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The NBA Haves and the Have Nots

NOTE:  The table below is pretty wide.  In order to see all of it, you will need to make sure to set Clips Nation to Wide screen display in the left side bar.

In an effort to understand just how bad the Clippers have been this season, I went through a little statistical exercise today using the efficiency statistics from  As a reminder, offensive and defensive efficiency stats go beyond simply tracking points allowed and points scored.  Teams that fast break a lot like Denver might appear to be poor defensively based strictly on points allowed.  Conversely, New York might at first appear to be really good on offense.  Or the Spurs might seem like a particularly poor offensive team, owing to their very slow tempo.  Efficiency stats normalize for the pace of the game by calculating the number of points scored or allowed per 100 possessions.

As you are probably aware, the Clippers rank near the bottom of the league in both of these measures.  They are dead last in offensive efficiency, scoring 102.7 points per 100 possessions.  The (good-only-in-comparison-to-how-bad-everything-else-is) good news is that their new found three-point shooting has their effective field goal percentage up to 25th in the league.

Much more troubling than the offense though is the defense.  Isn't defense supposed to be MDsr's strength?  The Clippers are 27th in the league in defensive efficiency - allowing 112 points per 100 possessions. 

I then went to the trouble to break the league into fifths, based on their rankings in terms of offensive and defensive efficiency.  A ranking in the top 6 in either category places a team in the top fifth (call them 'great'), 7 through 12 is the next group ('good'), on down through 'average', 'bad' and 'terrible' for the final group, rankings 25 through 30.  The Clippers, obviously, landed in the bottom fifth in both categories, qualifying as 'terrible' on both sides of the ball.  Two other teams have been 'terrible' on both offense and defense this season by this definition - the Wizards and the Kings.

Then I added the rankings for each discipline together.  The Clippers (30+27) came out at a league worst 57 - the Wizards and Kings each summing to 55.


Team Pace Off. Eff. eFG Def. Eff. eFG O Rank Off. D Rank Def. Delta Sum
CLE 89 112.4 52 101.9 47 4 Great 2 Great 1 6
BOS 91 110.4 53 101.5 47 5 Great 1 Great 4 6
LAL 95 113.1 52 105 49 3 Great 6 Great 3 9
ORL 93 109.9 53 102 47 8 Good 3 Great 5 11
UTH 93 110 51 106.1 50 7 Good 8 Good 1 15
DEN 94 110.2 51 106.8 48 6 Great 10 Good 4 16
SAS 89 108.2 51 103.9 48 14 Average 5 Great 9 19
POR 87 113.4 51 108.6 50 1 Great 18 Average 17 19
HOU 90 108.2 50 103.8 48 16 Average 4 Great 12 20
NOH 88 108.9 50 106.2 49 12 Good 9 Good 3 21
ATL 90 109.4 51 107.2 49 10 Good 12 Good 2 22
DAL 92 109.5 50 108.3 49 9 Good 16 Average 7 25
PHX 96 113.3 55 111.4 51 2 Great 25 Terrible 23 27
PHI 91 107.4 49 106.8 50 19 Poor 11 Good 8 30
MIA 90 107.5 50 107.5 50 18 Average 13 Average 5 31
CHI 93 107.9 49 108.6 49 17 Average 17 Average 0 34
DET 87 107.1 48 107.8 49 20 Poor 14 Average 6 34
CHA 88 104.8 50 105.7 50 27 Terrible 7 Good 20 34
NJN 90 108.6 50 111.3 51 13 Average 24 Poor 11 37
NKN 97 108.2 50 110.8 52 15 Average 23 Poor 8 38
MIL 92 106.4 48 108 50 24 Poor 15 Average 9 39
GSW 98 109.3 50 113.2 51 11 Good 28 Terrible 17 39
IND 96 107 50 108.9 50 21 Poor 19 Poor 2 40
TOR 92 106.8 50 109.9 51 22 Poor 22 Poor 0 44
OKC 94 103.1 47 109.2 51 28 Terrible 20 Poor 8 48
MIN 92 106.4 48 111.6 51 23 Poor 26 Terrible 3 49
MEM 90 102.8 48 109.8 52 29 Terrible 21 Poor 8 50
WAS 91 105.1 48 113.7 53 26 Terrible 29 Terrible 3 55
SAC 94 105.4 49 114.1 52 25 Terrible 30 Terrible 5 55
LAC 92 102.7 48 112 51 30 Terrible 27 Terrible 3 57


I noticed something (beyond the statistical evidence that the Clippers have been the worst team in the NBA this season) as I was going through the exercise.  By and large, most teams are good at both things or bad at both things.  Even most of the teams that we think of as being pretty lopsided (like the Spurs being all defense or the Knicks being all offense) aren't really that one-dimensional based on these efficiency stats.  For instance, the Spurs are fifth on defense as expected, but 14th on offense, still in the top half of the league.  The Knicks are 15th on offense, and 23rd on defense. 

