There have been a lot of pieces written lately about the Houston Rockets. About their 2016-17 offense. About their supposedly surprising defensive success.
However, given the Houston Rockets offensive success, we should really not be surprised by the team’s defensive success. For in basketball, as in many other team sports, offense and defensive success are to a great extent related.
There’s a couple of excellent pieces by Seth Partnow on the subject. One here about how steals and feedback loops. How a single steal affect not just a single offensive possession, but may continue to affect the possessions after it.
The simplest way to see this is merely to assume the likely outcome of a great many steals is a transition opportunity. That usually means a basket, or perhaps free throws. Or, in another way to look at it, a future defensive possession that will begin from the dead-ball, and not in transition. When the defense is set, it has much greater chances to be successful.
The steal. It’s a place where we see defensive success leading to offensive success leading to a great chance of being successful on defense.
Though the opposite also happens, and in another excellent piece by Partnow, we see one way in this can happen. Bad offense can lead to more difficult defensive possessions, which in turn, which leads to a lesser chance of defensive success.
One big key in both pieces is the idea of Transition, which, in basketball, is what we have labeled the space of the relationship. While in another sport, perhaps football, the relationship between offense and defense can perhaps best be summed up in concepts like Field Position and Time of Possession, though the Transition game, or Special Teams, is of course important.
The 2016-2017 Houston Rockets
It’s perhaps obvious and intuitive how allowing transition opportunities can lead to failure. As a corollary, we might also then assume that offensive success should indeed lead to defensive success. Or, at the very least, more defensive possessions which will then give the defense a better probability of success. Because defensive talent and execution are always going to be important.
So how are the 2016-2017 Houston Rockets on offense? They are good. Very good. 3rd in the league at 112.7 Points per 100 possessions (according to ESPN’s Hollinger stats). Though it should also be noted that they are much closer to the 1st place team (Golden State, 113.2) than they are to the 4th place team (San Antonio, 110.6). While the 15th and 16th ranked teams, OKC and Indiana respectively, are only at 105.5 and 104.7.
If that weren’t enough, the Houston Rockets are also 5th in field goal percentage (47.1% as a team), 11th in Free Throw attempts (24.1) and 7th in Offensive Rebound Rate (25.7). Though it should be noted the Houston Rockets do turn the ball over. (25th at 14.9 per game.)
Which is to say, the Houston Rockets do a lot of things on offense that gives themselves a chance to be successful on defense. Where they don’t happen to be even all that successful. 17th in the league at 105.5 points per 100 possessions. In other words, basically average.
Average defense is what we should expect to be basically the worst case scenario for a team that is essentially, with two others, the best offensive team in the league. Indeed, it’s exactly what we see from the other two teams, Toronto (105.7) and Golden State (quite a bit better at 101.7).
It’s indeed what we see going back through recent NBA history. Every elite offensive team is somewhere between average and elite on defense, with two notable exceptions. The 2013-14 Mavericks, which we will speak about below and The Steve Nash Suns, a team which dominated offensive efficiency in the NBA for almost half a decade. They were usually at least average. But on one occasion, they were slightly less than average, and on one they were significantly less so. Both were post Shawn Marion I believe, which might give us a little hint about how good he was.
Now, considering the teams defenders, I think you could argue that the Suns generally outperformed expectations. Steve Nash. Amare Stoudemire. Leandro Barbosa. Casey Jacobsen. James Jones. Tim Thomas. Eddie House. Gordon Giricek. Goran Dragic. Late career Jason Richardson.
Teams that play such players thousands upon thousands of minutes a season should perhaps not be expected to run out even average defenses. Even if many of these defenses also featured all-time great Shawn Marion. And yet the Phoenix Suns were generally average. Sometimes even a little bit better.
How is that possible?
Because offensive success, in most cases, leads to defensive success. And that one way to build an at least average defense in the NBA is simply to build an outstanding offense. It’s surely this factor that Mike D’Antoni, who was not only the chief architect of those Phoenix teams, but a key hand in the shaping of the 2016-2017 Houston Rockets, has been relying on.
Passing the Basketball: A More Subtle Connection Between Offense and Defense
Though I’d like to go beyond the simple fact that offensive success can lead to defensive success. Or at least heighten its possibility. Because considering just how offense leads to defense, and vice versa, is crucial in terms of player acquisition, whether it be by trade, free agency, or the draft.
Indeed, it might even turn out that some players can exceed their defensive expectations merely by being excellent on offense. Or that certain players can perhaps exceed their offensive expectations merely by being excellent on defense. (By forcing more turnovers or missed shots, etc . . .) And we’ve seen above, in the pieces by Seth Partnow, that there can also be deleterious effects in both directions.
