highest frequency of midrange shots had a strong correlation of having the worst offensive ratings (Points Scored per 100 Possessions). 

(Pct from Midrange on the X Axis and Offensive Rating on the Y Axis)

While the terrible value of the midange seems clear, is it possible that some of this correlation can be explained by merely being a small sample?

The Case For The Midrange: As it turns out, this may very well be a case of sample size insensitivity. Using larger postseason samples, we see a much less significant correlation. 

So why is this? Although every team has a story of their own, there are a couple reasons for why teams can shoot a significant amount of midange and still have a great offense.

Firstly, a team having good midrange shooters can be extremely valuable. For instance take Chris Paul, who on average scored 1.08 points per shot on midrange, close to the average three point shot. While it may seem like you can get a better shot than even an elite midrange shot at first glance, shooters like these are able to exploit defenses. Nowadays, some of the best defenses often focus on walling off the paint at all costs and allowing mid range shots.

However, having an elite shooter like Chris Paul, who can shoot an absurdly good percentage when left wide open from midrange, makes defenses have to focus on him too. Therefore, defenses need to pay attention to all three levels of the court, in the process opening up better shots in the paint or even from three. 

For example, in this snapshot against a Brooklyn team that forces a lot of midrange shots and very few rim shots, notice how high up Jarrett Allen (31) is playing Chris Paul. Given CP3’s threat to drive when being guarded this tightly by a big man, other defenders may be forced closer to the basket to help, leaving shooters open. However, by also bringing Allen up, the rim in some circumstances may also be left wide open for cutters or for a roll man to hit an easier shot. 

So, with that being said, is the midrange worth it?

Verdict: The midrange is still a valuable shot in large part due to the threat it poses towards the defense, not because of the actual efficiency of the shot itself.

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