The Tale of the NBA’s Top Two Offenses: An “Advanced Statistics” Explanation

Credit: NBA.com

(note: all stats were as of Wednesday morning)

The Oklahoma City Thunder and New York Knicks are the league’s top two offenses this season by offensive efficiency, according to ESPN’s advanced stats page. Each average over 110 points per 100 possessions, which is really, really good. But aside from the color scheme on the jerseys, these teams have little in common on offense, and their divergent paths to offensive greatness show that a strong offense can be achieved in more than one way.

First, I should explain what goes into offense in general, because I feel the best way to explain their success is through so-called “advanced statistics,” which are only slightly more advanced than their counting counterparts. Dean Oliver’s discovery and subsequent explanation of the four factors changed NBA thinking much like the discovery of the overall static nature of BABIP and pitching-independent-of-fielding were in baseball, though the four factors approach hasn’t nearly been discussed as much. It breaks down offense (and defense, for that matter, but we’ll focus on the offensive component for this post on offense) into four main factors, as explained by basketball-reference.com here, along with the statistics used to define those measures:

  • Shooting – via Effective Field Goal Percentage (eFG%)
  • Turnovers – via Turnover Rate (TO%)
  • Offensive Rebounding – via Offensive Rebounding Rate (ORR%)
  • Free Throws – via free throws made per field goal attempt*

*I actually prefer to combine shooting and free throws into true shooting percentage, (TS%), which takes into consideration both free throws and field goals into one tidy percentage. The math here is a bit more difficult to understand, though, and a formula can be found here. So I’ll use TS% as the base, and break that down into the two parts. If you’d rather just use eFG% and FT/FTA, go ahead.

One idea behind the four factors is the idea of a possession. A basketball game consists of possessions for each team, where each team has the ball in its control. A possession can only end in 3 ways:

  • a made shot
  • a missed shot resulting in a defensive rebound, or
  • a turnover.

Made shots add to a team’s scoring total, and since that’s the objective, scoring as often and efficiently as possible should be the team’s offensive goal. Offensive rebounds result in the continuation of a possession, and often result in high-percentage shots. And turnovers end possessions in the worst possible way – without a shot going up – and often result in easy opportunities for opponents. As mentioned above, offensive efficiency is based upon points per 100 possessions, so that’s where this all links in. Teams that run faster use more possessions, so measuring offense per 100 possessions makes it so that teams who run at a high pace don’t have inflated numbers.

All of the statistics used in the four factors are slightly more complicated, but not at all overly complicated, versions of regular stats such as field goal percentage, turnovers, and offensive rebounds. Effective field goal percentage, for instance, counts three point makes as 1.5 two point makes because a three pointer is worth 1.5 two pointers. Turnover rate is just the amount of team possessions that end with a turnover. Offensive rebounding rate is the percentage of missed shots the offense rebounds. Again, nothing too complicated.

But knowing the fundamentals of how an offense works (or doesn’t) really can make what the Thunder and Knicks are doing make sense.  I’ll break this down by factor, starting with true shooting.

Credit: Newson6.com

True Shooting Percentage

Oklahoma City – 1st

It doesn’t really take advanced statistics to explain why Oklahoma City is so good on offense. They currently sit 2nd in the league in basic FG% and 3FG% (behind Miami, and not New York, interestingly enough). They also have two of the most dynamic players in the league in Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, along with sharpshooting wingman Kevin Martin and the rapidly improving Serge Ibaka. But the real reason Oklahoma City leads the league in true shooting: free throws. They lead the league in free throw percentage by 4 percentage points, which is ridiculous. They then combine that with the second most attempts, which makes that ridiculousness even more devastating. Despite being second – barely – in three point shooting, they don’t take enough shots from there for their shooting to be lethal (and for good reason – it would hurt their percentages, and likely their offense). But it doesn’t matter, because they get to the line so darn often.