Yes, it’s obvious I’m potentially alluding to Lonzo Ball. Though not just him. Pretty much any player who can aid the team by quick, insightful passing that progresses offenses possessions may contribute to this effect.
The reason being? Because it’s a team’s passing ability and success we’re interested in. Not just the success of their best passer.
2013-2014 Team Defense and Passing
Here we go. Though I won’t say too much about each table. After all, there are a lot of them. And the purpose of this piece is merely to introduce the data to you in this context. To let you see and hopefully suggest that there’s an at least decent relationship between Team Passing and success on defense.
How do we track team passing? By Assists of course. Though with Synergy data available to us from NBA.com, there’s perhaps a better way. That is, by tracking secondary assists. And perhaps even better than that, by taking the ratio of a team’s secondary assists to their assists on the whole. (In the tables below marked as Adjusted Assists, since these numbers are more inclusive, also including passes that lead to Free Throws.)
I think we find that in most cases, Top 10 defenses tend to be good at one or the other. If not both.
2013-2014 Team Defense and Passing Table
1) We’re going in chronological order, which means we’re beginning with the least convincing data sample of the three full seasons available. Or in a friendlier light, the cloudiest data sample. The most difficult to read and make out the patterns that emerge, if there are any.
2) However, I think we can spot the trend even here if we look in the right places. Note that the table is arranged by the Ratio of Adjusted Assists to Secondary Assists. It’s perhaps not the best way to arrange the table. Reading the numbers might be clearer if we arranged it by DRtg.
3) Note also that I’ve included a lot of offensive and defensive factors that we might figure would more closely correlate with Team Defensive Success than passing. Opposition Field Goal Percentage for one. Or for that matter, one’s own team’s field goal percentage.
4) Note, I am not arguing that defense that passing is the primary factor in defensive success, nor the only factor, nor necessarily much more important than all these other factors. Defensive success is very complicated and thus has many variables, which may vary in importance from team to team, depending on personnel.
I am merely arguing that passing success, at least to me, seems often to be related to defensive success. And vice versa. Though being poor at scoring, giving up lots of turnovers, not having defensive talent all may override whatever positive benefit passing may bring. If it’s even the act of playing as a team brings the benefit. Isn’t it equally plausible that players that pass well, and show understanding of the game on offense, are more likely to buy into the team aspects of team defense, and show understanding there as well?
5) The Indiana Pacers stand out here. Number one on team defense. Number one also at opposition field goal percentage. So one might think there is nothing to learn from such a team. However, I think it’s interesting we see a team that’s very bad at generating baskets by assists, but very good, relatively speaking, at generating baskets by secondary assists.
What one might surmise is that we have a team with a lack of initiation skill, but a lot of excellent ball movers. And I think that’s what we find if we consider George Hill, Paul George, David West, Roy Hibbert (he could really pass for a C at Georgetown) and even Lance Stephenson.
6) Top 12 defenses who are also Top 12 in Assists: The Grizzlies. The Clippers. The Spurs. The Warriors. The Bulls. The Wizards. The Heat. The Grizzlies.
7) Minnesota is interesting. At least in terms of the thesis. 28th in Opposition FG%. 11th in Team Defense. That’s a strange combination of rankings. But they were really good at assists. 4th in the league. Though it wasn’t team defense, so much as perhaps Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love.
8) Top 12 defenses who are also Top 12 in Secondary Assist to Adjusted Assist Ratio: The Pacers. The Grizzlies. The Clippers. The Spurs. The Bulls. The Heat. The Bobcats. The Raptors.
So we’ve accounted for 11 of the Top 12 defenses in the NBA. The lone exception, the Oklahoma City Thunder, who were third in the league in opponent Field Goal Percentage, top 6 in offensive field goal percentage and top 10 in free throw attempts. So we still arguably see some connection between offense and defense here.
9) What about the teams who potentially gum up the works? We have the Lakers, the Hawks, the Jazz, the Mavericks, and the Bucks.
The Lakers were excellent at passing and horrible at defense. Nash and Kobe were also both on this team.
The Hawks were excellent at passing and relatively average at defense. With how bad they were at surrendering turnovers, especially live ball turnovers, drawing fouls or free throw attempts, or even stopping their opponents from scoring (21st in opposition field goal percentage), I think it’s at least arguable that they in some way outperformed their talent on that side of the ball.
