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Settling The NBA Analytics Debate

By Chris Horton @HortonBBallSite

The NBA's best and worst offenses help us settle the Morey-Barkley analytics fued. Kinda.

Houston Rockets GM, Daryl Morey and NBA Hall of Famer, Charles Barkley set the basketball twittersphere ablaze with this exchange on Tuesday night. In short, Morey voiced displeasure with Barkley’s continued dismissal of the Rockets as a championship contender; Barkley fired back on TNT saying talent trumps all and Morey’s reliance on advanced analytics (Basketball’s Moneyball) is just because he is a nerd that couldn’t play the game.

When you get past the "Yo Momma's" and insolent deliveries, both standpoints have some validity. Unfortunately for Barkley, basketball analytics is here to stay. Consider this example of the three best and three worst offenses in the NBA.

Los Angeles Clippers

OffRtg: 110.6 (1st NBA)

Golden State Warriors

OffRtg: 109.6 (2nd)

Dallas Mavericks

OffRtg: 109.4 (3rd)

New York Knicks

OffRtg: 99. 0 (28th)

Charlotte Hornets

OffRtg: 97.7 (29th)

Philadelphia 76ers

OffRtg: 91.5 (30th)

The Clippers, Warriors, and Mavericks have the three best offenses in the league, as measured by Offensive Rating (OffRtg) which is simply calculated by points scored per 100 possessions. One of the many things the ‘Analytics Age’ has taught teams is offenses should be designed to utilize three pointers and close shots in the paint while minimizing low percentage midrange attempts. On average, the Clips, Warriors, and Mavs only shoot 31% of their shots from the forbidden zone (which I will now refer to as Rudy Gay land), while shooting 37% of their attempts from in close and 31% of their shots from three land. So essentially, these teams use increased three point attempts to (exactly) counteract the inefficiencies associated with midrange jumpers.

The bottom three offenses represent an interesting case because they show why both Morey and Barkley are correct. A cursory glance at the shot charts shows that the Knicks and Hornets definitely take more midrange shots than the best offenses, but they also take significantly more midrangers than the 76ers (the NBA’s worst offense). So why do the Sixers have the worst offense if they are shooting from the spots that analytics dictates? Cue Chuck. It’s about talent! Sixers coach Brett Brown is a disciple of Gregg Popovich, an analytics early adopter. Clearly Brown has the Sixers getting shots in the areas that he prefers, but the glorified D-League roster just isn’t hitting shots.

As for Morey’s point, the Knicks and Hornets are perfect examples. The two teams combine to shoot 40% of their shots from the forbidden Rudy Gay land. 37% of the remaining shots come from in close and the final 26% come from beyond the arc. So both the elite and struggling offenses shoot 37% of their attempts from close range. The only difference is the most efficient offenses exchange long twos for makeable threes, exactly as analytics would prescribe.

This is the Analytics Age in the NBA, but really it is simpler than that. It comes down to this: if you take 100 shots from Rudy Gay land and make 40% of them, you’ll score 80 points. Conversely, if you take 100 three pointers and make just 30%, you’ll score 90 points. That’s not analytics, that’s just mathematics; and class is in session at an arena near you.

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