New York – 5th

New York, unlike Oklahoma City, takes a little more digging to figure out how great they are. They rank 11th in FG%, 3rd in 3FG%, and 19th in FT%. But this is where weights, and more advanced statistics, really tell the story. The Knicks take more threes than any team in the league, and it’s not really close. At 29.5 a game, they average 2.5 more attempts than the second best team (Houston). Their new offense, complete with shooters (including Ronnie Brewer’s surprisingly stellar imitation of one) surrounding Tyson Chandler and Carmelo Anthony, created this monster. They also convert the third highest percentage on threes, so they make the most of their three point shooting. The rest of their offense is *just* good enough to keep the true shooting percentage high.

Offensive Rebounding Rate

Oklahoma City – 16th

About offensive rebounding so far this season – a lot of good offensive teams aren’t really focused on grabbing offensive rebounds. Oklahoma City ranks right around average. Offensive rebounding seems to have been de-emphasized around the NBA, as teams often look to send everyone back to the defensive end of the floor instead of allowing an easier chance for scoring in transition. Maybe more relevant is that as many good offensive teams fall below the NBA median for offensive rebounding as fall above the line.

New York – 26th

New York’s rebounding issues have been overblown, mainly because they regularly have just one capable offensive rebounder on the court at a time (Tyson Chandler) or none (if Rasheed Wallace is playing, since he generally floats on the perimeter). Like Oklahoma City, they don’t emphasize rebounding here.

Turnover Rate

Oklahoma City – 30th

And this is Oklahoma City’s biggest weakness, continuing a trend. The Thunder ranked 29th in total turnovers last season (ahead of, coincidentally, New York) and, more importantly, 30th in turnover rate. The Thunder’s two primary ballhandlers, Westbrook and Durant, create a lot of offense but, in the process, create a lot of turnovers as well. Just as guilty is Kendrick Perkins, who really shouldn’t be playing anyway, but that’s another story for another time. The gist: while creating tons of high-percentage looks, the Thunder can also be sloppy with control of the basketball and end up with the worst offensive output more often than any other team in the NBA. As it turns out, it doesn’t hurt that much because, again, they create better shooting outcomes than any other team.

New York – 1st

And this is where the Knicks break the code. They currently are on pace to break the record for fewest turnovers per game by an NBA team, last year’s offensively anemic Sixers squad. They also have a better turnover rate than those Sixers. But they combine it with, well, good offense. It’s what takes them up to number 2 overall – they shoot a lot of high quality shots and never have the worst offensive outcome, a very potent formula.

I’m not the first to take notice of the Knicks penchant for not turning the ball over and for shooting threes. Jeff Fogle, at his blog Stat Intelligence, has tracked the Knicks turnover and three point numbers and noticed a startling trend (in a good way, for Knicks fans at least): the Knicks have actually converted more threes than they have committed turnovers. In his “KRIB Index” posts, Fogle has kept track of every team’s 3’s-minus-TO’s stats and noticed the Knicks are far and away the best in this category. Notably, no team has ever come close to having more threes than turnovers. If the Knicks keep up their current pace, they could be the first team to ever reach that holy grail.

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As you can see, there’s a lot of avenues to having a good offense, but most important is that a team shoots really well. Basketball really is a make or miss game. Both the Knicks and Thunder rank in the top five in shooting. But in the other important areas, the Thunder come back to the pack while the Knicks surge up the offensive charts.  The rebounding and ball-control can certainly help, especially if they’re done at an elite level. The Knicks are certainly proving that, so far.

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Damian Lillard: Rookie Of The Year?

As we’ve progressed through over 1/4 of the season, questions start to ring out. One of those questions: Who should win rookie of the year?

I never really passed this thought through my head, but on page 129 of the Hardwood Paroxysm season preview they thought of just that. You can see, the consensus is basically either Damian Lillard or Anthony Davis. Over a quarter of the way through the season, it’s looking like it’s Damian Lillard.

Obviously, the contest for this season isn’t over, but if the season ended right now, would Lillard be a good candidate? Let’s take a look at the last 5 winners of ROY that were point guards, and recap how they were in order. At the end, we’ll see whether Lillard is deserving or not.

