The Best Defense Is A Great Offense?
At least that's the approach Wake Forest took this season.
The 2003-04 Demon Deacons were recognized as a good offensive team with a bad defense. They led the ACC in both points scored and allowed, with the respective offensive/defensive ratings working out to 114 and 111. Since every significant player from last year's Sweet Sixteen squad returned this year, expectations were high for a banner year.
As often seems to happen when a team returns most/all of its players, this season's WF offense was a definite improvement over the previous year. In fact, their run through the ACC schedule was probably the most impressive statistical performance of any major conference team that I've come across. If the defense had just come along for the ride (see my ACC graph), this team might have been playing deep into March. Of the 17 teams I listed in my post on efficiency margins, WF had the worst defense, and was the only team with a defensive rating below their conference average. Maybe then it's not such a huge surprise that they were vulnerable to a streaky-shooting West Virginia team.
In absolute terms, Wake Forest's 125 offensive rating during their 16 conference games was better than any other major conference team. Here's the top 5 -
That lead takes a small hit when you measure the performance relative to their conference's points per possession (PPP) average. Since ACC teams averaged 107 PPP, and the Big Ten average was just 104, Illinois and Wake Forest's offenses were about the same distance from their respective peers.
There's a pretty big gap between Illinois and Louisville on that list - Wake Forest and the Illini were the two premier offenses in the country this year, at least during the conference season. I documented early on how infatuated I was with Illinois's efficient attack -
They turn the ball over on only 16.3% of their possessions, which is the secondThat post was from much earlier this year, but the two strengths listed (adjFG% and TO/poss) continued to fuel Illinois's great offense. They went on to lead the Big Ten in both categories, and by fairly significant margins.
lowest rate in the country. So in any given game, where both teams always have
the same number of possessions (give or take one or two), Illinois will almost
always have more looks at the basket (lower TO rate), and will score more points
on their opportunities (higher adjFG%). That's a deadly combination.
This week is probably the first time I've taken a close look at Wake Forest's numbers, and I have to say that I'm blown away by their balance. They led the ACC in not two, not three, but all four of Dean Oliver's Four Factors of offensive production. I don't know how often that happens, but no other major conference team can make a similar claim this year.
The ACC's leaders, starting with shooting (adjFG%)..... -
fewest turnovers (TO / poss)..... -
offensive rebounding (Oreb%)..... -
and free throw shooting (FTM / FGA)..... -
While they didn't run away with any one category, I can hardly express how impressed I am that they show up on each leaderboard, let alone head each list.
The following nine guys played in every conference game for Wake Forest -
If I had to pick two players most responsible for the emergence of this team's offense, it's got to be Chris Paul and the 275 lb. center, Eric Williams. Wake Forest's biggest improvements from last year came by cutting turnovers and shooting better from the floor, and these guys played the biggest role in each.
Chris Paul, 03-04
Chris Paul, 04-05
Paul led the team in minutes in both seasons, and as the primary ball handler, his drop in turnovers made a big difference in the team's offensive rating. He's still wrestling with his decision on the NBA Draft, but unless he really wants to prove he can lead a team farther into the tournament, I say he's already proven himself in college. There's still question regarding his height (6-0), but point guards who pass this well and make this many free throws don't grow on trees. He's also a career 47% three-point shooter. And don't forget - this all happened as a 19-year old in the ACC.
|Eric Williams, 03-04|
|Eric Williams, 04-05|
Williams really stepped up for his junior season. He raised his FG% from 52 to 61, he got to the free throw line much more frequently, and he got a lot tougher on the glass.
If Paul comes back for his junior season, this should be a fine offensive unit once again, though it would be hard to repeat the performance they had this year. Downey and Danelius filled their roles as well as anyone can expect, and those two and Levy were seniors this year. Still, Paul, Williams, and Gray were the team leaders in minutes and possessions (by quite a bit), and each was excellent this year, so a team with those three at the core would still be one of the ACC's best offenses.