Lou Williams, Jeff Teague, Pero Antic, Mike Scott, Cartier Martin, rookie year Dennis Schroder, Shelvin Mack, and John Jenkins combined for about 9,500 minutes. And that’s not including Kyle Korver, who scored average by some defensive metrics in that season.
The Jazz and The Bucks were horrid at pretty much everything besides Team Passing. While The Mavericks were quite good at any number of things on offense, but just couldn’t solve the defensive part of the equation.
They are one of those excellent offensive teams that were somewhat below average. But we’re talking 12,000 minutes of Monta Ellis, late-career Nowitzki, late-career Vince Carter, Jose Calderon, Shane Larkin, Gal Mekel, Wayne Ellington, post-Nets Devin Harris. These were not good defenders. Especially on the perimeter.
One way to look at it is this: No matter how much offense helps defense, it’s not going to help a defense like that. Another, it’s a wonder a team could be that bereft of perimeter defensive talent and still finish over 3 points per 100 possessions better than the worst defense and with 8 teams worse than them.
For those who might be interested, here is the same table but with more passing data
2014-2015 Team Defense and Passing
1) Top 12 defenses that are also Top 12 in Assists: The Warriors, Spurs, Grizzlies, Bucks, Wizards, Bulls, Hawks, Rockets, Celtics.
2) Top 12 defenses that are also Top 12 in Secondary Assist to Adjusted Assist Ratio: The Warriors, Spurs, Grizzlies, Bucks, Hawks, Pacers, Rockets, Hornets, Bulls, Celtics.
(Table Arranged by DRtg below.)
3) One list with nine teams. The other with ten. The Wizards being the one team from the first list that didn’t make the second. The Trailblazers, who had Matthews, Aldridge and Lopez I believe, being the one team to make neither.
They were relatively average by all accounts on passing, but obviously a great defensive team. The interesting thing is that they slightly underperform their defensive field goal percentage ranking, if only by a little. Perhaps not enough to mean anything without accounting for noise and luck and all of the other factors that go into making a good defense.
4) Notice that the Grizzlies and Spurs both have defensive rankings that more closely co-align with their passing numbers than with their Opposition Field Goal Percentage allowed. Now that doesn’t mean anything by itself necessarily. Though I do find it interesting.
At the very least, we’re starting to find that good passing teams also tend to be good defensive teams.
5) For those that don’t know, Steve Clifford is an excellent coach. Charlotte, despite having a strange collection of parts that one wouldn’t necessarily expect to play well together always shares the basketball, and they almost always finish in upper parts of the NBA in defense. And this was before Nic Batum arrived there.
As a possible example, just look at what’s happened to Josh McRoberts since leaving Charlotte. Context and coaching sometimes really affects certain players.
6) Also, Frank Vogel. I’d ultimately bet on him getting a lot out of whatever squad he is coaching. In some sense, what we are also seeing here is not just on the player’s but a result of good to great coaching.
7) As for the Jazz, they look okay here, but I didn’t include the most important information. If you look at the Synergy stats it’s absolutely crazy how many passes the Jazz throw on a year to year basis and to how little effect. I haven’t looked closely this year yet, but the Jazz are generally to passing what Lance Stephenson is to pee dribbling.
8) Teams that potentially gum up the works: The Clippers, Sixers, Thunder, Knicks and Timberwolves.
This version of The Clippers is the classic great on offense, only average on defense team. One thing I want to note if you look at their numbers is that their great passing numbers are more generated by one or two great players (Paul, Griffin) than they are by great team passing. Hence, the disparity between assists and the ratio I’ve been using to highlight team passing success. Which is not necessarily a flag, but I do think we tend to notice that teams which are super reliant on one player are not necessarily great on Defense.
The Sixers were the worst offensive team in the league by any number of measures but still proferred an above average defense on the season behind a rookie Nerlens Noel. And I think if they were even an average team on offense, it’s very possible they would have broken the top 5 or 6 on defense. Which is to say any team trading for Noel is potentially getting a franchise changing impact player.
Regardless of the fact that the Sixers have mismanaged his developmental years in any number of ways. He’s a stay-in-his-lane pick and dive defensive center. He needs a coach who convinces him to connect on screens and teaches him to be really good at the 4 or 5 things that such a player needs to do on offense to aid the team. When you remember how good he was pre-Okafor, the last two years are almost sad.
The Thunder are the Thunder. Not a great passing team. Yet we’re seeing them for a second time for a reason, but please notice that like the Blazers, they underperform their Opposition Field Goal Percentage Rank. Except they don’t marginally underperform it. They significantly do so.