Blue- Worst out of the sixRed-Best out of the six

Blue- Worst out of the six
Red-Best out of the six

Player Comparison-Guards Who Won ROY (ADVANCED)

Blue- Worst out of the six
Red-Best out of the six

Allen Iverson: Allen Iverson, the oldest ROY out of the people I picked, was probably the most prolific, but was also pretty bad in some stats you don’t see a lot. The biggest reason he won rookie of the year was most likely because of his scoring average (23.5 PPG) which was 5.4 PPG higher than the next-highest scorer. Other than that, Iverson didn’t really play amazing compared to the other rookies. He had the worst true shooting percentage, field goal percentage, free throw percentage and the most turnovers. All of those stats are things you don’t see a lot, but are essential to a team’s success. Essentially, Iverson was the worst non-three point shooter out of these rookies and also probably made the most mistakes.

Steve Francis: Steve Francis was a hidden player out of the past six point guard ROY winners. Unsurprisingly, he also didn’t have the best stats. He isn’t the leader in any category, but at the same time is also the worst in only one category (turnover percentage). In pretty much every stat you look at, Francis is even with most of the bunch, with the exception of his excessive turnovers.

Chris Paul: When looking at normal stats, Chris Paul didn’t have a fantastic season. He had the lowest PPG and wasn’t very prolific in any category- except for the ones that you don’t see as much of. Chris Paul’s stats are kind of like the opposite of Allen Iverson’s. Iverson’s were cool initially, but once you look at all of the less-popular stats, he didn’t excel. For Chris Paul, compared to all the others in their rookie season, he averaged the most assists and steals and the least turnovers per game, all stats that you like to see out of a point guard. If you keep going to advanced stats, Chris Paul kills. The most impressive stat out of all of this is that he had the best offensive AND defensive rating (114 and 104, respectively) and had more win shares (10.4) than any other player on this list by at least four. Chris Paul’s rookie season was a great one.

Derrick Rose: Derrick Rose had a great rookie season, as did everyone else on this list, but not as good as some of the others that we see. The only stat category he led in that’s worth noting is field goal percentage, and that didn’t even translate to the highest true shooting percentage or effective field goal percentage. He also was the worst in assist percentage and steal percentage, categories you don’t want to be the worst in as a point guard.

Kyrie Irving: Kyrie Irving. Last year’s hidden gem. No one really knew who he was until towards the end of the year, when everyone realized how good he was. Irving’s strong suit was definitely his shooting. He had the highest true shooting percentage, effective field goal percentage, free throw percentage, three point percentage (he blew out the competition with a39.9% shooting beyond the arc) and was second in field goal percentage. His downfall, though, was the other aspects of his game. He was second-worst in steals per game and the worst in assists per game, showing his lack of excellency in other areas. Nevertheless, he had a fantastic rookie season.

Damian Lillard: Through 1/4 of the season, Lillard is the best candidate for ROY. His stats are just about as good as all of the other ROYs that were point guards, too. He’s not the best in any category by any means, and is the worst in the win share category by a landslide, but is pretty on par with the other guys. He’s one of the better shooters, passers and point scorers in general.

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The Final Verdict: Damian Lillard wouldn’t be the best guard who won ROY in the past 15 years, but he also wouldn’t be the worst. If he stays on course for the rest of the year, his stats will fit right in with all of the other guys. Keep an eye on Damian Lillard. He’s following a good path.

The Knicks In A New Role

The beginning of the regular season allows us to make some…silly predictions, to say the least. If you don’t believe me, look just at last year’s shortened season. This time last season, the Denver Nuggets was being lauded as a finals team, the Philadelphia 76ers looked like one of the best teams in the East, the Celtics were struggling, Indiana was on the verge of a huge season, and we all collectively clamored to view the Los Angeles Clippers, thanks to the increased expectations placed on Blake Griffin, and his new running mate in Chris Paul.

Now, as we fast forward just one year, we seem more of the same. The Memphis Grizzlies, with Marc Gasol, Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph, and Mike Conley running rampant, looks like the team that could make some noise in the Western Conference. Indiana, the team that was expected to continue their success, have found themselves struggling to capture victories with Danny Granger on the mend, and while the results are the same, we’ve kept an eye on James Harden in Houston, as well as Andre Iguodala in Denver. Other than the Spurs remarkable start this season, the league has new teams in the same key roles.
Who are the teams making a strong start? In the West, the Golden State Warriors have made noise with their hot start to the season. Stephen Curry has remained healthy, Harrison Barnes looks very effective on the offensive side of the ball, and the combination of David Lee and Carl Landry at power forward has punished opponents. With Andrew Bogut still on the mend, the Warriors have their center position lacking, but that hasn’t stop rookie Festus Ezeli from starting, and giving Golden State valuable minutes as a defender, and a shot-blocker Once Bogut returns, and if he can remain healthy going into the playoffs, the Warriors should not only make the playoffs for the first time since their “We Believe” playoff run in 2007, but make some noise with their electric offensive and deafening home crowd.

