The Thunder is a team that’s hard for me to put a finger on. They are on pace to have the highest FT% and highest percent of total points to come from free throws in league history. Whenever a team is on pace to set an NBA record, it by definition is unprecedented, but the Thunder are peculiar in other ways, too. OKC’s top 3 or 4 players are perimeter players that mostly get their points from scoring inside or going to the line, while the big men shoot at a high percentage from outside. Are there any precedents for a team like this, and can we learn anything from these similar teams? That’s what I’m hoping to figure out in this column.
I don’t have the basketball knowledge or memory (or age for that matter) to just watch the Thunder play this season and tell you exactly which team they are most like, especially if you want to look back deep into NBA history. That’s someone else’s forte. I’ll stick with what I know, and that’s the numbers. So, statistically speaking, I’m going to try to determine which teams are most like the 2010-2011 Thunder, and hopefully these comparisons will put some perspective on how the Thunder are doing so far, and what we might expect from them for the rest of the season.
There have been a couple implementations of NBA statistical similarity used in the past. Neil Paine of Basketball-Reference had an article with NBA team similarity scores based on the Four Factors (eFG%, ORB%, FTR, and TOV%. If you don’t know, read the link, it may change your life). The article was pretty great, and his methods seem to produce good results comparing the most important parts of NBA success. However, the Four Factors aren’t everything. They capture the areas of efficiency for a team, but they don’t capture much of how the efficiency happens. For example, eFG% is the most important Four Factor, but there are many different ways to achieve a high eFG%. Good 3-pt shooting, post play, or a fast pace are all common methods to generate a high eFG%, but these playing styles are very different. The thinking is, as a season goes on, and as a team enters the playoffs, certain combinations of strengths and weaknesses could perhaps translate better to success, and the Four Factors method may or may not miss this.
To generate my similarity scores, I looked at a whole lot of parameters, trying to capture anything that would show a team’s playing style, basically anything basketball-reference keeps track of for all NBA teams after the 1980 season. I looked at the rates per 100 possessions for each team and their opposition for all the basic box score stats, pace, the four factors, offensive and defensive efficiency ratings, and win-loss record. I used per possession rates because I thought that would best capture tendencies, like how many times out of 100 a team shoots a 3, gets the ball stolen, etc. I created a percentile rank of each team in each category, to standardize the numbers.
The ranking was done both all-time, and within each year, because I wasn’t sure if accounting for the gradual changes in NBA style of play would help or hurt the method. (Is a team that is first in the league in FG%, more like the team that is just behind it in second the same year, or the one that is first 20 years later, with a different number? I don’t know.) To judge similarity, I then essentially performed a very large Pythagorean Theorem calculation, squaring the difference in rank for the two teams in each category, adding them, and then taking the square-root. This gives “distances” from one team to the next, with the less distance between two teams signifying greater similarity.
For anything like this, it’s important to verify the method gives results that make sense, using examples that one can reasonably predict. To check my methods, I looked at the ’09 Lakers. One would expect the Lakers to be similar to the ‘08 and ’10 Lakers teams, as they had much the same roster as previous years and the same coaching system in Phil Jackson and the triangle offense.
2009 Lakers similarity
* indicates a playoff team
It seems like ranking the teams in each statistical category both by season and all-time give fairly meaningful results, although using all-time ranking seems to skew towards teams within the same era. It is a good sign that the similarity method using season rankings show the 2009 Lakers as highly similar to some Chicago teams, given that they had the same coach and relied on superstar SGs, but played in different eras. My method using the broader range of stats seems favorable to just using the Four Factors, which makes sense given the 5-fold increase in parameters, but each seems good. Looking at each of the four methods and seeing if any names come up on more than one list seems like a good way to start.
OKCs Similar Teams: 2010-2011
*indicates a playoff team
So the Thunder’s comparisons seem to come from a lot of different places, but one trend I see is that there are a lot of teams with young perimeter talents. Mid-00s Washington and late-00s Denver show up frequently, in particular. I had always seen Denver as a good comparison for Oklahoma City, just because the Melo and Durant are so similar in their scoring ability, and the second best player on each team is the PG. I hadn’t actually considered the old Wizards team as a comparison, and I think it actually fits better than I wish. Their best three players were a high-usage PG (Arenas), SF (Butler) and an undersized-PF (Jameson), they got to the line a ton, scored a lot, didn’t play great defense despite gaudy steal numbers, and offensive rebounded well despite defensive rebounding poorly. Does that sound familiar?
Despite the promise that the pre-knee issues and gun scandal Arenas era of Washington, they never made it out of the first round of the playoffs, losing to the Cavs three times in a row. So what should we learn from this? I think we ought to worry at least a little about the Green-Jamison comparisons here, especially because I think Jamison (2 all-star games) was more highly regarded than Green.
Another thing to notice about the above comparisons is that only 30 of the 40 made the playoffs, and only 3 of the 40 comparisons made it out of the first round. These were a lot of teams with a good offense and a mediocre defense, and that doesn’t seem to translate to postseason success. Now, hopefully the Thunder can turn around their defense to something more like last year’s, because despite a similar win%, scoring margin, and personnel, the comparisons look much better for the Thunder last year.
In the comparisons for the Thunder from the 2009-2010 season, there is one NBA champion (DET 04), several conference finalists, many perennial contenders, and 37 of the 40 teams were in the playoffs. I know a lot of people seem to “feel” like the Thunder aren’t playing as well as last year, and this is statistical evidence of that fact. Despite winning regular-season games at the same rate as last year, the way this Thunder team is winning doesn’t seem to be as sustainable in the playoffs. History suggests that they need to give up a little of this season’s offense prowess for some of last year’s defense if OKC wants to get out of the first round. I hope they do.
Thanks to basketball-reference.com for the data and just a really great and handy website. For more comparisons, or to see the database I used, it is available here.