ESPN’s Beckley Mason recently penned an article called Its smart to be fun. Mason’s essential point is that current analytics indicate an “athletic, aggressive open-court style” of offense is both efficient and successful.
Mason supports his case with the following extended quote from Denver Nuggets coach George Karl:
Coaching has now gotten so technical and scientific and there’s so much of it and there’s so much video and and there are so many statistics, that basically the reality of coaching is when you play 5-on-5 basketball it’s very difficult to beat the defense and the scouting reports and the preparation and the tendencies that we know teams have. So what we’re trying to do is play before those things can be settled in to.
We want to play early. We want to play before the defense sets. We want to play when there’s mismatches running up and down the court. And to do that it takes a little extra work on working on your spacing and working on your commitment to run and play fast. I mean very few players want to play fast because you don’t get rewarded all the time. You have to run maybe 10 times to get 2 shots, maybe 15 times to get 2 shots.
It’s like offensive rebounding. A lot of big guys don’t like to offensive rebound because you got to go all the time to get a few reinforcements. Our big guys here have done a great job the last few years. They really do run the floor well which helps the beginning of the spacing and gets the freedom of the ball. And then the other sport aspect of it is I just watch football. They’re playing quicker, they’re getting faster. They don’t want the defense to get set, they don’t want the defense to rotate in and match up their strength against your strength.
We’re kind of trying to play not against the strength of a good defensive team, and the weakest part of the defensive team is normally in transition. I watch a soccer team like Spain play and so much of what they do is they don’t hold the ball. They ping the ball around and make quick decisions. And I’m sure they have great plays and great actions, but it’s basically don’t let the defense feel like they can zone in on you because you’re making quick decisions.
Mason then goes on to say:
Translation: The analytics tell us the best way to play is in transition, and with maximum ball movement. That is, to give the fans what they want.
That’s why the Nuggets lead the league in attempts at the rim by a wide margin and score in transition more than any other team. It’s also great news for NBA fans who prize creativity and athleticism.
This got me thinking. So using data from ESPN.com, Hoopdata and TeamRankings, I assembled the following chart showing how the top ten offensive teams (in terms of Offensive Efficiency) rank in various categories:
As you can see, playing fast and taking lots of shots at the rim aren’t necessarily required for success. To wit, two of the top four offensive teams rank in the mid-20s in pace (the Heat and Knicks) while three of the top four rank outside the top 10 in fast break points (Heat, Spurs, Knicks), with one team ranked 29th (the Knicks). Meanwhile, the top four teams all rank outside the top 10 in shot attempts at the rim, with the Thunder (17th), Knicks (20th) and Heat (23rd) all ranking in the latter half of the league.
You could argue that teams make up for these deficiencies with three-point shooting, although the league’s best offensive team (the Thunder) ranks 14th in three-point attempts, while four of the other top 10 offensive teams rank outside the top 10 in three-point attempts, with the Jazz all the way down at 28th.
So clearly there’s more to offensive efficiency than a fast pace, plenty of transition opportunities, a large quantity of shot attempts at the rim and/or hoisting plenty of threes.
And yet it stands to reason that some combination of those factors — if not all of them — would be key ingredients to solid offensive output.
Now here’s how the Bulls rank in all the same categories:
As you can see, the Bulls are a walk-it-up team that doesn’t score many points in transition. This means that opposing defenses have plenty of time to get into position. Furthermore, they attempt the second-fewest three-pointers per game in the league, which means there’s poor spacing. This likely explains why, although Chicago takes a lot of shots at the rim, they rank only 19th in field goal percentage at the rim. It’s probably also why they have such a high turnover rate. It’s difficult to complete shots around the hoop when the paint is clogged, and it’s tough to thread the ball through passing lanes clogged with hands and arms.
So what the Bulls end up with are lots and lots of low-efficiency two-pointers from 16-23 feet. Add in injuries and fatigue, and you have the perfect ingredients for one of the league’s worst offenses.