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The Numbers Game

Matchups: Play-by-Play

by Ryan Knaus
Updated On: November 27, 2019, 11:28 pm ET

Fantasy owners always seek new information to make the best roster decisions. Fortunately, the rise of 'tracking data' in the NBA has offered up valuable, granular statistics for the past few years. With a quick trip to NBA.com, you can locate favorable matchups and situations beneficial to fantasy owners. One interesting analysis I'll return to this week focuses on 'play types', such as post-ups, isolations, or screens finished by a roll man.

James Harden is getting 38.6% of his plays in isolation this season, easily the most in the league with LeBron James second at 23.0%. As I'll show, Harden's iso-heavy game should be particularly effective vs. the Pelicans, Knicks, Wizards, Suns and Bulls. Those teams give up the most points against isolation plays -- New Orleans gives up more than twice as many iso points than Detroit or Orlando. You can do this for any player and team. To stay in Houston, P.J. Tucker is getting more than half of his offensive plays as a spot-up shooter. According to the tracking data from Synergy, the Sixers would be a terrible matchup for him scoring-wise, as they've allowed a league-low 16.1 points to spot-up shooters this season, whereas the Hornets and Raptors have both allowed 30+ points.

By examining how many points per possession (PPP) teams allow vs. particular play types we find, for instance, that the Bucks' defense has decimated post-up plays this season. Post-ups are one of the least-efficient play types at 0.87 PPP, but the Bucks are limiting opponents to a mere 0.68. Compare that to teams like the Hornets (1.09), Kings (1.09) and Grizzlies (1.06). Armed with that knowledge, we know teams to avoid or target with players who rely heavily on post-ups -- Joel Embiid and LaMarcus Aldridge wouldn't be a great DFS plays vs. the Bucks, and you might be more inclined to deploy Jonas Valanciunas or Carmelo Anthony vs. the weaker teams.

Many readers will already be familiar with NBA.com/Synergy's definitions for play types. For those who aren't acquainted, here are the definitions:

Transition: When the possession-ending event comes before the defense sets following a possession change and a transition from one end of the court to the other.

Isolation: When the possession-ending event is created during a “one-on-one” matchup. The defender needs to be set and have all his defensive options at the initiation of the play.

Pick-and-roll, ball handler: A screen is set on the ball handler’s defender out on the perimeter. The offensive player can use the screen or go away from it and as long as the play yields a possession-ending event, it is tagged as a pick and roll.

Pick-and-roll, roll man: When a screen is set for the ball handler, and the screen setter then receives the ball for a possession-ending event. This action can include pick and rolls, pick and pops and the screener slipping the pick.

Post-up: When an offensive player receives the ball with their back to the basket and is less than 15' from the rim when the possession-ending event occurs.

Spot-up: When the possession-ending event is a catch-and-shoot or catch-and-drive play.

Hand-Off: The screen setter starts with the ball and hands the ball to a player cutting close by. This enables the player handing the ball off to effectively screen off a defender creating space for the player receiving the ball.

Cut: An interior play where the finisher catches a pass while moving toward, parallel to or slightly away from the basket. This will include back screen and flash cuts as well as times when the player is left open near the basket.

Off Screen: Identifies players coming off screens (typically downs screens) going away from the basket toward the perimeter. This includes curl, fades, and coming off straight.

Putback: When the rebounder attempts to score before passing the ball or establishing themselves in another play type.

Miscellaneous: When the action doesn't fit any of the other play types. This includes, but is not limited to, last second full court shots, fouls in the backcourt, or errant passes not out of a different play type, etc.


Note that play types are not created equal. Transition plays have resulted in an average of 17.6 possessions per game for each team, nearly as much as isolations, handoffs and putbacks combined. Here's a look at the frequency of each play type (average # of possessions), as well as how effective they've been (PPP):

play type PPP and volume

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My primary focus as a fantasy owner is on spot-ups, pick-and-rolls, transition and iso, but every category is important to certain high-frequency players. The chart below displays how many points each team has allowed vs. each play type this season, through Nov. 25. I took the total possessions they've faced and multiplied it by the PPP they've allowed to get an easy single number. The Rockets have given up a league-high 1.34 PPP against pick-and-roll ball handlers this season. However, they've effectively dissuaded teams from even attempting such plays, as they face a league-low 5.5 'PnR Ball Handler' plays per game. Looking only at PPP would have made them appear to be intimidating for someone like Derrick Rose or Lou Williams, but the reality is that they're middle-of-the-pack for matchup purposes.

Note: The NBA.com does not currently have defensive data for 'Cuts' and 'Miscellaneous'. I'm not sure why, but that's the reason those categories aren't included.


play types

That's a lot of information in one table. To make it more useful for fantasy owners, I'll conclude with lists of players who rely heavily on each play type. The focus is on mid-tier and low-end guys, to help season-long owners debating which guys to play on nights like Wednesday and Friday this week, with 14 games and some tough lineup decisions to make. I'm also including elite guys for DFS purposes, where matchups are often the difference between winning and losing.


Transition: Josh Hart has been more dependent upon transition looks than anyone in the league, as they account for 35.9% of his offensive possessions. Donte DiVincenzo isn't far behind at 32.8%, but he's been surprisingly ineffective at a mere 0.78 PPP (11th percentile). Each of these sections will conclude with a list of players who rely heavily on the play type, and they're all in descending order. Transition continues with Ben Simmons, Elie Okobo, Kyle Lowry, Norman Powell, Russell Westbrook, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Eric Bledsoe, Dejounte Murray, Trevor Ariza, Robert Covington, OG Anunoby, Jae Crowder and Troy Brown Jr.