In the East? The Milwaukee Bucks have certainly claimed a piece of this title, starting off the season off with a 11-9 record, but the New York Knicks have to the the team to claim this the “surprise team” title at this spot. Now, the New York Knicks currently sit at 17-5. Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd have been fantastic at times dictating this offense. Between Felton’s pick and rolls with Tyson Chandler, and Jason Kidd’s ability to draw fouls on three-point attempts, the Knicks’ point guards have been a huge upgrade over last season’s Baron Davis/Raymond Felton/Jeremy Lin pu-pu platter. Ronnie Brewer has made some huge knick-knack plays on the defensive end, whether it be tipping passes, keeping possessions alive, and getting sneaky rebounds, Brewer have been everything Fields was in his rookie season, all while shooting a career high from three-point range.

Carmelo Anthony has played really well. After a season where Anthony was placed into so many roles, turned into the scapegoat, and then lived up to his price tag in the final 20 games, Anthony has fully committed to the defensive side of the ball. Not only that, Anthony has fully committed to the power forward position as well, playing inside out, as opposed to his outside in style when he plays small forward. According to hoopdata.com, Anthony has taken more shots per game at the rim this season compared to last, while simultaneously decreased his shot attempts from 16 to 23 feet. Along with that, Anthony has found himself in the top 10 of free-throw attempts per game with close to 8 per game. All of those offensive numbers, combined with an increased efforts on the defensive end, Anthony has started this season on an MVP (he’s not going to win it) pace, and hopefully he doesn’t cool off.

Tyson Chandler has been the best player for the New York Knicks, no question. His regular season stats don’t suggest it (12.4 points, 9.9 rebounds, 22.63 PER), but he’s been doing everything for this team. First, he’s an automatic two points, shooting close to 70% from the field, and close to 72% on pick and rolls, according to Synergy. His defensive numbers don’t exactly resemble Dwight Howard’s numbers in his Orlando tenure, but to this Knicks team, he’s just as important. On the offensive end, he gives New York multiple extra possessions per game, but the biggest thing that stands out about Chandler’s offensive contribution? New York has been 19 points better with Chandler on the court, according to 82games.com

The impact of the offseason acquisitions (namely Kidd, Felton, and Brewer), combined with the consistent play from Chandler and Anthony have led the Knicks to an early lead in the Eastern Conference. Let us not forget that the NBA season is not a sprint, but a race. What’s the most intriguing thing about New York is that, not only do they have a stellar record to start the season, but also, they’re winning with three-point shooting, ranking third in three-point field goals. What’s even more odd is that the Knicks have won, even while ranking 28th in total rebound rate and getting outrebounded on a nightly basis.

The Knicks are looking great. Compared to last season, New York’s ball movement looks improved, the defensive rotations look great, and players labeled selfish in their past (Anthony, J.R. Smith), have been making the extra passes, and finding the open man for easier shots. Even with this great play, the veterans leading the charge, the padded rotation (a rotation feels like it could be 10-11 deep), and an ever-so-growing home-court advantage (the Knicks are currently undefeated at home this season), I still feel there’s a ton of questions that need to be answered.

Are we ready for a Raymond Felton decline?

I’m not, but like many (including myself) have been saying: Raymond Felton isn’t a great point guard. He enjoys the New York limelight, and his connections with Tyson Chandler on pick and rolls have been magical at times (go back to the Dallas game), but he’s slowly going back to old Raymond Felton. For starters: Felton now has more field goal attempts than points for this season. That’s not good. He’s still shooting 40% from three, but his true shooting percentage is just a meager 49%. His shooting numbers will pewter around the 40-42 percent area, but once his three-point percentage lowers around 35, and defenders realize he loves to shoot jumpers, I wouldn’t be shocked to see some slight decline in Felton’s production.

