Monday, August 13, 2012

BLUEPRINT FOR NBA SUCCESS: How To Build A Team Greater Than The Sum Of Its Parts

Teams face a perplexing dilemma: while they would like to have players who can do everything and do everything very well, that is just not realistic and there has to be some give somewhere. With my research studying the effect of the standard deviation of certain statistics among the players in a lineup on offensive efficiency, I have worked to identify where it is best for teams to make this sacrifice.  This research can apply to all teams, whether a small market team and/or one limited in its resources and available talent that needs to make more out of less, or a team with all the talent and resources at its disposal who wants to get more out of its players. 

My research, interpreted here with regard to half-court offense, makes two primary arguments: (1) teams should take more threes and evenly distribute them among the players in each lineup (i.e. teams should spread the floor with multiple shooters) and (2) the role of initiating the offense should be narrowly defined, limited to few players[1].

Ultimately, the evidence is compelling that teams should follow one overarching principle for maximizing offensive efficiency: narrowly focus the role of initiating the offense[2] where they can create the greatest advantage and threat to score (whether at the rim off penetration or through the post), and surround that facilitator/ball-handler with capable three-point shooters[3] with the athleticism to rebound[4] as well as attack and finish strong at the rim with the space created through ball movement. 

It follows that this facilitating player should lean towards passing the ball if he cannot get something easy at the rim or get to the line, rather than settling for mid-range shots.  The research also supports the notion that subsequent players receiving the ball should also lean towards making the extra pass, if the open three is not available or he cannot get to the rim or line.  The result is an efficiency-friendly more even distribution of assists and even distribution of uncontested three-point jump shots and good shots at the rim.  These values are reflected in various forms of the motion offense.   

Also, whereas three-pointers should be attempted liberally, teams should take a more focused and conservative approach to mid-range shots, with fewer players taking fewer attempts.  Ideally, a team will get everything at the rim, line or from three off the catch.  Any other jump shots or shots from mid-range in general, should be focused on a specific few who are the most efficient in that role (e.g. Kevin Garnett in Boston) and preferably be off the catch.

For example, during the 2012 NBA Finals, LeBron James initiated almost everything for Miami, and was surrounded by multiple shooters who hit threes off the catch (whether on a pass directly from James or after multiple effective passes).  They also performed much better when James stopped taking mid-range shots[5]; the role of taking mid-range jump shots, which were few and far between, fell squarely on Bosh, and at times Haslem, off the catch and, when necessary, Wade off the dribble.  Battier filled the position of role player particularly well, bringing strong defense, a nose for the ball and extra possessions and, most important to the offense, unselfish play and consistent and reliable three-point shooting when the opportunity came to him through the offense.

In 2011, the Dallas Mavericks went almost exclusively through Nowitzki in the high post, or off penetration to the rim, often off of screens, and usually from Barea and to a lesser extent Terry, consistently creating good shots.  They moved the ball as a team and got each other uncontested shots at the rim or from three.  They had numerous players in each lineup that hit the three reliably off the catch[6], and had athletes who rebounded and defended well especially around the rim, earning the team valuable possessions[7].

Teams should be careful not to overvalue the ability to initiate offense or create one’s own shot.  The skill often goes to waste when spread among numerous players, where some are simply better at creating than others.  Teams need to capitalize on the comparative advantage that the best facilitators in their lineup provide.  In other words, once a team has a player, maybe two per lineup, who are already very capable facilitators, it is to their benefit to focus on surrounding those players with others whose strengths of shooting the three off the catch and athleticism to defend, rebound and attack off the space created through the offense to finish at the rim are maximized at the expense of their ability to facilitate or create their own shot. 

The ideal lineup might include one, two if possible, of the best possible facilitators, who can defend, rebound, and hit the three well (or some combination of those skills if all three are not possible) and surround him/them with high-character, high-effort unselfish athletes whose strengths include defending, shooting the three reliably and consistently, and the athleticism and skill to rebound well and, with space created through ball movement, get the ball to the rim to finish or get to the line[8]. 

Granted, such a lineup might be a bit idealistic, but the argument remains that teams will be more successful if they abide by the ideologies outlined above by maximizing three-point shooting, defense, rebounding and athleticism at the expense of the ability to create or score in isolation.

Ultimately, I feel the motion offense, particularly the dribble drive motion offense[9], is the type of offense most resembling that described by the findings of the research, with great emphasis on shots coming at the rim, line and from three[10], and a narrowed focus on where the ball starts.

[1] Of course, fatigue and the opposing defense can at times dictate where it may be best to initiate the offense.  So, although just one facilitator may be necessary, it doesn't hurt to have a second capable facilitator in a lineup, who, when needed, can create an advantage and force help, allowing for ball movement and uncontested threes and shots at the rim for teammates.
[2] Focusing the role of facilitator is promoted by the finding that a less even distribution of turnovers is preferred.  Although a more even distribution of assists is preferred, I interpret this to simply mean that the assist does not only come off the first pass from the facilitator, but off any number of subsequent passes until a preferred shot attempt is found.   
[3] The relationship between offensive efficiency and the ratio of three-point attempts to total field goal attempts supports shooting more three-pointers relative to two-point jump shots.  The finding that a more even distribution of three-point attempts supports having as many reliable three-point shooters as reasonable.  I inferred from the findings regarding the distribution of field goal attempts, three-point field goal attempts and two-point field goal attempts that these three-point attempts should come at the expense of mid-range two-point attempts, as opposed to two-point attempts at the rim.
[4] A more even distribution is preferred for both offensive rebounds and defensive rebounds. 
[5] I would like to add a note here specifically about LeBron James’ maturation this past season and want to make sure to praise his growth since I was so critical of his performance in the 2011 Finals.  In the 2012 NBA Playoffs, and particularly in the NBA Finals, he truly showed how much he has grown as a player by focusing his game on what he does best; attacking the rim and passing the ball.  Almost every possession went through James, whether he was threatening to attack the rim through dribble penetration or through the post.  He was successful in getting to the rim and the line at a high rate, and when he couldn’t, often because he was doubled, he moved the ball to teammates resulting in open three-point attempts.  James’ mid-range jumpers became fewer and farther between (with the exception of Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals where he was knocking down everything), and he finally took full advantage of his strengths to not only create easy opportunities for himself, but his teammates as well.
[6] Nowitzki, Terry, Kidd, Barea, Stevenson and Cardinal were all capable and reliable three-point shooters off the catch for Dallas in the NBA Finals, helping the team spread the floor.
[7] Marion and Chandler were particularly effective around the rim and on the boards earning additional possessions, but also, Kidd brought his defensive leadership and strong rebounding at the guard position while promoting unselfish offensive play with his passing, and others like Barea and Stevenson added aggressive perimeter defense.
[8] And players who shoot well from three tend to shoot well from the line, too.
[9] Created by Vance Walberg, and implemented by John Calipari among others, the dribble drive motion offense focuses on creating lanes for penetration, a primary ball handler or two who initiates the offense and ball movement, downhill penetration for other players, well-defined shot selection, moving the ball with passing and spacing the floor with shooters.  Downhill penetration is off the pass and in the direction of the player’s motion.  The downhill penetrator is not breaking down the defender like the player initiating the offense; rather they are simply beating their man without ball-stopping, using the space created through the offense. 
[10] This is the mentality of “3 or Key.” Getting to the rim results in high percentage shots at the rim and opportunities at the free throw line, while also drawing defensive attention to take advantage of spacing to get open looks from three.