Storm Warning - Recapping the Cyclones
The points per possession graph project that I worked on over the weekend got me interested in looking closer at a lot of different teams and gave me plenty of ideas for things to write about over the summer. That's good for me in that it will spice up my summer days that will otherwise be spent at some mind-numbing job. And I'm hoping it'll be good for you the reader, in that you can come here a few days a week to find some college basketball content as you count the days until play resumes this fall.
I'll first examine a team just a couple hours down the interstate from here - the Iowa State Cyclones. The Clones were most known this season for following an 0-5 conference start with a season-saving seven game winning streak that included upsets of Oklahoma, Texas, Texas Tech, and Kansas.
Taking a look at the Big XII's PPP graph gives you a quick idea of Iowa State's relative strengths and weaknesses. They overcame a very inefficient offense with what was easily the conference's best defense to finish with a 9-7 record.
*Note - All stats in this post are from conference games only, unless otherwise noted*
HH Stats Glossary
Here's how Iowa State's defense rated in a few important categories -
To restate how impressive this defense was this year, here's the league's top five defensive teams, by PPP -
The defense (and the team's resurgence) was driven by a stifling zone press that forced the above absurd turnover rate. It featured freshman Rashon Clark at the front with trapping help from sophomores Curtis Stinson and Will Blalock. Clark's athleticism, Blalock's wingspan, and Stinson's uncanny anticipation put them all near the top of the Big XII's steals leaderboard. Check out the top 5 -
No other team placed more than two guys in the top 15. Iowa State had four, as forward Damion Staple also cracked the list.
When ISU couldn't get a steal off the press, they were still tough in the half court set. Senior center Jared Homan made sure that no shots came easy down low, and the perimeter guys only allowed opponents to make 32% of their threes, resulting in the solid adjFG% listed in the table. The team's one defensive weakness was rebounding, as neither Homan nor Staple rebounded like you'd hope a post player would, but they still finished near league average. Defensive rebounding would have been a much bigger issue if not for the presence of Stinson, one of the country's better rebounding guards (and he's only 6-3), and good contributions on the glass from Carr and Clark.
Offense was a completely different story for the Cyclones. They finished last in shooting %, near the bottom in offensive rebounding, and only beat Baylor and Missouri in offensive efficiency. Had they been at all turnover-prone, Iowa State would have been downright (*cue Bill Walton*) horrible on offense.
The low turnover rate was initially a surprise to me, since younger players tend to turn the ball over more, and all of ISU's main perimeter players are freshmen and sophomores. But it does make some sense, since Stinson and Blalock played a ton of minutes as freshmen last year, and since they're both old for their grade - Stinson is already 22, and Blalock turns 22 this fall.
Homan and Staple both failed to provide offensive rebounding. Their respective Oreb% were 7.0% and 6.0%, which is just unacceptable from post players. As for the shooting % - there was a lot not to like. The team shot very few threes, and made only 28% of them. Homan shot an awful 42 FG%. Last but not least was Stinson, who I will go on record as saying is the most overrated offensive player in the Big XII. He was exciting to watch, but that doesn't always translate into effectiveness.
In his 2003-04 Pro Basketball Prospectus, John Hollinger wrote a nice rant detailing how overrated Latrell Sprewell was, and he included a nice list of attributes of overrated players. That set of characteristics is like a checklist of Stinson's game. Here's a sampling -
- High scoring average.....17.5 ppg.....check
- Turnover prone.....3.4 TO/40 min, but only .18 TO/poss.....no check
- Periodically dunks or makes spectacular plays.....Stinson's passing and play in the lane make him a constant threat for the highlight reel.....check
- Doesn't make many 3-pointers.....made 9 in 16 games.....check
- Stats padded by playing a lot of minutes.....37 mpg.....check
Stinson's stat line (especially the more advanced stuff) is almost a replica of Pierre Pierce's numbers, but that's a post for another day. The bottom line is that it takes him a ton of minutes and possessions to put up 17.5 ppg, which is exactly why Pierce's offense was so replaceable.
