Statistically Speaking

Two years ago, former Houston Rockets head coach Jeff Van Gundy spoke at our annual NBA broadcast meetings in Secaucus, N.J. At the time, Van Gundy had just been replaced as head coach in Houston by Rick Adelman and was on his way back to the broadcast booth with ABC and ESPN. His talk centered around the way NBA coaches evaluate statistical information and how those numbers correspond to winning. He also suggested to us as fellow broadcasters, that we needed to modernize our statistical analysis to help fans better understand coaching strategy. He also made the assertion that by looking at statistics through the coaching lens, you also start to see player performance in a different light as well. This month I though I would share with you the ways in which NBA statistical information is changing to help coaches, fans and NBA broadcasters understand the game better.

Switch From Per Game Stats To Offensive Efficiency
Over the past five to 10 years, coaches have really started to understand which statistical categories lead to winning basketball games. One of the most important team stats they look at is pace of play. Pace is basically how fast a team plays within a game and is determined by how many possession a team uses. Teams share approximately the same number of possessions during a single game. A possession ends when you give the ball to the other team with a made shot, a defensive rebound, a turnover or foul. It is important to note that an offensive rebound is not a new possession, it’s just an extension of the current possession.

Why are the number of possessions important to understand? It’s important because teams play at different speeds which ends up skewing a team’s per game stats. Faster-paced teams will have more possessions and thus should score more points. It’s kind of like comparing home run hitters in baseball. If two players each have 50 home runs and one did it in 300 at bats and the other did it in 400 at bats, which player was better at hitting home runs? Obviously the player who hit 50 home runs in 300 at bats because he hit them more efficiently.

The same is true in basketball. If two teams score the same amount of points, the team that does it in fewer possessions is more efficient. Instead of evaluating a team based on points per game (PPG), statisticians have switched to looking at how many points a team scores per 100 possessions, which is called Offensive Efficiency (OE). Offensive Efficiency levels the statistical playing field with regards to pace. It also measures which team shoots better, gets to the free throw line more often, makes fewer turnovers and maximizes possessions by offensive rebounding.

The Golden State Warriors and New Orleans Hornets are good teams to compare because they play at completely different speeds. The Warriors are ranked second in scoring and first in pace of play. The Hornets, on the other hand, play much slower and are next to last in pace of play and 24th in scoring. There is no question Golden State is the better offensive team, right? Wrong. Using Offensive Efficiency we see a different story.

G.S. Warriors:
PPG: 107.3 (2nd)
Pace (Poss. Per game): 97.5 (1)
OE (per 100 poss.): 108.6 (11)

New Orleans Hornets:
PPG: 96.3 (24th)
Pace (Poss. Per game): 87.3 (29)
OE (per 100 poss.): 110.2 (5)

Offensive Efficiency reflects that even though the Hornets score 11 fewer points per game, they score more often and with fewer mistakes than the Golden State Warriors. They shoot a higher percentage from the field and the free throw line, have fewer turnovers and get offensive rebounds at a higher rate. Offensive efficiency answers the question “what would happen if you gave the ball to each team 100 times?”

You can also determine Defensive Efficiency (DE) using the same criteria. When you compare Offensive and Defensive Efficiency together and subtract the difference you get the “differential,” which is also a very enlightening statistic. Coaches really focus on differential when comparing stats because it gives them an insight on how well or how poorly they perform in any given category. Let’s take a look at two of the best teams in the NBA and make an argument as to which team is better. The Los Angeles Lakers and Cleveland Cavaliers are two more teams who play at very different speeds, but are very good at both ends of the floor. But can we figure out which team is more dominant?

L. A. Lakers:
Poss Per Game (Rank): 94.4 (5th)
Off. PPG: 107.6 (1)
Def. PPG: 98.8 (14)
OE: 114.0 (1)
DE: 104.6 (5)
Differential: +9.4

Cleveland Cavaliers:
Poss Per Game (Rank): 89.3 (25th)
Off. PPG: 100.8 (10)
Def. PPG: 90.1 (1)
OE: 112.6 (2)
DE: 100.6 (2)
Differential: +12.0

You can see that even though Cleveland plays at a much slower pace and scores significantly fewer points per game than the Lakers, their Offensive Efficiency is almost the same. Defensively, the Lakers are surprisingly good for a team that plays at the fifth-fastest pace, however Cleveland separates itself from the Lakers in this category with a four-point advantage. Obviously both teams are incredibly efficient, but as coaching great Hubie Brown has always preached, “It’s always about differential.” It would seem that the Cleveland Cavaliers might have an advantage over the Lakers after all. We shall see.

Effective Field Goal Percentage
Other than points per game, field goal percentage (FG%) is the other stat Van Gundy said needed to be updated. Straight field goal percentage doesn’t tell the whole story when it comes to shooting effectiveness. FG% doesn’t account for the extra point and the difficulty associated with three point shooting. Good three point shooting teams or individual players may shoot a lower FG% than other teams or players, but when you factor in three point shooting their numbers skyrocket. Here is an example. Compare the shooting seasons Peja Stojakovic and Tim Duncan are having this year. At first glance, Peja Stojakovic is struggling from the field, shooting a paltry 41 percent compared to Tim Duncan’s robust 51.7 percent.

Tim Duncan:
FG% (Rank): 51.7 (15th)
3pt FG%: 00.0
eFG%: 51.7 (39)

Peja Stojakovic:
FG% (Rank): 41.4% (109th)
3pt FG%: 41.5% (30)
eFG%: 52.5% (30)

However when you factor in Stojakovic’s three pointers made, you can see he leap frogs over Tim Duncan in effective shooting percentage rankings. For all of you math junkies, the way you calculate Effective Field Goal Percentage is: eFG% = (FGM + 3PM/2)/FGA. When trying to figure out who shoots the rock more effectively, use eFG% to blow your friends out of the water in a “who shoots the ball better” argument. Another tool to evaluate shooting efficiency is True Shooting Percentage (TS%). True Shooting Percentage accounts not only for three point shooting, but takes it one step further and factors in free throw shooting as well. True shooting percentage is not used quite as much...but is another thing coaches look at. It is calculated: TS%=(Total Points x 50) divided by [(FGA + (FTA x 0.44)]

The Vast Sea of Information
Trust me, the information here is just a primer to get you started. There are some really great websites out there for you to explore. Some of the best sites cover our beloved Timberwolves. If you don’t read “Secrets of the City” and Britt Robson you are doing yourself a huge disservice. Mr. Robson is one of the best sports writers anywhere and he covers the Minnesota Timberwolves with great style and intelligence. “Canis Hoopus” is another website devoted to Timberwolves basketball that does a phenomenal job going into a great detail with many of the concepts covered here. Some of the sites I value are STATS PASS which is a site the Timberwolves subscribe to for our broadcasters to use for game prep. Another is ESPN’s John Hollinger. Hollinger’s content is a must for anyone interesting in diving deeply into basketball analysis. ESPN requires you to join their “Insiders” area and pay a small annual fee to access Hollinger’s content, but believe me it’s worth it if you are a fan.

Once you start learning the value of these websites, you will become addicted to digging for information to impress friends and blow away that chump who wants to argue about who shoots a higher percentage between Tim Duncan and Peja Stojakovic. But you know the answer to that question. It’s like taking candy from a baby. Enjoy!