David West Is Sacrificing Shots: Is This a Good Thing?


David West has had back-to-back monster games as Indiana has defeated the Wizards and Kings. He dropped a combined 36 points on 16-for-24 (66.7%) in the two games while also adding 8 rebounds in each. While much has been made about Paul George using the Kings game to break out of a shooting slump that dates back to before Christmas, West’s performance may be even more encouraging.

Because until recently, he hadn’t been producing much.

West is scoring less this year than he has in any season since Ron Artest played for the Pacers. Really, his output isn’t much lower than it was during his first season in Indiana, so the drop off could reasonably be attributable by the offensive rise of Paul George and Lance Stephenson.

Quite simply, West just isn’t relied on as much, both to kickstart possessions by joining George Hill in the pick-and-roll or as the safety-valve jumpshooter who the team would once give to the ball to late in the clock and say “Here, you do something with it.”

So the diminishing point totals shouldn’t be seen as a major concern.

Still, he is not just shooting less, he is shooting significantly worse from the midrange — an area where his usual prowess has earned him the nickname The 17-Foot Assassin. This has to be a concern.

Until his recent two-game breakout, West had made just 116-for-282 (41.1%) shots taken outside the restricted area (and inside the three-point line). The worst segment of these attempts has been those taken in the paint (but not at the rim), where he is shooting just 33-for-94 (35.1%).

Here are shot charts, via NBA.com, comparing his accuracy last season to this one (prior to his last two games).

The green has turned yellow and the yellow has turned red.

Not a good look.

What’s the deal? Is he simply missing shots that he has historically always made? Is this a slump or is he getting old? Or has his role in the offense changed?

For his part, Frank Vogel — a coach usually reticent to single out individuals — went out of his way to praise West after his excellent game against the Wizards.

“You look at David West’s numbers,” said Vogel, “and it looks like he’s having an OK season. Son of a gun could average 20 and10 if he wanted to, but he’s leading our team in sacrifice and team play. He’s stepping aside and letting Lance Stephenson and Paul George grow as players and develop into the beasts that they are at the wing spot. And he’s capable of doing what he did tonight: a seemingly easily 20 and 8 in 27 minutes. The big reason why we have the record that we have right now is his sacrifice for this basketball team. It’s really something special.”

West was asked how he has been able to step aside some after being more of an offensive focal point in the past. “It’s a part of the winning,” said West. “We’re trying to win. We’re trying to win big. So you just wanna be part of a winning situation. We’ve been able to win. I mean, 29 wins to this point, so we’re gonna stick with what we been doing. That’s just the way I look at it. Collectively, we know we’ve got a very, very good basketball team. There are gonna be nights where one guy gets going, or another guy gets going. It’s just who we are.”

It is clear that he is being asked to do less. George and Stephenson have both proven that they deserve to have some possessions during which the ball is put in their hands to create. Indiana remains one of the less iso-dependent teams in the association, but each of these guys have progressed to a point where it makes sense to run sets for them to showcase their scoring abilities.

Has this led to fewer occasions when the team is setting up West in his wheelhouse?

I looked into this and found one seemingly intriguing piece of evidence. Last season, nearly half of West’s made shots in the paint (but outside the restricted area) were assisted. This year, only one third are, which means he has had to work harder to create his opportunities. Up until his two-game breakout, 24 of his 36 makes from this area have come unassisted where as last season 71 of his 144 paint (non-RA) field goals were the result of teammates setting him up for buckets.

Then again, this actually seems more like happenstance than anything. It remains something to watch, but the more film you view of West the more it becomes apparent that he has to be one of the hardest guys in the league for score keepers to assess assists on. Rarely does he just catch and shoot. He almost always surveys the defense first and toys with the idea of advancing for a closer shot. He often takes one dribble, even if it’s only so that he can put the defender on guard and set him up to be helpless to contest his patented lean-back jumper.

Really, after watching every non-RA shot he has taken so far this year, there didn’t seem to be anything visually different than how he has been used in the past. He has been getting the same shots in the same locations and doing his general “Power Dirk” stuff whenever he got the ball anywhere near the free-throw line.

The one thing that did stand out, however, is that many of his misses have seemed to come on plays where he misjudges how much of advantage he has gained on his defender. This is his bread and butter. He fights all game long for space — with the ball, without it; with his body, with his demeanor — and he exploits these inches to get off his shot. Not to get too Al Pacino here, but those inches are critical to West’s game and he is able to be so devastating because he is so adept at both getting those inches and knowing exactly when he has enough space to put up a good look.

It seems as though that second factor is where many of his missteps are coming this year. At times he seems to think he has that advantage — which is something he seems to simply perceive more than specifically “see” if that makes any sense — only to rise up and take a contested or off-balance shot that clangs iron. It is rare to see West miss badly, but on almost all the occasions this year where he has, this improper perception of being open — of having that two-inch advantage — seem to be the culprit.

I can’t definitively state why this is happening. It may be the same cause of his worst misses last year, too, and I am only now looking into it. But there were two other potential reasons that came to my mind.

First is the more troubling one: West is just another year older, a tad bit slower, and a little worse at knowing exactly how much space he needs. He is pushing away defenders to the same degree he has in the past, but either his strength isn’t exactly as forceful as in the past to create separation or his split-second ability to transition from advancing territorially to starting his shot is a hair slower.

Second is that his lower usage rate is affecting his ability to perceive when he has this advantage. It would make sense that if West were to, for example, take 30 field goal attempts per game, he would get into a rhythm where every one of these “Do I have an advantage or not?” decisions would be easier. Then again, if he only is able to operate in his wheelhouse twice per game, you would expect him to make more errors in judgement. At least theoretically perhaps.

So maybe him taking fewer attempts per game is a source of the lower shooting percentage? Maybe going longer in between shots is making him less able to succeed.

This is all speculation. But there are precedents, not so much with West but with other players who are praised for their ability to come into games off the bench and go right to work. Certain players simply can’t do this. They need to start and get into the groove of the game before they can feel completely comfortable and be productive. This is the norm and the contrasts stand out: Manu Ginobili and Jason Terry are two players in particular who can come off the bench cold and play productively as if they have already played 20 minutes.

Really, who knows? Maybe he’s just in a half-season slump that has already begun to disappear?

Regardless, West remains the heart and soul of the roster. His influence on the team’s culture, demeanor and professionalism can’t be overstated. And even if his age or the lower usage are what have been decreasing his efficiency, there seem few guys more likely to adjust and figure out how to produce when his team needs it. He has long been one of the team’s most clutch performers, and his 49.5% fourth-quarter shooting this season leads the team.

So perhaps Vogel is right. Maybe West is just sacrificing — and if him doing that is a big reason why Stephenson and George are so dominant, well, his intangible effect on the offense may outweigh anything we can read in the box score.

“I don’t think he gets enough credit for what he’s done this year,” said Vogel. “And you can’t quantify it in any kind of number or statistic…the impact his sacrifice has had on us having the best record in the league.”

Well, there may be one number that could help ease any concerns that West’s low-volume shooting is hurting the team. While he has already taken fewer than 9 shots in 10 games this year — after doing so just 4 times in 73 games last season — it clearly isn’t killing Indiana.

The Pacers’ record in those 10 games? 10-0.