Thursday January 8th, 2015

With the NBA season heating up, we’ve seen many players change up their offensive games this year, for better or worse.

Some players, such as Chicago’s Jimmy Butler, have matured into budding superstars by increasing their shooting efficiency all over the court. Others, such as newly-signed Houston Rockets forward Josh Smith, haven’t been able to nail buckets from usual areas of strength.

With the help of a recently released shot chart database from research engine FindTheBest, which visualizes every shot taken in the league over the past two seasons, we’ll analyze why five players have seen drastic bumps or dips in their shooting performance thus far.

Note: The shot chart widgets automatically update to feature current stats, so the text might not exactly match what the graphs show. All statistics in the text are current as of games played through Jan. 7.

Jimmy Butler

In his first full season as a starter last year, Butler impressed with his versatile defensive skills but was merely passable on the offensive end. He only made 48.8 percent of shots in the restricted zone (the league average was 54.0 percent) and 27.1 percent of three-pointers above the break (where the league average was 35.2 percent). On a team that badly needed outside shooting, Butler was no help in that regard, and the Bulls lost in the first round of the playoffs to Washington.  

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This year, Butler has upped his conversion rate in the restricted zone to league-average standards. He’s hurling up less shots from beyond the arc and conversely taking a more aggressive approach in driving to the rim.

Even though he hasn’t been able to sneak into the corners as much due to his newfound status as Chicago’s offensive star, he’s managed to increase his field goal percentage to 47.8, a career-high. He’s even upped free throw percentage to a career-best 83.3.

If Derrick Rose can return to 80 percent of his old MVP form to complement Butler and a revived Pau Gasol, the Bulls will be a scary offensive team. That’s something they haven’t been able to say for years.

Rajon Rondo

In what turned out to be his last full season as a Boston Celtic, Rondo recorded the worst field goal percentage of his career at 40.3 percent. Even though he was limited to 30 games due to injuries, he took a career-high 90 three-point attempts and sank 28.9 percent of them. That’s certainly not the work of a marksman, but he was at least around league average on three-point shots above the break (33.3 percent).

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This season has hardly been better, with Rondo logging the second-worst field goal percentage (41.0) of his career thus far. Dallas’ new point guard has been cold from all over the place, barely making half of his shots in the restricted zone and sinking just 30.7 percent of his mid-range looks around the elbows after converting 49.1 percent of those looks last season.

The Mavs have won seven of their 10 games with Rondo, who’s averaging 12.2 points and 9.2 assists since being acquired. Opponents have given him plenty of space and essentially dared him to shoot, and Rondo has been slightly better than he was with Boston early on. But if Dallas is going to make some noise in the stacked Western Conference, Rondo will have to take advantage of those opportunities more often and give other teams a reason to forego that strategy.

Rudy Gay

Rudy Gay has taken a lot of slack for being an inefficient shooter, and the small forward’s reputation took a hit last season when the Toronto Raptors improved after they traded him. For a 6-foot-8 small forward, Gay was awful in the restricted area, making just 48.4 percent of his attempts. He was just about league average on three-pointers above the break, and only slightly above average on midrange shots -- his supposed specialty.

Gay has seemingly responded to critics by vastly improving his three-point shot this season. He’s hitting 41.5 percent of attempts above the break, which has stilted up a 38.0 percent clip from downtown, the second-best mark of his career.

Sacramento tried to fill its void of three-point shooting this offseason by drafting Nik Stauskas. That hasn’t gone as planned, but if Gay can maintain his accuracy from deep at a higher volume, Sacramento could fix that issue with an unexpected in-house solution.

Kyrie Irving

Last year, Kyrie Irving essentially had to carry Cleveland’s offense, which suffered from a lack of spacing. There weren’t many driving lanes for Irving to exploit, and he often ran into towering bigs that affected close-range shots. As a result, he only converted 45.8 percent of his attempts in the restricted area.

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Irving has been able to get to the rim far more often this year with increased efficiency to boot. He’s shooting 51.9 percent in the restricted area (a more respectable figure, if not entirely efficient), and has taken 30.3 percent of his shots there after attempting just 20.8 percent of his shots in the restricted area last season. His overall field goal percentage is currently at 45.9 percent, up from 43.0 in 2013-14.  

The Cavaliers might not have reached their full potential yet as a team, but Irving’s continued growth is a very positive development nonetheless.

Josh Smith

Josh Smith’s choice to sign with the Pistons in the summer of 2013 didn’t seem like a good idea for either side at the time. The results of that ill-fated marriage proved to be worse than anyone imagined.

Detroit fans quickly took up the Atlanta tradition of groaning whenever the former Hawk pulled up from beyond the arc, a motion Smith inexplicably did more often than usual during his one season in Motown. He hoisted 26.0 percent of his shots from three-point land, with just 26.4 percent finding the bottom of the net.

When Smith was in Atlanta for the first nine years of his NBA career, his one saving grace was that he could bang in the low post with the best of them and convert close-range shots. Even that skill eroded in his two seasons with the Pistons, though. After netting 60 percent of his shots within 5 feet of the rim in his last season with the Hawks (2012-13), Smith has made just 46.1 percent and 49.0 percent of shots in the restricted area over his past two campaigns.

Mercifully, Smith has cut down on his three-point attempts this season (14 percent of all shots), and is back to connecting on over half of his two-point attempts in Houston -- the last time he’s done that for an entire season was in 2010-11. But J-Smoove has still essentially been a net negative on offense no matter where he’s taken his shots from. Perhaps Rockets coach Kevin McHale can make him fit in Houston’s proficient offense, but Smith seemingly goes against every bit of the team’s philosophy.

FindTheBest is a research website that’s collected all the data on Kyrie Irving and the Cleveland Cavaliers and put it all in one place so you don’t have to go searching for it.

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