The Knicks and Timberwolves are your standard horrid defensive teams. Defensive talent and execution do matter. And while you’ll notice that excellent passing and offensive teams with substandard defensive personnel end up somewhere in the middle of the pack, the same is not true for middling offensive teams.
Middling offensive teams with bad defenders often end up near the bottom of the heap.
See Arranged by DRtg. Broodway Boogie Woogie type shit right here.
2015-2016 Team Defense and Passing
1) Top 12 defenses that are also Top 12 in Assists: The Warriors, Spurs, Hawks, Cavaliers, Celtics.
2) Top 12 defenses that are also Top 12 in Secondary Assist to Adjusted Assist Ratio: Warriors, Spurs, Hawks, Cavaliers, Celtics, Pacers, Hornets
(Table Arranged by DRtg below.)
3) At first glance, this data set might seem less convincing as well. But notice this fact, teams that do well at both passing metrics are almost always good on defense.
Also notice that 4 of the top 5 defensive teams (The Warriors, Spurs, Hawks and Celtics) are incredibly good at both aspects. And that the 5th, the Pacers, are much very good at passing as a team, even if they don’t have great individual creators.
4) It’s one thing to be Top 12 in Secondary Assist to Adjusted Assist Ratio. But perhaps just as importantly, if not more so, is that this rating exceeds a team’s rating in Assists. That suggests the team plays together, even if they don’t have a great initiator to rely on. That they have a number of good passers or at least play well as a team.
And this is true for Utah, Detroit, the Raptors and the Grizzlies, all Top 12 defensive teams.
The key here is really to understand this fact: Assists in the NBA usually come on some type of primary initiation. And secondary assists by definition come off of ball movement from an initial assist opportunity. So if a team is better at creating secondary assists than they should be, given their initial opportunities, it is likely because they are better, as a whole, at moving the ball than other teams.
5) So we have two Top 12 defensive teams unaccounted for: The Heat and The Clippers, who 2nd in defensive field goal percentage but only 6th in team defense.
Let us consider them with The Thunder. Who were 13th in defense despite being 15th in defensive field goal percentage. (Please note this is somewhat simplistic. Obviously we aren’t tracking threes here.)
And please notice that these teams are both overly reliant on one or two players to create all their chances. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, who was injured much of the season, or Jamal Crawford for the Clippers. Russell Westbrook or Kevin Durant for the Thunder.
As I’ve pointed out, these are the types of teams, for whatever reason, that seem most likely to put up worse overall Team Ratings than we might expect from their defensive field goal percentage allowed.
6) The Heat are perhaps explained somewhat more easily. Nothing funny seems to be happening. They are just well coached with many sound defenders, starting with Hassan Whiteside. Then also Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Tyler Johnson, and Justise Winslow.
7) I highlighted the Suns and Rockets because they were horrible at two stats that increase the success of their opponent’s offense. Firstly, turnovers, which add defensive possessions. Secondly, steals, which add live ball possessions with high chances of offensive success.
I also highlighted these statistics because one of the reason passing might add to offensive success is precisely because it leads to execution on offense. Hence, more dead ball possessions on defense.
So passing not only sets up more easy shots, which leads to more scores, which lead to more Stops in the run of play and thus easier defensive possessions. That could be one reason. Or it could be that players who understand defensive principles better and are fundamentally more willing to play with and for their teammates. Or even more than that, that the way a team plays on offense affects at a fundamental level the way they’ll play on defense.
Now here’s the same version of the table with more data:
The Rockets, 2016-17 Defense and Passing Statistics
1) Now please keep in mind that this is only half a season. We have no idea how it will resolve. But still, we see the same strong relationship at the very top of the table. The top 5 teams all have some strong passing features, either as it comes to ball movement relative to assists, or as creating assists in general.
2) Of course, we see the relationship somewhat breakdown after the Top 5. Clippers through Thunder. But please note, there’s also a big gap between the Clippers and Top 5 teams. A full 1.5 points per 100 separate the Clippers from the Hawks. Whereas only 0.6 points separate the Hawks from the Grizzlies and the Jazz.
3) Though I don’t want to dive too deeply into the numbers before the season is over. What I do want to talk a little about it Houston. Not only excellent offensive numbers, but excellent passing numbers on the whole. The kind of team we’d be very surprised being less than an average defensive ball club. Great offense really is a pathway to defensive aptitude.
4) This is far from a conclusive study. Merely a suggestion of a relationship. Please feel free to make of it what you will.
I, for one, think passing and team work is the soul of the game, so it’s not difficult for me to believe such a relationship exists. Yet of course, defense is complicated. And there are a lot of possible explanations for defensive success.