Nylon Calculus

Categorizing NBA teams by offensive style


Here is a look at how each NBA team uses shot selection, ball movement, player movement and pace to try and create offensive efficiency.

Every team has the same goal on offense — score as many points as possible on as many possessions as possible. However, anyone who has watched the Houston Rockets play a team like the Utah Jazz can tell you that each team has a very different way of going about it.

For the past few seasons, we’ve used offensive style charts as a way of visualizing those different approaches and it’s time to check-in on what each has been doing this season. These charts are not meant to evaluate whether an offense is good or bad. They are designed to help illustrate how teams go about the goal of trying to put the ball in the basket. Each team’s offense is evaluated on four stylistic spectrums.

Ball movement is measured with the average touch time for each team, from the NBA’s player tracking statistics. A lower average touch time means the ball is moving from player to player more quickly.

Player movement is measured with a combination of different NBA.com tracking statistics and works out to average distance traveled per 24 seconds of offensive possession.

Pace is measured with the average length of an offensive possession from Inpredictable, a more accurate representation of how quickly a team is working than traditional pace.

Shot selection is measured with MoreyBall percentage — in this case the percentage of a team’s true shooting opportunities that came at the rim, from the free-throw line, or on a 3-pointer. It’s a generalized measure but captures something about how much each team hews to the shots that are, on average, the most efficient.

On the graphs below you’ll see a line for each team’s offense. As the line moves away from the center of the graph on each axis you’re seeing more of that stylistic trait. For example, shot selection shows a (hypothetically) more efficient shot selection the further you are from the center. Here are the subjective groups I’ve identified so far this season.

A lot of everything

This grouping is teams that rank in the 50th percentile or higher in all four stylistic traits (or just barely missed in one, as is the case with the Suns). When I first started creating these style charts four years ago, this model was most closely linked with the Warriors — lots of movement, lots of passing, push the ball and take a lot of 3s. When Kevin Durant arrived, Golden State’s system adapted to support him, changing their style (more on that later).

While the Warriors may have made this system look like a panacea and the Bucks have thrived with it, both Phoenix and New Orleans are roughly average and the Bulls are a disaster. One of the ongoing takeaways from this work is that there are many different ways to build an efficient offense but this style is often thought of as an egalitarian ideal that could work on a star-less team. If you don’t have a star you can throw the ball too and let them work, you leverage every other tool in the toolbox — space, shot selection and speed. But maybe there are some lessons about the relative complexity of a system and how working in this style requires a high floor of offensive skill, up and down the roster to really be effective.

 

The Warriors model

When Kevin Durant arrived, this is where the Warriors went, incorporating more mid-range jumpers to accommodate a uniquely efficient star scorer but keeping the elements of movement, passing and pace in place to maximize value from their supporting cast. None of the teams who are playing this style this season have been particularly effective and it will be interesting to see if a more refined shot selection from the Grizzlies next season leads to an offensive leap.

 

We’re fine with it

This group is connected to the previous one. For a variety of reasons — both personnel and preference — all of these teams rank fairly low on the shot selection scale. The teams in the previous group compensate by going all-in on pace, movement and passing; these teams generally focus on just one aspect instead of all three.

The teams who are on the more successful end with this style are the ones that have a high-volume shot-creator who can be efficient in the inside the arc but outside the paint — players like Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Chris Paul, Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokic, Al Horford and Joel Embiid. The Magic don’t have anyone who can do that and thus the skills of their roster haven’t been enough to overcome some of the inherent challenges in their offensive style.

 

It’s the shots, stupid

The teams in this group are the inverse of the previous group, ranking very high in the shot selection trait but below the 50th percentile (roughly) in the other three traits. Obviously, the Mavericks are playing the idealized version of this style, as the best offense in the league right now. However, a great deal of that efficiency is the individual brilliance of Luka Doncic. The Heat and Jazz offer interesting counterpoints, teams who end up with a similar style despite spreading creation responsibility in a more balanced way than Dallas.

Run and spot-up

The teams in this group play a style predicated on 3-point shooting and pushing the ball for easy opportunities before the defense is set. The Rockets are kind of an island, the most uniquely committed to those two principles with Plan B being spotting up around isolations in the halfcourt.

The rest of the group can kind of be divided in half between the Hawks and Nets who rely on player movement as the halfcourt Plan B, and the Raptors, Timberwolves and Lakers, who lean on ball movement.

 

Everyone else

All of the teams in this group are like faint echoes of one of the other stylistic groups. The Celtics and Kings have plenty of internal balance between the stylistic traits but don’t lean on any of them dramatically enough to make it into the “little bit of everything group.” The Pacers are similar to the “We’re fine with it” group except they are also below the 50th percentile in all four traits. The Cavaliers offense seems to be leaning on shot selection as a primary focus but they’re shot selection is wonky enough to keep them out of the “it’s the shots, stupid” group. And the Knicks and Clippers have just enough unconventional balance to put them on this island of misfit toys.

Again, the most important takeaway here is that playing a particular style is less correlated with success than having talent and skill and designing a system that highlights that talent and skill.

Next: How we can help Bradley Beal, since the Washington Wizards won’t 



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