Examining Danny Granger's Shooting Struggles

In baseball, “The Mendoza Line” is a term used to describe hitting futility. Wikipedia explains.

The Mendoza Line is an expression in baseball in the United States, deriving from the name of shortstop Mario Mendoza, whose lifetime batting average is taken to define the threshold of incompetent hitting. Even though Mendoza’s career batting average over nine seasons (1974-1982) was .215, most often the cutoff point is said to be .200, and, when a position player’s batting average falls below that level, the player is said to be below the Mendoza Line. This is often thought of as the offensive threshold below which a player’s presence in Major League Baseball cannot be justified, regardless of his defensive abilities.

The NBA doesn’t have an equivalent cut-off for value. But 40.0% shooting is a pretty good barometer for whether or not you’re making shots at a high enough clip to help your team. In recent years, those of us who have been paying attention have figured out that eFG% (effective field goal percentage) and TS% (true shooting percentage) are better gauges for shooting accuracy (they account for three-pointers being worth more and free-throw-making rate, respectively). But if you’re just looking at a box score and want a quick-and-dirty assessment of how a guy performed, 40% from the field works.

In related news, Danny Granger has only shot 40% from the field in one game so far this season. He has made 14 three-pointers in his 8 games and he is getting to the line at a decent rate (4.1 FTAs per outing), so his eFG% and TS% give a more complete picture. But his current 36.2% (eFG%) and 42.0% (TS%) are well below his career averages of 50.4% and 56.4%, respectively.

Here is the game-by-game breakdown.

After the Celtics win, Granger talked about his shooting woes.

“I’m missing shots that’s, like, rolling in and then coming back out,” said Granger. “I’m not really worried about my shot. It’ll come … I’m missing layups. And I’ve notoriously started off every season of my career bad. Each preseason, I would shoot, like, 20-something percent and end up shooting better throughout the year.”

He was clearly referring to his past pre-season play. And he was insinuating that since this season was so rushed and the team had only two exhibition games, he was still getting out the rust that he normally has in the preseason. But I don’t actually know where to find any preseasons stats to fact-check his comment. So all we can do is look at how he has typically started the regular season.

Here are Granger’s career stats by month.

As we can see, he usually shoots great in October (during which, we must note, he has played less than one game per season during his career). And while his FG% numbers in November aren’t phenomenal, they are better than his accuracy has been in November in December. On the other hand, his 3PT% has always been at its lowest during November and December, making huge jumps once he gets into mid-season form.

What about Danny’s claim that he is “missing layups”? Just from watching the games, it’s pretty obvious that he is missing a lot of shots in the paint. Some have looked like those he would normally make, but others appear to be off-balance, awkward attempts by a man who is pressing to get a bucket to go down.

But, again, let’s take the words of NBA statistician Dean Oliver to heart: “Individuals see a basketball game better than the numbers, but the numbers see all the games.”

Here are are his per-game shooting numbers, both this year and over the last five, from different locations on the floor.

As you can see, Danny’s percentage is miserable on his 3.4 attempts per game at the rim (which is defined as layups and dunks). He typically makes about 60% of his at-rim attempts. But so far this season, his 41.7% is barely over the NBA “Mendoza line” of 40% even on these should-be gimmes. Worse still are his numbers from the mid-range. He is shooting a borderline impossible 14.3% from 10-15 feet and 11.0% from 16-23 feet. Sample size must be noted — we’re talking about 16 total shots from 10-15 feet and 32 between 16-23 feet. But his accuracy from these spots on the floor is some 3 times worse than his previous career production.

For the most part, we can probably presume the at-rim numbers will go up. Danny knows how to make layups. His mid-range numbers are where we can infer more into shot selection and, perhaps, a mounting pressure to put the ball in the hoop affecting his shot-making. Shots from 10-23 feet are almost universally the most frequently missed by all NBA players. There is a short list of guys, like David West and Rip Hamilton, who post good percentages from these distances. The point here is that even good shots from these spots are tough to make. When you start taking difficult ones? Good luck.

While Pacers fans are increasingly asking me what’s going on, Granger isn’t worrying. At least not yet.

“I’m not too worried about it cause we’re winning,” said Granger after the Pacers win in Boston. “You know, if we were 2-5, I probably wouldn’t be able to sleep right now. But we’re 5-2, and we’re getting contributions from everybody — even down to our second unit. I really think that’s the mark of a good team: when, ya know, your top two or three guys, if they don’t have it going, you got a lot of other people that can pick them up. That’s teams that can go deep in the playoffs. So I’m very happy.”

He continued talking about how it was team play, not his individual performance, that would define the Pacers this season.

“We’re so talented across the board,” said Granger. “I’m talking, maybe one through eight, we’ve got guys who could start on other teams. So it’s really exciting to be a part of.”

This wasn’t solely post-game talk. In the waning minutes of the team’s win over the Celtics, Granger had an open three-point shot after he caught a swing pass amid a rotating defense. Rather than his going with his instinct — firing away from distance — he shot-faked and put it on the floor to get a closer look. He got that closer look and appeared to be squaring up for a pull-up jumper from right behind the three-point line. Instead, as he drew a rotating defender, to the surprise of many, he passed the ball out to an open Darren Collison behind the arc on the left wing. DC buried the shot, putting Indy up by 12 with 91 seconds to play and sending the Celtics fans for the exits.

I asked him about the pass, telling him that I don’t think I’ve ever seen him pass up a look that good.

“I think that’s indicative of how we’re trying to play,” replied Granger. “I mean, I had hit a few shots — but they weren’t really falling. I knew Darren had hit two or three in a row and I had a wide-open shot —”

“Two of em,” I said, interrupting.

“Yeah, yeah: two of em,” he said. “And I knew that he had a good one and he had it going, so I  passed to him, and he knocked it down. So, that’s the way we play: whoever has it going, that’s where we’re going.”

Rhetoric is often just that. And Granger saying things like this means little. Every player and coach preaches team play even when they clearly don’t practice it on the floor. But I was struck by a phrase that, for a team with this many similarly talented offensive weapons, could become a calling card. “Whoever has it going, that’s where we’re going.”

The past two games, it often has been George Hill that has it going. Roy Hibbert had it going last night. David West, a mid-range assassin, is going to have games where he has it going so well that it will seem like he is incapable of missing. In one playoff game against the Bulls last season, Tyler Hansbrough had it going to a point that Carlos Boozer’s dreams are probably still haunted. Paul George, a 29.7% three-point shooter last year, has had it going from behind the arc all season: his 63.0% accuracy from three-point range this year leaves him second in the league, trailing only Ray Allen — ya know, the all-time leader in three-pointers.

Danny Granger is a shooter. And shooters gonna shoot. He would likely be the first one to tell you this. And it seems clear that his outward confidence hasn’t been shaken at all by his early-season futility. His on-court behavior, too, hasn’t reflected anything but a willingness to keep getting the ball up on the rim.

Ultimately, I don’t think there is anyone who doesn’t think Granger’s shooting will improve in the weeks and months to come. This could just be a slump. It could turn out to be an off-year for him. Or maybe he has simply lost a little something after years of playing in a terrible offense and will not regain his once-elite scoring ability. But whatever is going on right now, it can’t be this bad all year.

But as he tries to get back on track — and perhaps even more telling, after he does — it will be interesting to see whether or not this “whoever has it going, that’s where we’re going” slogan becomes forgotten post-game rhetoric or something he displays in his decision making.

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