What wins basketball games?
I could ramble on and on, but smarter men than I have addressed this question, so why reinvent the wheel. Dean Oliver, author of “Basketball on Paper”, and a former consultant to the Sonics and current consultant with the Denver Nuggets has done all the statistical work and he breaks down what wins games to four factors, with their relative weights in parenthesis:
- Shoot a high field goal percentage (10).
- Do not commit turnovers (5-6).
- Get offensive rebounds (4-5).
- Get to the foul line frequently (2-3).
Teams that consistently win basketball games do at least three of these things well. If you don’t shoot well, you better do the other three. Oliver says these factors should be considered on the basis of the number of a team’s possessions compared to its opponent, not in absolute terms. In other words, he looks at efficiency, for example, the number of made shots per possession, or the number of turnovers per possession, not total points or turnovers, which can vary greatly depending on the pace of the game.
- For the season, the Thunder have been shooting the ball from the field at 44.5%. That is not so good. In fact, this season it is good for about 24th out of 30 teams; definitely below average. Our eFG (effective field goal %, which combines the two point shot with the three point shot and weighs it in context) is 46.9%, 29th in the league (as in, next to last). We have good nights, but as a whole, we haven’t been world beaters here statistically.
- Turnovers….well, we are tied for dead last in turns at 15.8 per game. Our turnover % (percent of turns per 100 plays) is .151, good for fourth worst in the league. 15 out of every 100 plays we give the ball up through shot clock violations, sloppy passes or careless dribbling.
- Offensive rebounds have been a strength for this team, especially lately. We are 9th in the league at 11.7 offensive boards per game, and 10th in the league in offensive rebound %, which estimates the percentage of available offensive rebounds we were able to snare. Being top ten is good.
- Getting to the line. We are just about league average here, or slightly below. We get to the line 24.6 times per game, and our ft/fg% (measures free throws per field goal attempt) is .229, 19th in the league.
So, since according to Oliver, shooting a high field goal percentage is probably twice as important as rebounds, you can see why this team has struggled. We are doing well at the less important things, and not as well at the more important thing.
But things are beginning to change. Last night’s victory against the Pistons illustrates:
We were outshot by the Pistons, which, has not been unusual for the Thunder this season. However, we kept our turnovers low for a change, only committing 14. On the boards, we were brutal. Of the 87 available rebounds, our guys grabbed 52 of them, or 60%! And, we got to the line 20 times to their 8. Twenty free shots at the rim is not a very high number, but in context of the game, it is 250% more than the Pistons. As I previously stated (paraphrasing Oliver), if you aren’t going to shoot well, you better do the other three. Bingo! The Thunder win.
All of this can be boiled down to efficiency. At the end of the game, each team splits up the possessions. Last night, each team got about 88 of them (a small number for most NBA games). The idea being that you put the ball in the hole when you have possession, and you keep the other guy from putting it in the hole when he has possession. To the degree that you do that, will be the victory or defeat. Last night we scored 1.01 points for each possession. While that’s a somewhat low number, the Pistons only scored .89 points per possession. Game over. We were more efficient scoring with our possessions, while limiting their efficiency with theirs. This will win the game every time.
Under Brook’s first twenty games, the Thunder have been averaging 1.05 points per possession (or 105 points per 100 possession, which is the offensive rating), and allowing 1.11 to our opponents (or 111 per 100 possessions). You can see why wins have been hard to come by.
During the last nine games (starting with the win over Golden State), the Thunder have been much more efficient on both sides of the ball, scoring 1.07 points per possession, and limiting our opponents to 1.059 points per possession. Since each team splits the possessions, you can see how the wins show up when you score more efficiently than the other guy.
I plugged the offensive rating for this last 9 game stretch into the calculator using the Pythagorean method Oliver uses (Expected Winning %=(Off. Rating)^(16.5)/[Off. Rating^(16.5) + Def. Rating^(16.5)]) and we wind up with .542 expected winning percentage. Multiplying that times the 9 games and we get 4.878 expected wins. Rounding up I say that makes 5 wins out of the last 9, which is precisely how many we’ve won.
It’s not rocket science why we are winning lately. We are simply being more efficient scoring with the ball, and more efficient at preventing the other guy from scoring with the ball. The improvement offensively only equals about 2%, but the defensive improvement is 5% which is significant.
After 11 games with Brooks as our coach, I wrote about how the Thunder were on a pace to be one of the worst defensive teams in years if Scotty didn’t clean up the defense. I have to give credit where credit is due. Scotty appears to have realized that his ability to address the defense with his then current staff was unlikely. But he (or maybe it was Presti) brought Ron Adams on board, and the defensive improvement seems to coincide nicely. It takes a smart, centered man to understand that perhaps you are weak in an area, and to get help. Good job Brooks.