The Last 21 Games: Late Season Offensive and Defensive Rankings

Posted on Wed 09 May 2012 in The Stats They Carried by Aaron McGuire

For a more specific look at the surprising Spurs, see today's post at 48 Minutes of Hell.

It was recently brought to my attention that most people aren't quite as ridiculous as I. Let me explain. For much of the season, I've been offhandedly keeping tabs on the overall trends from an offense/defense perspective, through the view of eight-game moving averages, rankings in five-game spans, and a large spreadsheet updated when-I-remember with the latest summary data from Hoopdata. I was asked by my friend -- Tim Varner of 48 Minutes of Hell -- if I'd put together a complete post on the surprising late-season defensive renaissance by the San Antonio Spurs. Compiling my data into an easy-to-share form for the purposes of the post in question led my data to a form where it would be easy to share the whole league picture. Hence, I decided to make a post here about it as well, specifically taking aim at interesting trends (at the most rudimentary, league-wide level) over the last 21 games of the year and sharing the underlying data behind the graphs at 48 Minutes of Hell and the entire ranking. Onward, then.

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This table reports the average of each team's defensive efficiency in 5-6 game stretches, labeled in the top row by the last game in the stretch. The final total is their overall average defensive efficiency in the last 21 games of the 2012 season, which makes up roughly a third of our compressed season. There are a few main takeaways from this data, on the rawest level.

  • The Lakers have looked OK on defense against the Nuggets, mostly because Denver has missed an insane amount of wide-open shots in the series. But their awful performance on the defensive end to finish the season should go down as one of the most incredible stretches of bad defense put up by a top-5 playoff team. Ever. Denver has their awful injury-riddled 45-50 stretch bringing their average down, Orlando missed Dwight for most of the schneid, and the Mavericks defense was worn down by age as the season concluded. The Lakers? No real excuse. In their last 21 games, the Lakers held opponents to an offensive efficiency under 100 only five times -- that's compared to allowing an offensive efficiency over 110 ten times. For all the talk about tanking, only four teams played worse defense down the stretch: Cleveland, Sacramento, Golden State, and Minnesota. That's right. Even the Bobcats, who lost their last 21 games by an average of 18 points a game, defended better than the Lakers over the last 21 games. Are you starting to realize how insane this is? (The Lakers went 13-8 over this stretch, by the way. Sometimes the world makes no sense.)

  • The general sense I've gotten from many on Twitter is shock and awe at how gritty, grimy, and awful the offense in first round has been for games in the Eastern conference. But what were we really expecting? Five of the top six teams that played the best stretch defense are in the east, and of those five, all but Miami succeed by making the game ugly and slowing down the pace. As of late, the only western teams playing above-average playoff defense are the Spurs, Grizzlies, and Thunder. That's it. That's your comprehensive list. Is it any wonder the Western bracket has been more fun to watch, to those who like offense?

  • Yes. The Spurs had the best defense in the West over the last 21 games. The numbers aren't here (simply because I haven't added them to this particular spreadsheet yet), but this has extended into the playoffs -- the Spurs have defended very, very well (despite a breakneck-fast pace that makes their opposing point totals seem high) to end the season. This really deserved its own bulletpoint.

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Second verse, same as the first. Five game offensive efficiency averages, then an overall average over a team's last 21. Three observations, as before:

  • Yes, that's Denver way up top, at number two. They closed the season on an underrated hot streak on the offensive end, behind timely April shooting from Danilo Gallinari and Arron Afflalo. That, combined with the Lakers' atrocious defensive performance to close the season, is what led me to pick them as my one upset bid of the first round. Of course, I forgot the the second of two key rules of playoff basketball. First, you never count on the Hawks. Second, you never -- NEVER -- pick post-2002 George Karl to win a series where his team doesn't have an overwhelming talent advantage or home court advantage. Karl's inexcusably odd late-game playbook for the Nuggets as well as his always odd late-game rotation decisions have essentially doomed the Nuggets in this series. They should be up 3-2 right now -- instead, they're down 2-3 and came very close to getting gentleman's swept.

  • Reason number 2 why we should have expected the Eastern playoffs to look substantially different than their Western brood is rooted in the respective offense of its component teams. The only eastern offenses that performed at an above-playoff-average rate to close the regular season were the Pacers and the Hawks -- the Pacers don't really have much of an excuse for their ugly showing, but the Hawks are facing the best defense in the playoffs by a country mile. And, as everyone points out, they run one of the least creative offensive playbooks in recent memory -- if there's any team ripe for being shut down by a better defense, it's the can't-trust Hawks. There's a reason for the vast stylistic differences between the Eastern and Western playoffs, and it's not simply a tired narrative about how awful the East is. (Though, to be fair, we're sympathetic to that view here at the Gothic.)

  • There were four playoff teams that actually finished the season with negative efficiency differentials in their last 21 games (which, over a full season, would project to a sub-0.500 record). These four teams, along with their closing records:

  • The Orlando Magic (103.2 - 106.6 = -3.40) -- 8-13

  • The Dallas Mavericks (104.0-105.5 = -1.52) -- 11-10
  • The Los Angeles Lakers (108.1 - 108.7 = - 0.57) -- 13-8
  • The Philadelphia 76ers (101.4 - 101.7 = -0.29) -- 10-11

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Reader @DerekJamesNBA sent us a tweet noting that it seemed odd to him that Miami has slowed down so much in the playoffs. I replied that it wasn't all that surprising to me, then decided I'd back that up with numbers. To wit, look at the above chart. That chart represents an eight-game running average of possessions per game played by the Miami Heat. You may notice a trend. Up until around game 22 of the season, the Heat were playing at a breakneck pace, akin more to the SSOL Suns than a usual Riley team. Then, out of nowhere? Their possessions per game average collapsed unto itself, and they spent the entire rest of the season playing at a pace that (over a full season) would've made them one of the 5 slowest teams in the league (and the slowest in the playoffs). It's a bit hard to tell, but they actually got marginally slower over the last half of the season. The average pace of their first round series has been tedious and slow, but there's no real surprise there -- this is how they've been playing since their blitzkrieg start. Perhaps they've done it to save LeBron's legs, perhaps they've done it to focus more on their halfcourt game. Either way, the Heat's style barely resembles the team that destroyed the league in the first 20 games, and that's been true for more of the season than you'd think.

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To do your own analyses, I've put together a Google Doc that collects the per-game offensive and defensive efficiencies of every given team -- in other words, the raw data behind the rankings, in an easier-to-parse form than the overall totals on HoopData. Using this, you can put together charts for your own team of choice if you'd like to examine a specific team's evolving defense or offensive evolution as the series went on. Once I figure out how to use Tableau, I might add a few more visualizations to this post -- until then, hope the overall picture is sufficient for most of our readers. If you have any questions,