Harrison Barnes’ favorite shot makes stat-heads cringe.

The 24-year-old is unquestionably having his best season as a pro, averaging a career-best 19.7 points per game on 47.0 percent shooting from the field. After spending his first four seasons playing fourth and fifth fiddle on the star-studded Golden State Warriors, Barnes has taken his game to new heights in his first year with the Mavericks, where he’s become the club’s go-to guy.

But it’s where he’s done his damage that’s the story. As of March 27, Barnes had already hit more 2-point shots this season (494) than he did in his previous two seasons combined (442). After one-third of his total field goal attempts in his last two seasons were 3-point shots, Barnes has attempted less than 17 percent of his shots from 3-point land this year. But that doesn’t mean he’s been doing his work around the rim.

No, Barnes has thrived in Dallas working from the mid-range, particularly in the mid-post and at the elbow, Dirk Nowitzki’s signature spots on the floor for nearly two decades. Late-game isolation plays once run for Nowitzki as the Mavericks won the championship in 2011 are now “under new management,” as Barnes joked earlier this year.

The mid-range game is an endangered species in the modern NBA. The analytics revolution has proven field goal attempts outside of the paint but inside the 3-point line are the least-efficient shots a player can hoist. Many teams, most infamously the Houston Rockets, have all but erased that shot from existence. The Rockets attempt just 7.1 mid-range shots per game, according to NBA Stats; six players attempt more per game themselves, led by the Raptors’ DeMar DeRozan at 10.0 mid-range jumpers a night.

Why is the shot going out of style? Mathematically, a player is much better off shooting either a 3 or getting to the basket. Let’s say a player connects on exactly 40 percent of his mid-range jumpers, which is around the league-average mark; that’s good for 0.8 points per shot. A player would only need to shoot 27 percent from 3-point land to score at the same rate. So, the thought process goes, why not just take a couple steps back and rely on the long-ball? Players like Steph Curry and Damian Lillard have become excellent off-the-dribble 3-point shooters, while James Harden and LeBron James get to the rim at will, and shooting at the rim is much more efficient than taking a contested 18-footer.

Not all players are abandoning the shot, though, and some still consider it a necessary element of an offensive arsenal to develop.

Count Dirk Nowitzki among them. During the preseason, while Barnes was struggling through a horrendous shooting slump while still playing small forward, Nowitzki decided to begin working out with his new teammate to see if he could help him out. Barnes matched the legend shot-for-shot.

“He had all that,” Nowitzki told The Vertical recently. “I was like, ‘We got to see that in the game.'”

When a sore Achilles sidelined Nowitzki for an extended period of time, Barnes moved to the power forward spot and immediately excelled in the mid-range game, scoring a career-high 34 points in a Nov. 6 win against Milwaukee, the first game after it became clear the German would be out for a while.

He’s demonstrated throughout the year that he can attack the basket against slower 4s and back down point guards if they switch on to him, but otherwise he’s relied on the mid-range shot as much as any wing in basketball. He’s one of just four starting wings in the league who score more than 27 percent of their points in the mid-range, per NBA Stats.

Player Points/gm Mid-Range FGA/gm Mid-Range FG% Mid-Range Points/gm 2016-17 eFG%
DeMar DeRozan 27.1 10.0 41.6 8.3 47.6
Carmelo Anthony 22.7 9.0 45.3 8.2 49.0
Paul George 22.6 6.8 46.0 6.2 51.8
Harrison Barnes 19.7 6.7 41.8 5.6 49.8

DeRozan is toward the top of the league in free throw attempts, but otherwise the rest of this group is made up mostly with jump-shooters. (Nowitzki, in case you were wondering, has scored 41.6 percent of his points in the mid-range this season, which leads all NBA starters.)

Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle is not among those who wishes the mid-range shot any ill, which is both surprising and not surprising at all. Carlisle runs one of the most modern offenses in the entire league and he relies heavily on analytic information, so you’d think he’d want his team to avoid 20-footers. However, his system is built around Nowitzki and Barnes, who take advantage of extra room at the elbow opened up by pristine floor spacing. If either player demands a double-team, someone else is sure to be wide-open. Toronto’s Dwane Casey, who was on the Mavs’ bench for the 2011 title run, runs a similar system in Toronto. In that regard, it places a burden of responsibility on players like Barnes and DeRozan to make plays from that area as well as hunt for shots themselves.

The way Carlisle sees it, more teams should take advantages of that skill set.

“It’s an area of the floor where both of those guys do a lot of creating, as well as scoring and shooting,” Carlisle said. “It’s hard to create from the 3-point line as a wing player unless you’re really good in pick-and-rolls and you can either rise up and make a lot of shots from 3, or you can get by double-teams or split coverages and get to the rim.

“I don’t know if it’s so much that they’re outliers, as much as they may be new pioneers on some level.”

When Barnes arrived to the NBA in 2012, he already possessed a fairly polished mid-range game. Mavs proprietor Mark Cuban said Barnes’ performance in the 2013 playoffs, during which he operated mostly out of the mid-range and at the power forward spot, was the primary evidence to convince the Mavericks he had the potential to become an offensive cornerstone in their system.

Barnes Wins It For Dallas

Harrison Barnes gets into the lane and hits the runner to seal the win for Dallas over the Clippers.