To dig into this question a little further, I calculated the delta between a team's offensive ranking and their defensive ranking.  This would theoretically yield a maximum of 29 (first in one category, 30th in the other) and a minimum of zero (the same ranking in each).  Without going into the probability and statistics math (which is many years in my rearview mirror at this point), intuitively it seems to me that the average difference for a random sample would be around 10.  (Anyone out there know enough about probability to confirm or refute that estimate?)

Instead, the average difference for the data set was less than 7.  The outliers were the Suns (second in offense, 25th in defense), the Bobcats (27th in offensive, seventh in defense), the Warriors (11 on O, 28 on D) and the Blazers (1 on O, 18 on D). 

It's worth noting that an NBA team has to be at least decent at both disciplines in order to compete.  The Suns, the second most efficient offensive team in the league, will likely miss the playoffs this season because of their defense.  (By the way, can we put the 'D'Antoni's teams don't play any D' thing to rest now that the Suns have gotten significantly worse on that end after his departure?)  The Bobcats, the seventh best defensive team, will also miss the playoffs, even in the diluted East.

But here's what's truly fascinating to me.  Across the board, the playoff teams are among the top 10 in their conference in BOTH offensive and defensive efficiency.  Given that 8 teams make the playoffs per conference, that seems pretty remarkable, statistically.  There is no single playoff team that is so one dimensional that they had to overtake more than two teams in their weak area based on their strength. 

What does this mean?  I'm not sure.  One simple observation is that a team has to be competent on both sides of the ball if they want to compete. 

It also may be true that the better teams are made up of the better players, and that the better players are good on both offense and defense.  Certainly the physical attributes of strength and length and quickness are valuable on both offense and defense.  But then again, we also know of specific players who are very one dimensional like Ben Wallace or Bruce Bowen or Steve Nash.  So that doesn't seem to explain everything.

I believe that there are some self-fulfilling prophecies at work here. 

  1. The best defense is a good offense.  It's not like football, where you can hold the ball for the majority of the game.  So while it's true that the other team can't score while you have the ball, with a 24 second clock, they're going to get plenty of turns.  Nonetheless, strong offense can concretely help the defense in the NBA.  The obvious example is turnovers.  A good offense limits their turnovers, which limits easy scoring opportunities for the opposition.  Likewise it's much easier to score off of missed shots than off of made shots.  Make more shots, and your defense simultaneously, magically improves.
  2. Good defense leads to good offense.  So, the converse of the above is also true of course.  A team like Philadelphia does not really have a good offense by empirical observation.  In fact, they're actually pretty horrible.  But they still score 107.4 points per 100 possessions, right around the league average and good for 9th in the Eastern Conference.  They do this by forcing turnovers (second best defensive turnover rate in the NBA), forcing teams into tough shots, and running off of their opponent's miscues.
  3. The haves and the have nots.  Let's face it, from fairly early in the season, the Western Conference was divided into two groups.  Nine teams had playoff aspirations, and six did not.  A similar phenomenon occurred in the East, where the split was after the top three.  Twelve Eastern conference teams had incentive to try to reach the playoffs, but little hope of getting to the NBA finals this season.  So what?  Well, bad teams get worse and good teams get better during the course of the season, for a variety of reasons.  Some of the reasons are concrete - Sacramento buys out Drew Gooden to save some money and he signs with San Antonio playing for the league minimum (or Joe Smith or Marbury or any number of other examples).  But I'm completely convinced that the more important factor is psychological.  Execution is about focus and determination and hard work - teams that are playing for a championship do those things.  It's a chicken and egg thing to some degree, to be sure.  Successful teams play hard and are determined and focused - and teams that play hard and are determined and focused are successful.  But there is a positive feedback loop on winning teams, and a negative feedback loop on losing teams.  Consequently, good teams end up being good on both sides of the ball, and bad teams end up being bad on both sides of the ball.

There's a little glimmer of hope in this for Clips Nation.  Yes, by many different measures, the Clippers are the worst team in the league this season.  But when the new season begins, if the feedback loop can start off positive, it's possible (if unlikely) that the team can transform itself on both sides of the ball.

Now, if only the team can come up with some way of changing the overall tone going into next season, to try to get that positive vibe started.  Hmmm.  What to do, what to do?