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The Amazing Aberration that is the San Antonio Spurs

Click for a full-sized, interactive version

Click for a full-sized, interactive version

Sup. Thought I’d pop in to nerdify things a bit before everyone goes bananas over LeMeloLove.

Like everyone else, I watched the NBA finals completely slackjawed. If you were not clapping for the Spurs out of admiration, or at least begrudging respect, then I will dedicate my next chart to showing how statistically dead to me you are. Anyone who has ever complained about isolation-happy heroball watched those finals with a few tears welling up in their eyes.

Afterwards, the internet was somewhat split over what the Spurs victory portended. On one hand, it might be a harbinger of things to come–more teams would employ ball movement, passing, and all that good stuff. On the other hand, it might portend nothing because the Spurs are a complete anomaly that cannot be replicated. Rahat agrees with this opinion.

It’s time to look at the data.

It probably says something about the state of basketball that this is the first year for which passing stats are kept. I mean, passing is pretty much the 3rd most basic basketball move, right after running and jumping. Yet, until this year, we didn’t care enough about it to record who makes how many passes.

The link at the top shows a chart that graphs teams’ offensive ratings against their respective passes per possession. Right away you see that the correlation (the red trend line), contrary to what might be popularly believed, is negative. That is, fewer passes per possession is associated with a higher offensive rating. The Houston Rockets are pretty much right on the trend line. Meanwhile, the Spurs are in no man’s land in that top right corner. Also surprising is that the Spurs aren’t even tops in the league in passes per possession. They’re 4th, behind Charlotte, Chicago, and Utah.

This analysis, however, is a little misleading, because not all possessions are created equal. Teams that are more fast break oriented, for example, might have more but shorter possessions in which one pass or no passes are made. Slower, half-court oriented teams might have fewer but longer possessions in which many passes are made. Both types of offenses, in theory, can be effective.

In order to account for different types of possessions, I created a second chart, which you can access by clicking on the second tab in the graph link. This chart shows teams’ offensive ratings against their average seconds of possession per pass. Basically, how long are teams holding the ball before they make a pass. Once again, the trend line is negative, though the slope is less steep than the previous chart’s trend line. The Rockets are now above average in ball movement, holding the ball less long before passing than most other teams. The Spurs do lead the league in seconds of possessions per pass, followed by Philadelphia.

That both trend lines are negative is somewhat alarming. More and quicker passing does not correlate with better offense. From a statistical perspective, this is what makes the Spurs a true aberration. By passing the ball and being offensively efficient, they are essentially going against the grain of the NBA. Three teams pass more per possession, and their offenses are all below average. Philadelphia, who hold onto the ball almost as little as the Spurs, has the worst offense in the NBA. On the other hand, the Thunder, who do not pass much per possession and hold onto the ball quite a bit, also has a pretty good offense.

I’m probably the most guilty person on this blog of advocating for more ball movement and less ball holding. However, the data shows that passing doesn’t magically lead to easier scoring opportunities. Often making lots of passes might be a sign that no one is talented enough to score. Or excessive passing can just as easily be a sign of a broken system and confused players. The Spurs have a rare combination of talented players who are willing to be unselfish and a system that rewards it.

View this discussion from the forum.

About the author: Richard Li is an independent researcher and consultant. He likes numbers and pictures.

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