Let’s take a step back: Indiana’s midrange fever

“Midrange” has become a dirty word in basketball over the last few years. With the rise of extremely complicated data due to very fancy technology, the basketball community discovered that a three-point shot is worth one more point than a two-point shot. Kidding aside, the analytics movement revealed that shots from midrange yield far fewer points per possession than three-point attempts. Consequently, most teams have gone away from midranges. The 2019 Indiana Fever are not one of those teams.

Indiana takes the most midrangers in the league….by a lot.

The Fever actually have one of the most efficient offenses in the league through 20 games. Indiana ranks third in offensive rating at 98.8, according to WNBA.com. Yet, they sit at 6-15 and four and half games back of the last playoff spot. Essentially, Indy’s solid offense has kept them in the playoff race while their defense has dragged them down.

The offense relies HEAVILY on midrange jumpers though. The Fever lead the league in percentage of points that come from midrange shots at 24.0%, which is six percent more than any other team. 285 of their possessions have ended in a shot from 17 feet out to the 3-point line (or as I like to call it, Daryl Morey’s hell). No other team has more than 230 such possessions, according to Synergy Sports. They take 36.7% of their shots from midrange, far above the league average of 25.5%.

I could go on, but you get the picture: the Fever love the midrange. At the very least, they are pretty good at shooting from there. Indy maintains the 4th most efficient midrange offense with 0.736 points per possessions. Candice Dupree and Erica Wheeler basically made the All-Star Game by taking midrange jumpers. Those two rate out as “very good” in terms of points per possession from the midrange, according to Synergy’s data.

Despite what the numbers and the basketball analytics beehive say, Indiana built a very good offense predicated on midrange jumpers in 2019……for now.

Can they maintain a healthy offense all season like this?

It’s not impossible for a good offense to get a lot of their points from midrange. In 2016, the top two teams in offensive rating (Minnesota and Chicago) had long 2s account for more than 23% of their points. However, they are the only two teams in the past four years to finish in top five of ORtg with 20% or more points from midrange. For Indiana specifically, they finished between 7th and last in ORtg with comparable levels of midrange scoring over the past three seasons.

Granted, historical data is not necessarily predictive. But this information shows how rare it is to have a top-level offense with such a focus from midrange. Indiana needs the offense to maintain its pace to keep any hope of the playoffs alive and doing so will be very difficult. Not only because of the volume of midrange shots, but also because of what those shots mean in the context of their offense.

Let’s compare Indiana and the league’s best offense in Washington D.C.  Both teams take more midranges than average and still score well. Take a look at the team’s heatmaps from positive residual. You see a similar shot distribution, but with some key differences.

You notice that the Fever take long 2s to the detriment of shots at the rim and three-point attempts and DC doesn’t. Indiana takes 5.2% fewer shots in the paint and 4.6% fewer from above the break, whereas DC is above average in both categories. The Mystics also don’t take many shots just inside the three-point line like Indy does, but take more shots from 12 to 15 feet rather than 16 to 22 feet.

Most in the WNBA community would say DC has a beautiful, fluid offense capable of a championship, while Indiana’s offense is teetering on collapse. This is due, at least in part, to the shot location disparity between the teams. While midrange shots get derided constantly, taking those shots does not mean you will have a bad offense. The issue comes when you take those long twos to the exclusion of better shots in the flow of an offense, which Indiana does.

What should Indiana do about this?

The dip we fear for Indiana’s offense may already be happening. After putting up an offensive rating of over 100 in May and June, the Fever’s ORtg dipped to 95.7 in July as the team went 1-6. Granted, a lot of potential explanations for this decline exists.

But their percentage of points from midrange ticked up in July and it seems that more of those midrange looks, which were open earlier in the year, are getting contested. They will need to start thinking of ways to eliminate some of those shots or at least making them easier.

First off, I don’t think Erica Wheeler or Candice Dupree should attempt to change what they are doing. As basketball analytics guru Ben Taylor explained in his video on the death of the midrange shot, “exploiting soft spots in the midrange can open up better opportunities [for an offense]but only with skilled mid-range shooters.”

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Those two players fall into that category. Dupree has been hitting those silky midrangers in the WNBA for 13 years and this year is no different. Wheeler has just been hitting from every spot on the floor, including the midrange. Maybe she falls down to earth at some point but until then, let it rip Erica.

As for everyone else, take literally one step back. Or a few steps forward, just stop shooting from no-man’s land. There are so many times where Fever players fail to realize where they are on the court and shoot with their foot on the line.

Kelsey Mitchell and the rest of the team just need a bit more awareness to avoid these bad shots. They need to slow down and get behind the line or drive in. By eliminating these “mistake” long 2s, the Fever can create a better shot distribution.

They can also help their shot chart by not drifting into a tough midrange shot. The biggest culprit of this is Betnijah Laney.

The Fever shouldn’t be taking those shots that early in the shot clock. They need to keep moving the ball around or start getting downhill to the rim. Indiana should try to limit their attempts outside the paint to open spot ups, rather than these tough looks.

Indiana’s season went sideways in July and they needed the All-Star break more than any other team. Defensive adjustments and figuring out the center rotation probably topped Pokey Chapman’s to-do list over the break.

But, I hope she left some time to think through their midrange problem. Any regression in their midrange shooting would put them firmly out of the playoff race. Hopefully, they can show a bit more court awareness and curtail the long, contested 2s that could sink their season.

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