As the Nuggets got off to a rocky start to begin the season, it was hoped that help would be on the way in the form of Wilson Chandler when he returned to play after missing their first six games due to a hamstring injury. And while he has made helpful contributions to an extent, he has clearly fallen short of making the impact many Nuggets fans were hoping for.
For starters, his impact on the court versus off has been essentially neutral. Consider, for example, the discrepancy between Chandler and Mozgov in this regard:
With Chandler, the difference between him being in the game or not has been negligible. The Nuggets have netted just 0.8 more points per 100 possessions and have shot only a 0.6 higher TS% when he’s been on the court. By contrast, with Mozgov in the game Denver has netted a significantly higher 6.4 points per 100 possessions, and shot a 5.0 percent better TS%. To put this into perspective, Denver currently has a pace of 98.5, which is close enough to 100 for us to say that Mozgov is netting just over plus-six points per game, while Chandler is at just under plus-one.
Mozgov is making the kind of big positive impact which had been expected from Chandler, but has so far not really materialized. And the fact that Wilson has yet to break through his early season struggles (as, say, Nate Robinson did) has been one of the more disappointing aspects of this Nuggets season. Perhaps his first few games back from injury might be dismissed due to recovery time, but now that he is a full 15 games* into the season and appears to have been at full health for most of that stretch, it’s becoming apparent that the version of Chandler the Nuggets are getting this season is not quite up to par with last year’s model.
Regression to the mean, shot selection or both?
One of the more glaring dropoffs in Chandler’s game this season has been in his 3-point shooting percentage, leading many (including myself) to speculate that last season may have been a fluke and that he is now, as could be expected, regressing to the mean. And while there appears to be some truth to that, there are other factors (as we will see below) which may be playing a greater role in Wilson’s reduced efficiency.
But before diving into the deeper complexities, let’s first address the main question at hand: Is Wilson Chandler’s 3-point shooting regressing to the mean?
In a word, yes. And it doesn’t take much more than a look at this comparison of his shooting percentages to see it quite clearly. The dark blue bar on the left represents the average from his career prior to the 2012-13 season, the light blue bar is last season, and the yellow bar is 2013-14:
You can see that both his 2-point and overall field goal percentages are within the ballpark of his career averages, but that his 3-point percentage spikes to over .400 in 2012-13 and then plummets back to the .350 neighborhood of his career average this season. So there’s the regression, and unfortunately that seems to make it unlikely that Wilson can find a way to re-create his better 3-point percentage moving forward.
There is another interesting point to be made here, which is that despite the slippage in his 3-point shooting, Chandler’s eFG% is just as high as last season’s, his TS% has dipped only slightly, and both are above his career averages. We will return to this apparent incongruity further below.
Before that, however, let’s take a look at a comparison between this season and last of the types of plays Chandler has been making, as this will provide some context and detail for the regression:
As you can see, there has been a dramatic difference in his play type profile this season. His spot-ups (largely 3-point attempts) are way up, while his plays as the pick-and-roll roll man (generally drives to the basket) are way down. And while it’s true that, all things being equal, both 3-pointers and shots at the rim are among the most efficient shots in basketball, all things are not, in fact, equal:
Chandler has been highly efficient in pick-and-rolls this season, scoring 1.6 PPP as the roll man. And while we can expect this, like his 3-point shooting, to see at least some regression as the sample size grows through the season, when considering the possibility that his 3-point shooting has already regressed further, the result so far is that he has been taking his less efficient (ie. lower PPP) shot (3-pointers) more frequently and his more efficient shot (drives as the roll man) less frequently. And so, on the balance, shot selection may be playing a role just as important as, if not greater than regression.
How usage factors in
Let’s turn to Chandler’s actual production on the court, in this case comparing his per 36 minutes statistics along the same career/2012-13/2013-14 divisions:
A quick glance reveals that his production is down from last season nearly across the board, except for one particular area: made and attempted 3-pointers. Despite a drop from 15.2 to 11.4 overall field goal attempts per 36 minutes, Chandler’s 3-point attempts have jumped up from 4.2 to 5.6 this season. And consequently, his 2-point attempts have plummeted from 11 to 5.8. If his 3-point percentage is regressing to the mean, his attempts are doing quite the opposite.
This provides some explanation for the question posed above as to how he could maintain his eFG% despite the drop in his 3-point percentage: It is being offset by an increased volume of higher value shots. Last season, about 49 percent of Chandler’s shots were taken at the rim. That has dropped to about 29 percent this season, and one would think that would lead to a big hit to his efficiency. Meanwhile, however, the percentage of his shots taken from the corner has increased from about 11 to about 20 percent of his total shooting. This appears to be enough to offset the drop in his 3-point percentage.
However, there are other consequences of staying out of the paint and sticking to the perimeter. His rebounding and free throw attempts are also down, and the latter – along with the drop in his free throw percentage from .793 to .714 – is why his TS% (unlike his eFG%) has slipped.
Let’s take a look at one last chart which will help to bring this all together:
Here we can see in striking relief the trends described above. Chandler’s PER, free throw rate, rebound rate and usage have all dropped off, while his 3-point rate has skyrocketed.
But although the surge in his 3-point rate may be the most eye-catching, I’d like to end by proposing that, perhaps, the drop in usage rate is the most important stat of all we have looked at. Brian Shaw has said repeatedly that he wants to find ways to get Chandler more shots, and get him more involved in general, but whether it’s due to Shaw’s coaching, Chandler’s play, or both, they have not had much success making that happen in reality, as reflected by Wilson’s career-low usage rate of 16.8.
Chandler has looked out of place and confused about his role this entire season. Shaw hasn’t really been running many set plays for him such as the “pick and fade” George Karl went to so often last season (see Mike Prada’s excellent breakdown of that here). Chandler’s greatest offensive attribute might be his versatility, but that has largely been squelched in favor of just bombing from the arc all the time, which has produced neutral, but not fruitful results.
I’m not optimistic that Chandler can reverse the regression to poorer 3-point shooting, but steps can certainly be taken to improve his overall efficiency. If Shaw wants him to be more involved, he needs to put his money where his mouth is and draw up some pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops for him. Chandler plays better when he’s more aggressive, and getting him to the rim more often should not only help his confidence, but also his free throw and rebounding rates.
And who knows. If he’s more selective about his 3-pointers, and keeps defenses honest by driving to the rim more, maybe, just maybe he can start working on fighting his way back upward against that regression and closer to .400 again.
You can follow Joel on Twitter here: @denbutsu