Here are some telling offensive numbers for ISU's main guys -
Some context - league average offensive rating = 107, true shot % = 55%, TO/poss = 21.1, fta/fga = 0.37, stl% = 2.0.
Much like Iowa with Pierce, a major chunk of ISU's offense goes to Stinson, who scores at a rate well below the conference's average. The main difference in this situation, though, is that ISU doesn't have some of the other offensive options that Iowa did. The Hawks had three guys with offensve ratings ranging from 110 to 125 ready to step in, so it made a lot more sense for Pierce to shoot less. Here, having Stinson shoot less won't necessarily improve the offense. (I wrote a lot about Pierce's inefficiency this season, most notably here and here.)
Other notables from the table -
Every guy on the team had a respectably low turnover rate. I'm still impressed with that.
ISU's press led to steals for a lot of guys, as you can see by how far above the league Stl% so many of these guys finished.
Homan and Staple had very disappointing rebound %'s, while Stinson's was very solid for a guard. His defensive rebounding (not listed here) is especially good.
To briefly recap the season, Iowa State was excellent at forcing turnovers, holding opponents to a low shooting %, and limiting their own turnovers. They struggled at shooting and offensive rebounding, and were average at defensive rebounding. The guys responsible for the strengths (Stinson, Clark, Blalock, Carr) are staying for at least another couple years, and the guys mostly responsible for the rebounding are on their way out, so Cyclone fans should be fairly optimistic.
ISU's two primary post players, Homan and Staple, both graduated this year. Homan was a four-year starter who endeared himself to fans with his small town roots and hard-nosed, take-no-prisoners style of play. Fans will miss his presence, and the team will miss his interior defense, but I don't see any reason why his play on offense and on the glass can't be replaced. ISU's recruiting class contains several post players, including two four star centers, according to Scout. Even if they're just average offensive rebounders, Iowa State's offense should be better, because (a) offensive rebounding is especially valuable to offenses who miss a lot of shots, and (b) average offensive rebounding would be a big step up from Homan and Staple.
ISU's defense should be strong again next year, since the guys who forced most of the turnovers are all back. It could be even better if the recruits provide good defensive rebounding, though that could be partially offset by more free throws allowed, since freshmen post players tend to be a little foul-prone.
Iowa State has the most room for improvement on offense. If they had had a league average offense this year (107 PPP), their expected winning % would have been in the same range as Kansas, Oklahoma, and Okie State, who all finshed at 12-4 in the conference. ISU needs to get a lot better at shooting the ball. Clark and Carr improved their three point shots throughout the season, and Carr even hit 42% of his attempts in conference games. Continued development from them will be important, and Stinson and/or Blalock could definitely help the team by adding an effective perimeter game. The offense also needs to rebound better, as outlined above.
With athletic players providing plenty of excitement at both ends of the floor, Iowa State will be a fun team to watch next year. If they develop a couple good three point shooters, and if the freshmen provide plenty of rebounding (and those are both big ifs), they can be contenders in next years Big XII.
My project for this week is to post Points Per Possession graphs, similar to last week's Big Ten graph, for each of the major conferences. I actually have the graphs finished, but I'm having problems getting them posted on Blogger, and I can't seem to recall anything from the caffeine-laced all-nighter that led to the last graph slipping through the system. Anyway, make sure to check the top of the sidebar for links to new graphs, and tell all your non-Big Ten friends!.
Efficiency Margin and Why It Matters
Other Titles Considered
- Do people respect Louisville and Michigan State now ?
- How Iowa got HOSED by the selection committee
- Duke got a seed they didn't deserve? You're kidding.....
Basketball, like most sports, is a simple game. Score more points than your opponent, and you win. If your offense is terrible, you can still scrape by if you allow fewer points than you score. Likewise, a high-octane offense can make up for a porous defense. It's when a team excels at both aspects of the sport that it distinguishes itself from the competition.
This concept is nothing complicated or even recent; Bill James created his formula to compute a baseball team's expected win-loss record based on its runs scored and allowed back in the 1980s. His idea is adaptable to any sport - the more you outscore your opponents by (on average), the more wins you're expected to accumulate over a season. In a single game or series of games between two teams, the team with the greater scoring margin has a greater chance of victory (assuming the previous records were compiled against equal competition).
