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The Numbers Game

NBA X-ray: Matchups

by Ryan Knaus
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:04 pm ET

Today's column analyzes all 30 teams’ offensive tendencies for a given play-type, as defined by NBA.com. How effective are the Spurs in isolation plays? Which teams are the most reliant upon transition baskets, spot-ups, or pick-and-rolls?


We won't stop there however, as I'm also interested in each team's defense against the same play types. Any team's offensive reliance/efficiency for a given play-type can be cross-referenced against an opponent's defensive efficiency vs. that play-type, resulting in a general sense of how well Team A's offense will fare against Team B's defense.


As a brief example, 10% of the Nets' offensive plays end via the roll-man in a pick-and-roll situation. They are below average in points-per-possession for 'roll-man' plays, however, and should fare even worse vs. teams that are most adept at stopping 'roll-man' action -- the Heat, Jazz, Thunder, Bucks and Spurs.


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For the sake of clarity, let's first look at Synergy's definitions for the play-types we're discussing:


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 of 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 of 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.


I'm not including the 'Miscellaneous' category in the charts below, simply because it's too fluky. Many of the shots recorded there are just half-court heaves at the end of quarters, as reflected in the frequency with which this play-type results in a basket -- the Blazers lead the NBA at 35.6% on 'miscellaneous' possessions, while the worst team is the Spurs at 22.4%. There's no need to parse these numbers.


The first chart shows how frequently each team uses the different play-types, providing a snapshot of their offensive tendencies:


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We can quickly determine, for instance, that the most isolation-heavy teams in the NBA this season have been the Lakers, Clippers, Rockets, Cavaliers and Knicks. The Jazz and Celtics love hand-off plays, the Wizards and Kings rely on transition, the Warriors use off-screen action far more than other teams, etc. This comes in very handy when used in conjunction with the tables below.


Next, we'll look at each team's offensive points-per-possession (PPP) for each play-type, followed by a defensive chart showing how many PPP they allow for each play-type. Here is a league-wide overview of the efficacy of each play-type:


Cut 1.21
Transition 1.10
Putback 1.06
Roll Man 1.02
Spot-Up 0.97
Off-Screen 0.93
Hand-Off 0.88
Post-Up 0.86
Isolation 0.84
Ball Handler 0.81

Pick-and-roll plays that conclude with the ball-handler are the least effective play under discussion, yielding a meager 0.81 PPP. The roll-man in those situations tends to have much better luck, but it's no surprise to see cuts, transition baskets and putbacks as the three most effective plays. Compare this PPP data with each team's frequency/usage in the chart above, and you'll notice that the best teams typically favor the more efficient play-types. 


Let's move to a team-by-team breakdown of PPP:


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The Warriors' dominance this season shows up loud and clear in this PPP analysis, as they lead the NBA in four different play-types -- pick-and-roll ball-handler, spot-ups, hand-offs, and off-screens. They're not quite as adept in plays that end with a roll-man, post-ups or putbacks, but (as we saw above) those plays combined only account for 16% of Golden State's offense. In other words, they play to their strengths.


The Raptors, interestingly, lead the league with 1.22 PPP in transition, edging out teams like the Cavaliers, Warriors and Hornets. Transition plays only account for 11.6% of their offense, however, which is the seventh-lowest rate in the NBA -- they'd do well to get out and run more often. Speaking of transition plays, we find the Bulls dead last at just 0.98 PPP, even worse than the moribund Lakers and 76ers. In fact, Chicago is only above average in three of the 10 play-types under consideration -- spot-ups, hand-offs and off-screens.


We saw earlier that cuts and transition plays are particularly effective, so which teams' offenses emphasize those plays? For cuts, the Bucks and Warriors are easily the highest-usage teams in the league, followed by the Jazz and Nets. Kudos to those teams for maximizing their exposure to an objectively efficient play-type. When it comes to transition, the teams most likely to be fastbreaking are the Wizards, Kings, Rockets, Warriors and Celtics. To nobody's surprise, pace has a strong correlation here -- the teams with the lowest transition usage are slow-paced teams like the Jazz, Spurs, Mavericks, Knicks and Grizzlies (all of whom are in the bottom-third for pace).


There's a ton to unpack here and I encourage you to spend some time analyzing these charts and tables, looking for patterns and insights into various teams' approaches, but there's one more topic we need to address -- defense.


Below is the companion table to the one above, this time looking at how many PPP each team allows vs. a given play type:


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This confirms the eye-test on teams like the Suns, Magic, Wolves, Bucks, Lakers and Rockets, all of whom are particularly vulnerable in transition. You'll have a harder time earning fastbreak points vs. the Spurs, Pacers, Pistons and Bulls. The Pistons are the only team in that group that isn't also tough against isolation plays, as their 0.92 PPP allowed is the fourth-highest mark behind the Nets, Lakers and Wizards.


Although I've run out of time, this is where things get really fun -- you can look at a team and compare their offensive tendencies to the defensive tendencies of any given opponent, resulting in a good idea of what that matchup looks like. The Knicks' offense relies on post-up plays more than any other team, at 14.5% of their offense. They are relatively effective in post-ups (0.89 PPP), but should have a much harder time if they're facing the defense of the Raptors, Thunder or Magic. Similarly, the spot-up dependent Jazz might struggle against teams that stifle spot-up shooters -- the Grizzlies, Bucks, Wolves and (surprisingly) Nuggets all fit the bill.


Have fun exploring these numbers, and if you have any questions or insights please send me a message on Twitter @Knaus_RW. Good luck this week!

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.