Frankly, he’s been his own worst enemy in many ways.(…). His turnovers have been high; his fouls have been high; his shooting percentage has been low.
This is how Jeff Van Gundy evaluated Vassilis Spanoulis’ rookie season in the NBA with the Houston Rockets. In many ways, it was easy to feel sympathetic toward the Greek guard. His struggles are not uncommon among European players who make the jump. Adjusting to a different culture and a different game is not easy.
However, I had no sympathy for him. You see Spanoulis was an ex-Panathinaikos player; I am an Olympiacos fan. Needless to say, I was not exactly rooting for him. Indeed, his ill-fated NBA run was a great opportunity for a series of I-told-you-so’s: he is a turnover machine. He gets lost when he doesn’t have an edge thanks to his athleticism. You get the picture. This line of criticism continued to serve me well when Spanoulis returned to Europe and Panathinaikos. Whenever someone would point out an accomplishment of his, I would point to his turnovers. Then a funny thing happened: Spanoulis signed with Olympiacos and my priorities changed – I had to understand why he was turning the ball over and how much these turnovers hurt his team’s offensive efficiency. Spanoulis’ turnover percentage in his three seasons with the Reds has never dropped below 21%. Given the volume of possessions that he uses, how concerning is this number?
This is where shot selection comes in. Thanks to the innovative work of Ian Levy, Kirk Goldsberry and 82games.com – among others – we understand that there is a lot of truth to an old cliché: a bad shot is like a turnover. Mid-range jumpers are the classic example of a shot that misses more often and is rebounded more frequently by defenders compared to three-pointers and close-range attempts. Spanoulis has been knocking down 38% of his three-pointers, putting up and making close-range shots at an elite level for guards, while also being a regular at the free throw line. It could be argued that this sort of efficiency, coupled with his five assists per game, tends to outweigh his turnovers. Or that those miscues derive in large part from his effort to get to the high percentage areas of the floor, especially the paint.
Then again, turnovers are not as thoroughly researched an area as shot selection. This is why I decided to test these arguments by taking a closer look at Spanoulis’ game. Based on a sample of four games – two on the road, against Barcelona and Maccabi Tel Aviv and two at home against Fenerbahce and Panathinaikos for the Greek League – I charted his turnovers, assists and attempted field goals, hoping to get a better understanding of the impact that quality shots can have on protecting the ball. Here’s what the numbers say:
- Spanoulis committed just two of his thirteen turnovers in the ‘close-range’ area (in the paint, below the dotted half circle). Simply put, by the time he got there defensive rotations had usually collapsed, leaving him with both clear and attractive options.
- Three of his turnovers were committed in the ‘mid-range’ area (below the three point line, outside the paint).
- The other eight happened beyond the three-point line. Considering that Spanoulis also hit just 28% of his threes in these games, this area of the floor became synonymous with low efficiency for him.
Incidentally, Spanoulis also hit just 6 of his 13 close range attempts but he made up for it by hitting exactly 50% of his mid-range jumpers. Such discrepancies from his season averages are largely the product of the small sample; a more reliable finding concerns the type of actions that led to the aforementioned turnovers. The Olympiacos captain has his dribble picked up just twice in these four games. Vassilis Xanthopoulos stripped him in the left corner, behind the three point line in the Greek derby and Ante Tomic knocked the ball out of his hands toward Juan Carlos Navarro as he tried to get a shot off in the paint.
That Navarro steal was the only time in this stretch of the season when Spanoulis’ effort to create a high percentage shot for himself led to a TO. However, ten turnovers were committed off passes toward the paint. In other words, Spanoulis’ potential assists into a ‘high percentage area’ have been very risky. This is especially true when he was passing from behind the arc:
Of those ten turnovers, seven have been committed in plays similar to this one. Spanoulis is double teamed way outside the paint and tries to find a teammate with a killer pass early in the shot clock. As you can see in the early stages of this possession, a rushed shot is just as problematic. The obvious alternative is to swing the ball in the perimeter, where the secondary shot creator (Acie Law, Kostas Sloukas, Stratos Perperoglou, Giorgos Printezis) can take advantage of gaps in the defensive rotations. But even when he keeps his dribble alive and tries to attack the rim, things tend to look up.
It might not always look pretty, but Spanoulis’ forays into crowded spaces closer to the basket often help his efficiency. Even if his percentage in mid-range shots drops, those four games have indicated that this area of the floor can serve as a platform for a bunch of low-risk assists – twelve of them, to be exact (as opposed to only three TOs), eleven of which led to quality shots at the rim and behind the arc.
Advanced stats have provided plenty of evidence about the dangers of mid-range jumpers. But even though they help us ask all the right questions, sometimes the answers are more complicated – especially in the case of volume shot creators, who have to make the most of the space afforded to them by a defense designed to stop them. Players like Spanoulis can’t act as a homo economicus out there, limiting their game into high percentage areas. They need to put a system into motion. For most coaches, the endgame of this system is a quality shot. For most shot creators, the key is finding free space and making the right decision once they are there. This is why the spatial dimension of assists and turnovers should be examined as closely as that of shot selection.