Isolation: As mentioned earlier, James Harden is king of the iso. He's also efficient with 1.08 PPP, which is near the 80th percentile. He's the rare guy that might just be matchup-proof when it comes to play type, as he'll just impose his will anyway. Russell Westbrook and Austin Rivers are also top-five for frequency of iso plays, which makes it even more surprising to me that Houston still ranks second in pace behind Milwaukee. They were 23rd in pace last season, so call it the Westbrook effect? LeBron James is second in isos (both total possessions and frequency), and other iso-heavy guys include Spencer Dinwiddie, Eric Paschall, Pascal Siakam, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Jeff Teague, Giannis, Blake Griffin, Jordan McCrae, Dennis Smith Jr., C.J. McCollum and Julius Randle.

Pick-and-Roll (Ball Handler): J.J. Barea easily leads the league in frequency, with 70% of his offensive plays coming as a ball-handler in pick-and-rolls. He's only played three games, but that's still wild. Other guys who include D.J. Augustin, Derrick Rose, Mike Conley, Lou Williams, Trae Young, Damian Lillard, Ja Morant, Kyrie Irving, Markelle Fultz, Darius Garland and Chris Paul. Basically, pick a point guard. The more interesting look might be guards who do not rely on this play type. That list includes Garrett Temple (7.5% frequency), Ben Simmons (9.3%), Norman Powell (11.1%) and Russell Westbrook (15.2%).

Pick-and-Roll (Roll Man): Domantas Sabonis has 5.9 possessions per game end with him as a roll man, which leads the league, and those plays account for 30% of his plays. Serge Ibaka is close behind at 5.8 rolls and that's 41.0% of his plays. The Raptors have allowed the fewest points to this play type, so at least Ibaka won't have to face himself in mirror-mode. Other roll-heavy guys include Nerlens Noel, Rudy Gobert, Goga Bitadze, Damian Jones, Luke Kornet, Mo Bamba, Myles Turner (the Pacers love this play), Jarrett Allen and Daniel Theis.

Post up: If you did this analysis in 1995, post-up plays would be far more impactful. But in 2019, no play type under consideration is used less frequently than post ups -- there are even more putbacks per game. Of course, it's proven to be a very inefficient play type with 0.87 PPP, so the move away from post play is understandable. Joel Embiid is trying to single-handedly bring it back with 7.5 post possessions per game, followed by guys like Jonas Valanciunas, LaMarcus Aldridge, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Love, Al Horford, Anthony Davis and Enes Kanter. We also get Ben Simmons in the top-25 for frequency.

Spot up: Interestingly, Jaylen Brown gets more spot-up opportunities per game than anyone else in the league at 5.8 per game. He's followed closely by Brandon Ingram, Taurean Prince and Eric Gordon, while Carmelo Anthony is also top five in his first four games with the Blazers. As for pure frequency, the guys most reliant on spot-ups are Thabo Sefolosha and Rodney McGruder. They are followed by Semi Ojeleye, P.J. Tucker, Royce O'Neale, Trevor Ariza, Patrick Patterson, Kenrich Williams, DeMarre Carroll, JaMychal Green, Maxi Kleber and Nicolas Batum.

Handoff: Gary Harris gets a league-high 22.8% of his plays on handoffs, which is notable since it's just not a very common play type. Jamal Murray leads the league in sheer handoff plays (2.7 per game), so obviously the Nuggets like this action. Harris is above-average in efficiency for handoffs (1.0 PPP), but Murray is below average (0.86 PPP). A bunch of elite guards are busy in the handoff department, including Bradley Beal, D'Angelo Russell, Kyrie Irving, Trae Young, Devin Booker and Zach LaVine. Mixed in are Josh Richardson, Dillon Brooks (a surprise to me), Jayson Tatum, Terry Rozier, Andrew Wiggins and RJ Barrett.

Off screen: The players most reliant on off screen plays are unsurprising. Wayne Ellington leads the way with 34.7% of his plays, followed by Terrence Ross, Doug McDermott, J.J. Redick, Kyle Korver, Joe Harris, Bojan Bogdanovic and Landry Shamet. Right after Shamet is teammate Paul George, who also leads the league in volume of off screen plays at 4.4 possessions per game.

Putback: Andre Drummond gets 3.7 putback possessions per game, and he's converting at 1.11 PPP, so that's 4.1 points per game just on putbacks. Hassan Whiteside isn't too far behind for volume at 3.3 possessions. As for pure frequency, nobody relies on putbacks more than Mitchell Robinson with this play type accounting for 37.2% of his possessions. He's followed by Dwight Howard, Chris Boucher, Chris Silva, Ivica Zubac, Tony Bradley, Enes Kanter and Jakob Poeltl. It's interesting to see Kanter on that list, which is otherwise comprised of big men who rely on putbacks so heavily because there are no plays run for them. Kanter obviously isn't a focal point of Boston's attack, which bodes ill even if he does start earning more than 15-18 minutes per game.


That's all for this week's Numbers Game! Send me a message on Twitter (@Knaus_RW) with any questions or insights.

Ryan Knaus
Despite residing in Portland, Maine, Ryan Knaus remains a heartbroken Sonics fan who longs for the days of Shawn Kemp and Xavier McDaniel. He has written for Rotoworld.com since 2007. You can follow him on Twitter.