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The Extra Pass: Identifying Offensive Calling Cards

Jan 10, 2013, 9:20 AM EDT

Kevin Durant, LeBron James AP

The Extra Pass is a new daily column that’s designed to give you a better look at a theme, team, player or scheme. Today, we look at which teams are outperforming all others in specific areas of the game.

Play logging has been used by NBA teams for quite some time, but the derived numbers were rarely made public. If we wanted to know, for example, which team performed the best in transition opportunities, we could get in the ballpark with general inferences. We could gather that a team like the Los Angeles Clippers, with dunking machines controlled by the league’s greatest point guard, were probably really great in transition, but without the raw data, it was tough to know for sure.

Synergy Sports removes a lot of that guesswork. They log every single possession from every single game, and place each play into one of many categories. The categorization may not be 100 percent accurate all the time, but you imagine logging every offensive play for the Washington Wizards with no “???” category available to bail you out. It’s not easy. That said, Synergy does give us solid numbers to work with, and today, we’ll use those numbers to see which teams are leading certain offensive categories as we approach the halfway mark of the season.

Isolation

Top Team: Los Angeles Lakers – .92 PPP (points per possession), isolation plays used 11.6% of the time.

Go figure —  the struggling Los Angeles Lakers are actually tops in the league in points per possession in isolation, mainly because Kobe Bryant has been a one man wrecking crew all year. Bryant has accounted for 200 of the Lakers’ 342 isolation attempts (58.4%), and he’s converted at the league’s 13th best rate, netting .97 PPP when he goes iso.

You can possibly point the finger at Bryant for not getting teammates involved enough, or creating a selfish culture within the organization, but you can’t say he hasn’t been productive when he calls his own number. To even further prove that point, Bryant is the league’s best post scorer (1.15 PPP) this season, hitting over 63% of his shots. That only accounts for 8% of Kobe’s total attempts, which makes you wonder if the Lakers would be better off if Bryant were allowed to spend more time on the block.

Post Up

Top Team: New York Knicks — .95 PPP, accounts for 6.5% of all possessions

Ah, sweet, sweet moderation. The Knicks rarely post up anyone who doesn’t have an actual post-up game; a basic concept which a lot of teams struggle to grasp. To wit, of the Knicks’ 165 post attempts this season, 93 of those have gone to Carmelo Anthony. Thankfully for the Knicks, Anthony is a monster with his back to the basket, and he has relied pretty heavily on his post game this season (17.2% of his attempts). His impressive 1.04 points per possession in the post ranks 6th among all NBA players. There’s nothing small (at least offensively) about Melo at the 4.

Pick-and-Roll, Roll Man

Top Team: Miami Heat — 1.29 PPP, accounts for 5% of all possessions

The Heat don’t feed their roll men on screens very often at all, but when they do, it’s two things: successful, and most likely to be Chris Bosh. Miami’s only “true” big man accounts for over half of the team’s roll attempts. It must be nice to have LeBron James scanning the top of the defense and firing passes to you — Bosh is the 10th best roll man in the NBA, scoring 1.23 PPP, using those dives to the rim to make up 18.4% of his total attempts. Basically, if you can catch the ball (sorry, Joel Anthony) you’re going to score efficiently as LeBron and Dwyane Wade‘s roll man.

Pick-and-Roll Ballhandler

Top Team: Houston Rockets — .92 PPP, accounts for 13.5% of all possessions

With Jeremy Lin and James Harden sharing the same backcourt, the Rockets really go heavy with pick-and-rolls when they’re not flying up the court in transition. While Lin looks to score more often than Harden does coming off a ballscreen, it’s Harden who ranks as the league’s most effective scorer as a ballhandler in that setting. Harden averages a whopping 1.11 PPP on ballscreens, best in the league, and he’s accounted for 45% of the Rockets made field goals by pick-and-roll ballhandlers.

While the road paving screens set by Omer Asik have helped free him up, you can only imagine the damage Harden could do with a big time finisher becoming his dance partner. It’s scary, but Houston can become even more dangerous offensively in the future by pairing the league’s premier pick-and-roll talent with a guy who can really catch and finish on the other end. Keep an eye on this.

Off Screen

Top Team: San Antonio Spurs — 1.1 PPP, accounts for 5.6% of all possessions

The Spurs have lots of capable 3-point shooters they can run basic pindowns or single-double screens for, but it’s their “Motion” set that nets them a ton of easy buckets on a nightly basis. Surprisingly enough, it’s Tony Parker who does the most efficient work coming off screens away from the ball for San Antonio. Parker is the league’s best points per possession player coming off screens, registering a ridiculous 1.3 PPP on 63% shooting. Although the Spurs go to it very rarely (5.5% of Parker’s possessions), it’s a deadly weapon Gregg Popovich won’t hesitate to use when the games start to matter a little more.  Can you imagine chasing the lightning quick Parker through screens set by big trees like Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter? No fun at all.

Transition

Top Team: New Orleans Hornets — 1.27 PPP, accounts for 9.2% of all possessions

The Hornets only take fast break opportunities when they’re absolutely, positively there, as they play at the league’s slowest pace. Because of this, you can’t exactly call them the league’s best fastbreak team, but they are effective when they do push the ball. Should they run more? With Anthony Davis keying the break with blocks and rebounds, Ryan Anderson being a perfect trailer, and Eric Gordon flying up the wing with Greivis Vasquez running the point, it sounds pretty darn good in theory. So long as Monty Williams is the coach in New Orleans, though? Forget about it. His teams play painfully slow every year.

Spot Up

Top Team: Golden State Warriors — 1.12 PPP, accounts for 18.2% of all possessions

No surprises here. The Warriors secret to success in this area is that they shoot a boatload of 3-pointers. Of Golden State’s 595 spot-up attempts, 316 of those have come from behind the arc. What’s even crazier? Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have combined for 75 percent of Golden State’s total spot-up attempts.

Well, needless to say, those opportunities are going to the right guys. Curry notches 1.37 PPP on spot-up shots, and Thompson connects for 1.3 PPP. ranking them 4th and 9th in the league in that category. With this backcourt, the Warriors can shoot their way into almost any game.

Overall

Top Team: Miami Heat — 1 Point Per Possession

It’s the Miami Heat who rank first in points per possessions, a fitting spot for the team with the best player in the world, and really, it’s the versatility of LeBron James as a scorer that has the Heat here. James is 11th in isolation (.99 PPP, 24.7% of possessions), 9th as a pick-and-roll ballhandler (.97 PPP, 18%), and 1st (!) as a spot-up shooter (1.55 PPP, 8%). There literally isn’t anything he can’t do offensively.

Overall though, the Heat do face some competition from the Oklahoma City Thunder, who are right on their tails at .99 PPP. Oklahoma City ranks in the top-5 as a team in the post up, spot up, off screen and transition settings, and Kevin Durant is becoming frighteningly well-rounded as a complete scorer as well. The only race tighter than this one might be this year’s battle for MVP.

Numbers from MySynergySports.com were used in this article. 

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