Charles Barkley once said of analytics “They’re just some crap that some people who are really smart made up to try to get in the game ’cause they had no talent.” He’s not wrong, but that doesn’t mean analytics, advanced stats, nerd crack–whatever you want to call it–don’t have a place.
They are becoming more and more useful in understanding and explaining the game, and there are some really smart people making some really cool stats out there.
It can be overwhelming, though. Rate this and percentage that per 100 of those. If you aren’t careful, you can stumble into a rabbit hole on the NBA.com stats page, looking at something like effective field goal percentage off of shots coming from a player’s dribble hand-off (Draymond Green led the league, in case you were wondering). It’s actually an interesting stat–if you’re into that sorta thing–though it means very little in the grand scheme of things.
There aren’t many stats–if any–available that have a direct correlation to winning. After all, there are many different playing styles and teams win games by playing to their strengths. You know, some teams score a bunch of points in the paint, others win by taking a ton of three’s.
However, there are a few stats that can help evaluate a team’s overall success.
Net rating, as found on NBA.com, is measured as the difference between a team’s points scored and points allowed per 100 possessions. It’s essentially a margin of victory, averaged out for a set amount of possessions. It not only tells you who is good (plus or minus net rating), it tells you who is better.
The San Antonio Spurs (11.8) and Golden State Warriors (11.6) had by far the highest net ratings in the NBA last regular season. It’s no surprise that the Spurs won 10 more games than any other team in the league other than the Warriors, who set a record for wins in a season with 73. The Cleveland Cavaliers, who went on to win the championship, had a net rating of 5.8–half of what the Warriors posted–ranking fourth in the league.
Net rating has a very direct correlation to wins, with the top 10 teams finishing with at least 48 wins. All of them made the playoffs.
The worst net ratings belonged to the 76ers and Lakers, who picked first and second in the NBA draft.
Assist to Turnover Ratio
The assist to turnover ratio, found on NBA.com, measures the amount of assists a team has for every turnover the team commits. So a team with an assist to turnover ratio of 1.5 turns the ball over on average after every 1.5 assists. This stat has a higher correlation to record than, say, the raw number of assists a team has, or even assist percentage, which measures how many of a team’s total baskets came off an assist.
Once again, the Warriors (1.91) and Spurs (1.88) had the highest AST/TO ratio in the league. Both were close to two full assists before turning the ball over. Only one team–the Magic–in the top 10 of AST/TO ratios had a losing record, and that’s because Orlando’s defense couldn’t stop anyone.
It’s not about how little you turn the ball over, or how much you pass. It’s a balance between the two: how much you find open teammates for easy shots, without giving up easy points to the opponent. The teams that do that most regularly are the most consistent. Consistency counts for a lot in the marathon NBA season.
True Shooting Percentage
True shooting percentage is the the darling at the ball. Everyone wants to take her for a dance. As the league takes more and more three’s, true shooting percentage becomes more and more reliable as the most accurate measure of shooting percentage. As measured on NBA.com, true shooting percentage is a rate that is adjusted to include the value of three pointers and free throws.
In other words, not all shots are created equal. Making a three-pointer is worth more on the scoreboard, and should be valued more when calculating a player or team’s shooting efficiency. Stephen Curry making three of four three-pointers is worth more than DeAndre Jordan making three of four shots at the rim. It’s no surprise that Curry led the league in true shooting percentage. If that doesn’t validate the stat for you, I don’t know what will.
It’s also no surprise the Warriors led the league with a TS% of 59.3. Next: the Thunder, Spurs, Cavaliers, Clippers, Rockets, Hawks and Raptors. Some teams–like the Rockets, Timberwolves and Kings–gamed the system by purposely taking a ton of three’s and snuck into the top 11. Those teams were loosing games because of piss-poor defense, not inefficient offense.
That’s the obvious fault of using team true shooting percentage to measure a team’s success, but as efficiency–where you shoot from–becomes more and more important in the NBA, this is the stat to measure that efficiency.
Score Margin Percentages
This is a nifty stat from the number crunchers over at Nylon Calculus that measures how teams maintain and build on leads. Specifically, it measures how much of the time a team plays with a 10-point lead. For a team to play and maintain a lead they have to be good at all the basketball things, namely: scoring points and preventing the other team from scoring and catching up.
The logic is simple here: the best teams open up larger leads against their opponents. This is similar to that of net rating but is a direct reflection of what happened on the court, not a factor extrapolated for or limited to 100 possessions.
I’ll give you a second to guess who was on top. That’s right. The Warriors and Spurs at 36.1 percent and 30.4 percent respectively. This means they played with a 10 point lead an overwhelming percent of the time. The next two? The Cavaliers and Thunder. In other words, the four best teams in the NBA last season.
There are also some stats that have been propped up as important, but actually have little-to-no correlation with winning. Things like pace and rebounding percentage tell a story of a team’s style, not how good they are. The 76ers, for example, played at the sixth highest pace in the league and they sucked. Meanwhile, the Spurs and Cavaliers were among the slowest teams in the NBA, and they were both very good.
So whether you are in to analytics, or believe stats is a dish best served basic, these are the ones you should be aware of when watching the upcoming NBA season.