I spent some time exploring this idea when I looked at Big Ten teams and their expected winning percentage based on the points they scored and allowed. Today I want to expand my view to all major conference teams. I want to see which teams had the best chance of winning come tournament time based on how much they outscored their opponents during the season. My method was as follows:
- I computed offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency (points per possession) for each team from the Big Ten, ACC, Big XII, SEC, Pac-10, C-USA, and Big East.
- Points per possession (instead of points scored/allowed per game) was used in order to eliminate any pace bias.
- Since I wanted each team to have fairly similar schedule strengths, I only looked at conference games. Of course all conferences aren't equal, but there's much less variability in conference schedules than full-season schedules.
- I subtracted defensive efficiency from offensive efficiency to arrive at what I call, for lack of a better term, Efficiency Margin.
For example, Syracuse scored 113 points per 100 possessions during their 16 Big East contests. Their defensive rating during that time was 106, which leaves an Efficiency Margin of 7 (actually 7.8 because of rounding).
The most interesting thing about this list is the top. The four teams who had the biggest spread between offensive and defensive efficiency during their conference seasons were, believe it or not, the same four teams who matched up in the Final Four. Here's a list of the major conference teams with an Efficiency Margin (EM) greater than 10, along with their offensive and defensive efficienies.
My crack about Louisville and Michigan State basically comes down to the seeds they ended up with - a #4 and #5, respectively. Louisville went 14-2 in C-USA, won their conference tournament, and came into Selection Sunday having won 18 of their last 19 games. Considering the stock the committee put into some other conference tournaments, this looked like a solid tournament resume, but Louisville ended up with a seed that placed them as only one of the top 13-16 teams in the country.
Michigan State was constantly trying to erase the "inconsistent underachiever" label it had been saddled with all year, despite their steady and often superb play.
My next beef, of course, comes from Iowa getting paired with Cincinnati in the first round. It seemed like a tough but winnable game at first glance, but in retrospect, Cincinnati looks quite a bit tougher than a 7-seed. They had C-USA's second-best offense and third-best defense, and their second-best Efficiency Margin was double that of third place. Here's the top five EM's from C-USA this season -
Despite some early struggles, Memphis proved to be a decent team by making the Final Four of the NIT. Charlotte was also a 7-seed in the NCAA, and UAB pulled off an "upset" of LSU in the first round. I use quotation marks because UAB had the better EM of the two teams.
The other 7 seeds in the tournament were Southern Illinois, Charlotte, and West Virginia. Yes, I know UWV made the Elite Eight, but they were a cinderella team if there ever was one - their EM was actually -4.1. They lost 5 of their first 6 conference games, including 2 by a combined 58 points, before turning things around for their season-ending run. No disrespect to the other 7 seeds, but I don't think Cincy was quite down to the same level as them. Cincinnati no doubt got burned by the seeding too, as they had to face a 2-seed (Kentucky) by the second round, instead of the easier 2nd round game they would've played had they been seeded properly.
I suppose this was another season of Coach K and Duke getting the benefit of the doubt from the committee based on their tournament history. The Blue Devils beat three average teams in the ACC tournament and suddenly their third place, 5-loss regular season was overlooked. Boooo.
I didn't realize Alabama played so well during their conference season, and I'm surprised they were such a trendy pick to get upset by UW-Milwaukee.
Villanova seems to be the new trendy pick to make a run in next year's tournament. I was a pretty big fan of their program this season (woo, I partied there once when I was an undergrad), and with all the guys they have back next year, I don't think I can stop myself from jumping on the bandwagon. The Big East is going to be crazy - Louisville, Cincy, UConn, 'Nova, Syracuse, West Virginia....
This list of 17 includes 10 Sweet Sixteen teams, six Elite Eight teams, and all four members of the Final Four. Maybe I'll do my wallet a favor next year and let my spreadsheet make my bracket picks.