Reality Check -- Nov. 24, 2006
Posted Dec 1 2006 2:23AM
THE SUNS ARE A GOOD DEFENSIVE TEAM... REALLY.
The following analysis-theory-whatever-you-want-to-call-it is a work in progress, so please read it as such and realize that there may not be an answer at the bottom of the page. We will probably revisit it a couple of more times in this space during the course of the season, so let me know what you think. I'm open to criticism, questions or comments.
Most basketball statistical analysis is done on a per-player basis in an attempt to compare different players on different teams playing different positions. We all want to know: is Tracy McGrady better than Kevin Garnett?
There is less need to compare teams because the standings already do that pretty well. But I find team stats to be more interesting. Sure, the standings can tell you who the good teams are, but the stats can tell you why.
One of my favorite stats is assist/field goal ratio (dividing a team's assists by their field goals in any particular time period). It's a measurement of teamwork on offense, ball movement and player movement.
Here in New Jersey, the Nets' assist/field goal ratio is a pretty good indicator of how well they played on a particular night. If the ratio was around 0.7 or higher, they probably won. If it was 0.5 or lower, they likely lost.
"There have been some very successful teams where that ratio would have been low just because of the style of play," Nets coach Lawrence Frank told me, "but I think for us, it's important because of the ball movement and player movement and just having a good little rhythm and flow, whether it's a result of transition or halfcourt offense."
Byron Scott and Eddie Jordan brought the Princeton offense to New Jersey six years ago, and although Vince Carter's arrival has meant more isolations, the Nets still use motion principles. And assist/field goal ratio is still a barometer for their success.
This week, I started wondering if it's a barometer for success league-wide. Is every team like the Nets, in that the more they share the ball, the more likely they are to win?
I looked at the numbers so far this season for all 30 teams, ranking them from top to bottom in assist/field goal ratio. Here's a look at the top five and bottom five...
So, there's only one team with a winning record in the top five and there are two in the bottom five. The league average for assist/field goal ratio this season is 0.564. There are 18 teams at or above it through Wednesday and they have a combined winning percentage of 0.520. There are 12 teams below it and they have a combined winning percentage of 0.471.
So, if you share the ball, you're a little more likely to win games. Going back over the last past three years, the effect is similar (the league average going down over the last three years is a story for another column)...
Again, it's a bit of a indicator of success, but not much, especially in '04-05, when teams above the average actually had a losing record. So, where are we going with this?
After looking at the offensive numbers, I decided to look at defensive numbers and I discovered that those were a little more enlightening. Here are the top five and bottom five when it comes to opponents' assist/field goal ratio...
And looking at the league overall, there are 13 teams who are holding their opponents to below the league average and they have a combined winning percentage of 0.571, while there are 17 teams who aren't and their winning percentage is .446. So, it looks like the defensive numbers are more indicative of success league-wide than the offensive numbers.
Looking back over the last three years, the defensive numbers look strong...
Looking closer at last year's numbers, we see that the top four teams in opponents' assist/field goal ratio were also the top four teams in terms of wins...
Miami had the fifth best record and was also in the top 10 when it comes to opponents' assist/field goal ratio.
So what have we learned here? Well, I think it's that good defense (more specifically, getting the other team to play one-on-one instead of sharing the ball) is more important than good offense if you want to win NBA basketball games.
Wait a minute... Good defense? The Phoenix Suns are at the top of the list! They gave up 103 points per game last season! They're not a good defensive team!
Yes they are.
Let my friend and YES Network and NBA TV analyst, Tim Capstraw explain it...
"The key for Phoenix's success is TEMPO. They are willing to sacrifice some defense to get you to play their game. They will take chances on defense that could lead to transition but also allow for one-on-one situations."
So the Suns basically use their defense to bait you into playing the way they want to. And while it's not a good defense in the traditional sense (and if a game comes down to a final possession, they're less likely to get a stop as San Antonio or Detroit), it's a good defense in that it helps them win games.
And that's what's important.
Take Wednesday's game against New Orleans for example: The Hornets recorded just seven assists on 34 field goals, the lowest ratio by far in the last five days across the league.
When it comes to San Antonio, Detroit and Dallas, the Capper says they just dig down and play hard D...
"These teams extend their defense, get out into passing lanes and know they have shot blockers behind them. Therefore, you are involved in many more one-on-one driving situations. They can take you out of your designed play and force you into one-on-one, or defend at a high level and get you late in the shot clock and force a one-on-one play."
So while you're watching tonight's ESPN double-header (great timing!), pay close attention to the way these teams play defense. San Antonio and Dallas face off at 8 p.m ET and the Suns host the Nets at 10:30. Pay particular attention to when the Nets are on offense and the Suns are on D, as the Nets want that ratio up, and the Suns want it down.
Some random factoids that I discovered during the course of the past few days...
Last year, the Lakers' assist/field goal ratio was 0.580. This year, it's 0.624. So, they are sharing the ball more.
In the 42 games that have taken place since last Saturday, the team with the higher assist/field goal ratio is 23-18 (.561), with one game taking place where the teams were even.
Teams that have held their opponent to a ratio of less than 0.5 are 12-6 since Saturday. The only loss being Toronto at Utah, where the Jazz were held to a ratio of 0.447.
This year, the Jazz (the best team in the league) are ranked seventh in offensive assist/field goal ratio (0.599) and 11th defensively (0.560). In their one loss (to New Jersey), they actually recorded a ratio higher than their average (0.667), while the Nets' ratio was relatively low (0.517).
This obviously isn't a perfect science, and at some point we need to figure out how to incorporate free throw attempts into this analysis, because getting fouled will take away from your assist totals, and fouling will take away from those of your opponent.
But I think we've explored some new ground here.
I'll also try to get some input down the line from the San Antonio and Phoenix camps.
And of course, get at me if you've got a question, comment or want to see more of the above.