By then, however, the league was modernizing at an exponential rate and the mid-range shot was beginning to disappear. During the 1999-00 season, more than 38 percent of field goal attempts league-wide came from the mid-range, per NBA Stats. Fast-forward to Barnes’ rookie season in 2012-13 and that number decreased to just 28.4 percent. This season, just 22.4 percent of attempts have come from that area of the floor.

“When I was coming in, I was trying to work on my mid-range game, and people kind of discouraged me from getting to it,” Barnes told Mavs.com. “They said that Melo was one of the last people that really operated out of the mid-post as a wing. DeMar was still trying to do it, but he hadn’t become an All-Star yet, so they weren’t fully sold on him. Obviously now, people see how good of a player he’s become. There’s a little bit more emphasis on it. … Those two people are guys that I kind of look to to still keep that mid-range game alive.”

At the time, Barnes became close with then-Warrior Richard Jefferson, who would later go on to join the Mavericks and then the Cavaliers. In his prime, Jefferson had a nice mid-range and around-the-basket game, before later reinventing himself as a knock-down 3-point shooter.

“He said back in the day, everyone used to have a logo game, a mid-post game,” Barnes told Mavs.com. “That was one thing that guys just don’t have anymore. I always try to work on that. Guys like Paul Pierce, I used to watch them, and they always used to operate out of that. Kobe was really good at that mid-post area. It was something I always try to do, and I’ve had some success at that this year.”

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Barnes worked in the mid-range much more often in his first two pro seasons under head coach Mark Jackson than he did for Steve Kerr, but he said Kerr was a “big advocate” of his mid-post game and encouraged him to continue working at it. His role in the Warriors offense shrunk dramatically under Kerr, as Steph Curry became an MVP and Klay Thompson emerged as one of the best 2-guards in basketball, but Barnes was still given free rein to attack mismatches in the mid-range and post if smaller defenders switched on to him.

It’s easy to look ahead to an NBA in which during some games neither team even attempts a mid-range shot. The Rockets have set and reset the record for 3-point makes and attempts in a game this season, and we might not be far away from a year in which every team attempts at least 30 treys per contest, as offense moves further and further from the rim. However, one possible defensive solution in the modern, pick-and-roll-heavy NBA is fielding a lineup of five players who can each guard three or four positions and can switch virtually every screen, and that could go a long way in shrinking the floor.

The way most defenses currently work is either the big defender will hedge a screen hard, temporarily leaving his man open, or the little defender will go under the screen, giving his man an open look at a jump shot. Neither situation is preferable for a defense, and it puts a strain on the other three defenders on the floor, as they all must be ready to rotate if the ball begins to move. That’s what’s made Draymond Green so valuable for the Warriors: He can pass exceptionally well for a big man, so defenses can’t afford to double-team Curry and give Green a view of the floor in a 4-on-3 situation. Passing bigs are in high demand right now, and so is 3-point shooting across the board.

However, if the big defender can switch onto the ball-handler without surrendering a massive quickness advantage, there’s no pressure on any other defender to rotate or cover a ton of ground to prevent a dunk or 3-pointer. No more help, no more double-teams, and no more open looks. Defenses can turn the pick-and-roll into five games of one-on-one instead of one game of 5-on-4.

A similar kind of strategy almost helped the Mavericks pull off a huge upset in the playoffs against the Spurs in the 2014 first round when, as an 8-seed, the Mavs pushed the eventual champion Spurs to seven games. Dallas worked to contain the pick-and-roll game and force the ball-handlers to score, while perimeter defenders elsewhere completely removed the shooters from the equation. Between playing switch-heavy defense and mixing in aggressive close-outs on shooters, the Mavericks limited the Spurs to just 18.2 3-point attempts per game, whereas for the rest of the playoffs they attempted 23.0. The Mavs beat the Spurs three times that postseason; San Antonio suffered just four losses the rest of the way after that series.

“We made it a mid-range game,” Carlisle said. “We lost in seven games, but we lost because they made more mid-range shots than we did. I’d be careful about dismissing mid-range basketball as being something from the past. You look at Golden State, they make a lot of mid-range shots, too. They make a lot of 3s, but the really good teams can do it from distance, up-close, and in-between.”

Switching the pick-and-roll could give Barnes, and other players at his position, more and more looks in isolation against point guards. Due to their speed advantage, it’s tough to blow by smaller guys, and it’s difficult to attack the rim against them without risking a charge or a high dribble leading to a turnover, unless you back them down. That’s where a mid-range shot is a must, otherwise it’s tough to get an easy score in those situations. Pull-up jumpers and fadeaways might not be the ideal modern shot, but they could one day very well be a necessary counter to the ideal modern defense. And once teams begin to over-play the mid-range shots, it becomes that much easier to get to the rim.

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“Everyone right now in the league is gameplanning to cover the 3, cover the layups,” Barnes told Mavs.com. “And, offensively, that’s what everyone is telling their guys: Get in the pick-and-roll, get all the way to the basket, or find the kick-out 3. So if guys are gonna gameplan to give up contested 2s, how many of those can you make? Practice them, work on them, and those shots become wide-open in games.”

The NBA is constantly changing. It used to be a post-up league, then it was a mid-range one, and now it’s 3-point-crazy. But that could soon change and, if it does, players like Barnes, DeRozan, and Paul George won’t be the odd-balls. They could be, as Carlisle suggested, the pioneers of the next era of offense.

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