Will we ever see Marcus Camby?

Marcus Camby was expected to be the backup center for this team. When Chandler leaves, we get Camby’s rebounding and shot blocking in his place. 23 games later, Camby has played 6 games, and 46 total minutes in his second New York tenure. An MRI detected plantar fasciitis, and we haven’t heard much since. While I love Rasheed Wallace’s daily antics and rapid three-point shooting, I would much rather have Camby back to spell some of Wallace’s minutes.

This leads me to one big question…

How is Iman Shumpert going to factor in the rotation when he returns?

The Amar’e injury is the larger dilemma in Gotham, but the Knicks have the point guards to accommodate him on the offensive end, and big bodies to help him (enough) on the defensive end. Stoudemire will have issues on the defensive end, but for the most part, he will walk into the Knicks’ rotation as the second-best scoring option. If he could be protected on the defensive end, the Knicks will suffice for the most part.

Iman Shumpert is an interesting player. He’s was a good defensive guard, but coming off an ACL injury, it’s tough to imagining him being the same defender he was in his rookie season (and even then, Shump was a tad overrated). On offense, he isn’t a point guard in the sense of creating shots for others, and he isn’t a shooting guard because he simply cannot shoot the ball (or showed that he could in his rookie season). His best backcourt is probably Jason Kidd, thanks to his ability to shoot jumpers, but Raymond Felton? Pablo Prigioni? Tough to imagine how it fits. J.R. Smith is an interesting player to pair with Shumpert with his ability to shoot and handle, but for now, Shumpert’s return to the roster will be huge for New York’s season.

Unlike last season, this Knicks team has some depth, and veterans who don’t let their confidence waiver. Jason Kidd, who many (including me) said was done, has been a revelation at the shooting guard position, and hopefully he continues this pace. Whatever goes down, the Knicks have made the correct moves to contend and battle in the East, and with wins over Miami, this team’s confidence, I would imagine, is through the roof. The playoffs are a completely different monster, but with steady point guard play, a defensive mindset, and Carmelo Anthony, I’m both excited and intrigued to see what the Knicks will do moving forward.

Toney Douglas vs. Austin Rivers: Who’s Worse?

Toney Douglas

Toney Douglas

A few days ago on Twitter, I asked everyone who they thought the worst guard in the NBA was. I got a lot of responses, but they were mostly between Austin Rivers and Toney Douglas.

Here are some stats:

Player          Age   MP  FG%  3P%  FT% TRB AST STL PTS

Toney Douglas    26 16.6 .343 .362 .966 1.4 1.9 1.0 6.9

Austin Rivers    20 27.1 .310 .333 .632 2.4 2.9 0.8 6.6

Ok, now that we’ve got that all sorted out let’s take a look at some of our Hoop City Blog writers and what they think. I’m going first.

JamesonOverall, it’s a pretty close battle of who’s worse. Neither player is that good, but when push comes to shove, Austin Rivers is probably worse. Granted, Rivers probably could have sharpened his skills if he stayed a few more years at Duke, he’s in the NBA now, and expectations are high. Rivers, on average, plays about 11 minutes more than Toney Douglas and gets only about one more assist and about the same amount of points. Really the only stat categories Rivers leads in at all are blocks and rebounds, which are both things you don’t really expect much of out of your guards. Douglas has a higher shooting percentage, three point percentage, and about a 10% higher true shooting percentage. Also, Douglas’ PER (Player Effeciency Rating) is 11.3, which looks like a fantastic PER compared to Rivers’ lowly 6.1. If you want to get WAY deep in sabermetrics (do they call it that for basketball?) into win shares, Douglas contributes for about 0.3 wins while Rivers contributes for -0.6. Although both of these players are bad, Rivers is probably worse.

Tucker: It’s close- they’re both inefficient shooters that don’t offer much else on offense. If you ask me, though, Austin Rivers has played worse so far this year. While Douglas does take more shots, he also hits 3s at an above-average rate (.362), which Rivers does not do (.333). Douglas gets to the line only slightly more often than Rivers (3.7 to 3.0 FTA per 36 minutes, respectively), but Douglas also is shooting .966 from the stripe, while Rivers is at a .632 clip. One thing I find interesting is that the difference between Douglas’s ORtg and DRtg is a bad -10, but Rivers’s difference is a Diop-esque -29. So I say Rivers is worse right now, but know fully well that, being only 20, he has a lot more room for improvement over the 26-year-old Douglas.

