Good Defense. Better Offense: How Style of Play and Statistics Have Changed NBA Offenses

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For those that watch the NBA regularly, this title is a familiar phrase. You are guaranteed to hear Mark Jackson say it at least once in every NBA game that man calls. As ESPN cuts to commercial, the TV plays back a super-slo-mo clip of James Harden hitting a step back with a defender's hand right in his face, while Jackson exclaims, "GOOD defense, BETTER offense!" This call is the universal signal to look up from twitter at the TV in front of you and watch one of the NBA's stars work their magic. Of course, this all comes directly before cutting to a Chris Paul State Farm commercial. While this phrase makes for great NBA TV, is there any truth to it, or has the defense simply gotten worse over the years in a more offensive minded league?

Let's compare the league to what it was ten years ago. This year the league average for points per game is 110.1. In 2008-2009, it was 100.0. More than a 10-point difference. Defense has gotten worse, right? Not necessarily.

Teams are hitting the exact same FG% this year as in 08-09, 45.9%, while league shooting percentage from 3 is down from 36.7% in 2008-2009 to 35.1% this year. We can see teams aren't just giving up buckets like it is often thought. Teams also made more free throws ten years ago when compared to today. The league average in makes from the charity stripe has dropped from 19.1 in 2008-09 to 17.7 this season. If shooting percentage is down, and free throws made are down, then what causes this increase in ppg?

Pace. Shot Selection. Style of play. League average for made threes per game has increased from 6.6 to 11 over the last ten years. Teams are now averaging 4.4 more threes per game when compared to a decade ago. The game has changed into a more run-and-gun, let-it-fly style of play that spreads out the floor and lives or dies by the three. Teams are unleashing the value of great shooting by letting it fly from beyond the arc and leaving behind the post-game centric, bruising offenses of generations before.

The Warriors first ushered in this type of offense with Klay Thompson and Steph Curry. The splash brothers could hit from anywhere on the floor and Golden State soon realized that their best chance night-in and night-out was let that two let-it-fly as many times as they could because, as obvious as it may sound, three is better than two. If threes attempted increase while shooting percentage stay up, teams make better use of each possession.

Let's look at the stats. For every three attempted, a team averages 1.053 points per shot attempt when shooting 35.1%. When compared to a two-pointer, a team averages .918 points per shot attempt when shooting at 45.9%. If the shooting percentage from three stays high, each three is a better use of a possession than a two. Even though players are more likely to miss any given shot from three, the averages work in the team's favor.

The worst shot is a mid-range jumper where league average is now 38.1% and the average point per shot is a measly .762 points. However, not all two pointers are poor shots. The league average shooting percentage on shots inside 5 feet is 62.8% which means that teams score 1.256 points per shot attempt. So fire it up from three, dunk the ball when you can, and avoid mid-range jumpers like the plague.

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Offensive guru Mike D'Antoni has implemented this style of play with the Houston Rockets over the last few seasons. The strategy is simple. Run the pick and roll with either Capella and Harden, and everyone else stands on the three-point line ready to catch and shoot. The shooters space the floor giving Harden and Capella room to operate, and the defense is left with two options. Guard the shooters, leaving space for dunks and layups, or help in the paint, leaving Houston's sharpshooters wide open. Houston is all about dunks and threes, statistically the best shots in the game.

This strategy led Houston to the best regular season record in the NBA and a conference finals game seven matchup against the Golden State Warriors. However, statistical averages were not on Houston's side that night when they missed an unfathomable 26 threes in a row against 1 in 118757 odds. The likelihood of this happening to Houston, a 36.2% three-point shooting team, was .00084%. I mean not even a 12-year-old AAU team does that. But I digress.

Despite the late-game struggles that undid Houston, the template for success in the NBA is clear. Run an offense that emphasizes the three and dunks. Everything else is a waste of a possession. We have seen both Golden State and Houston prove the idea successful. Now the whole association is seeing a shift as teams across the league follow the model. In such an offensive-minded league, teams can't forget about defense, but while good defense is important, priority number one is always better offense.


By Devin Maki