The NBA’s new market inefficiency

AP Photo/David Zalubowski
AP Photo/David Zalubowski

When the reigning NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers agreed to trade a 38 percent career three-point shooter in Mike Dunleavy for a 43 percent career three-point shooter in Kyle Korver and coughed up a future first-round pick for the right to do so, it was a sign of the times more than anything else.

The best teams in the NBA are locked in an arms race right now, and the weapon of choice is three-point shooting. The demand is high, and the supply is draining.

You don’t need me to tell you that this is how the game is played now. Turn on a Rockets-Blazers game on a random Wednesday night, and you might see 60 combined threes jacked up. You need shooting and floor spacing to survive in this era, and players that are unable to provide those things simply aren’t going to be as coveted as those who can.

It’s wise to be on the right side of evolution, but there’s value in zigging when everyone else is zagging. Big men who can’t stretch the floor out to the three-point line are being left for extinction by most teams, but some of the most opportunistic franchises will see this as a chance to take advantage of a market that has too heavily shifted towards a very specific type of player.

It’s already happening, albeit in small doses. The Orlando Magic shelled out $15 million a year for a 33 percent career three-point shooter in Jeff Green this offseason, while the Spurs happily snatched up David Lee on the veteran’s minimum. Lee is averaging 14 points, 10.5 boards and 3.2 assists per 36 minutes on 58.7 percent shooting. Green is averaging fewer points, rebounds and assists per 36, and is shooting 39.1 percent from the field and 29.6 percent from three.

Jeff Green is not good at basketball, of course, and the Spurs organization turns water into wine all the time. But it’s still interesting that the Spurs were one of the few teams this season to take an alternative path to frontcourt composition with the signings of Lee, Pau Gasol and Dewayne Dedmon.

Orlando Magic forward Jeff Green dunks during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Lakers, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2017, in Los Angeles. The Lakers won 112-95. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Unlike nearly every other team, three-point shooting wasn’t emphasized. And here we are, nearly halfway through the season, with the Spurs sitting at 30-7 with a top-five offense and the league’s best defense.

The Spurs are on to something, as per usual, and it would be wise for other small market teams to follow that blueprint as opposed to the one that requires multiple other-worldly offensive talents surrounded by high-priced shooters.

Look, no one is suggesting that someone like David Lee would make sense for a lot of teams – in fact, it’s the opposite. You need a strong system that has shown it can absorb a few unsavory defenders and has the length, athleticism and shooting elsewhere to keep chugging along. Only a few teams check off all those boxes.

Still, there are at least a few teams out there who have built the kind of continuity with their roster and staff and are positioned to be one of the buyers these types of players who are no longer en vogue.

And those skilled big men are available everywhere. Milwaukee would happily trade Greg Monroe, who is down to playing 21 minutes a night. Philadelphia may not be long for the Jahlil Okafor experiment. All around the league, there are young, talented big men rotting on benches, losing playing time to average shooting forwards.

Take Charlotte, for example. The Hornets are giving nearly 33 combined frontcourt minutes a night to Spencer Hawes and Roy Hibbert, and yet Charlotte is still eighth in defensive efficiency. The Hornets have three straight top-10 defensive efficiency campaigns under Steve Clifford, so there’s a track-record of this team being able to survive defensively even with “anchors” like Al Jefferson logging huge minutes in the frontcourt.

Three-point shooting from your big men is important, but it isn’t everything. Just ask the Spurs, who rank 28th in three-point attempts this season.

The pendulum will never fully shift, but it doesn’t necessarily have to. Instead of losing out on all the top-tier shooters to the teams best positioned to acquire them, a few smart teams will become the island for the misfit toys and exploit the most glaring market inefficiency in basketball today.

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