Ok, those are all of the opinions from your Hoop City Writers, now a couple of others from around the web

Caleb Nordgren (Writer for Bulls101.com and Michigan State’s The State News): Well, given a choice, I would choose self-immolation over either of them. But at gunpoint? I’d go with Toney Douglas. Rivers at least seems like he might have potential to improve, even though his numbers are significantly worse. Douglas has proven at this point that he’s just awful.

Bo Churney (Writer for HawksHoop.com): I want to say Toney Douglas, just because he has a history of being terrible. Rivers could just be dealing with a lot of rookie struggles.

What’s your decision?

The Ups and Downs of Depth

The Los Angeles Clippers recently welcomed back Chauncey Billups, who suffered a torn ACL last season. Without Chauncey Billups, the Clippers started Willie Green and went 11-deep. They have a top 10 defense and offense, which is a general indicator of being a great team. When Billups returned, Green went to the bench without so much as a peep from him. The Clippers still go 11-deep, but Green is on standby in case someone gets hurt. Everything’s peachy, and if something happens, the Clippers are well-prepared. This doesn’t include Grant Hill, who remains injured and would only add to the Clips’ depth.

The Milwaukee Bucks recently welcomed back Luc Richard Mbah a Moute from injury and had a roster stocked with lanky, talented big men. But they were all confined to one position. Coach Scott Skiles, until recently, started his veterans on bigger contracts and rotated the backup youngsters in when he saw fit. But the vets, especially Ersan Ilyasova, struggled in their time, so Skiles had no choice but to play some combination of Larry Sanders, Ekpe Udoh, and John Henson. Then they all played well, so Skiles had to find time for all of them despite their duplicating abilities. While generally a nice problem to have, the Bucks lack depth in other areas, and the overall impact the combination of bigs can make is limited by their positional limitations. With LRMAM back, who might end up being in the mix with the young bigs, the roster gets a bit messy. And Drew Gooden, who should be available to play when he’s not requesting pictures of Bulls jerseys in toilets, is toiling away on the bench and inactive list.

Here, we have two differing pictures of depth, one of a team whose depth actively helps the team’s fortunes, the other whose depth may actually hurt the team. What are the differences?

First and foremost, the Clippers have had the need to use their depth early on, with the injuries I mentioned earlier playing not to their advantage but also not to their detriment. Milwaukee’s bigs have shared the same amount of time pretty much all year. Second, the Clippers go 2-3 deep at every position but not further than that, which allows for a relatively smooth time spread. The Bucks have about 7 forward/center types, so there’s just not enough time to spread around. Furthermore, I’d argue that Vinny Del Negro managed minutes until this point better than Skiles. Skiles has essentially jerked around everyone in that rotation except for maybe Larry Sanders and changed their minutes from game to game. John Henson had gone from DNP-CD to major minutes to one minute to starting all in about a week in a half, for instance.

Finally, the Clips’ bench is mostly comprised of veterans brought in specifically to fill bench roles. Jamal Crawford was paid to be a sixth man. Lamar Odom was given the same role, but for the big spots. Willie Green was brought aboard to be a stop-gap. Ryan Hollins and Ronny Turiaf were signed to fill out the bench with size, and they know that. Meanwhile, the logjam in Milwaukee includes three players on rookie contracts looking to earn playing time, a starting center looking for one more decent-sized contract, one former starter who is making more than $6 million a season to not do anything, and a former starter looking to earn his $40 million. The team’s performance is naturally going to be a bit hectic, especially if there’s no real rotation or hierarchy.

Depth is such a vague term when you think about it. It can refer to a team having 3 or 4 solid bench players (like, say, the Thunder) or 7-8 of them (like either of those two teams). The Bucks and Clippers clearly have deep teams, filled with a bunch of solid players, but for only the Clips has this depth been an advantage. For the Bucks, there’s still a lot of sorting out to do.