Posted by Neil Paine on May 18, 2010
In basketball perhaps more than any other sport, the concept of team-building -- creating a cohesive group that fits together and may be greater than the sum of its parts -- is phenomenally important. In baseball, a sport dominated by one-on-one matchups, not a whole lot of consideration has to be made for how teammates work together; to make a great team, you basically grab the 25 best players you can, throw them together, and watch them produce. But in basketball, teammates have to work together while simultaneously "competing" for touches & shots. Throw together a baseball lineup of 9 guys who each create 100 runs, you'll probably score 900 runs; throw together a basketball lineup of 5 20 PPG scorers, you probably won't score 100 PPG. There's no upper limit on the number of runs the baseball lineup can produce, but there is an upper limit to the points the basketball lineup scores, because teams are limited by a finite number of minutes in a game, and as a result, lineups are limited by a finite number of touches & shots to be allocated to the individual players.
That's why a stat like Possession% (the % of team possessions a player uses while on the floor) is important in looking at how the pieces of a team fit together. A lineup of All-Stars would be interesting, but perhaps a less-talented lineup with one 26% usage guy, two 20% guys, an 18% guy, and a 16% guy would be even better if the All-Stars are not happy with the way they fit together or are unable to operate at peak efficiency in lesser roles, while the less talented lineup features players who are all at their optimal usage levels. The whole of the latter would be greater than the sum of the former's parts.
I thought of this when I was cruising Bill Simmons' archive and came across this old piece on the 2004 Olympic Team. Now, let's be honest, in The Book of Basketball Simmons kinda made too much of "The Secret of Basketball" -- look, it really wasn't ever a secret, and the only "stats" that end up getting sacrificed by embracing "the secret" are ones like PPG that APBRmetricians don't care about anyway. In fact, the Poss% framework is a nice way of quantifying "the secret": we can actually measure the sacrifice made by players on winning teams vs. losing ones (witness Ray Allen dropping from 28% possession usage on Seattle in 2007 to 21% for Boston in '08, and raising his ORtg from 112 to 116 as a result).
But just because "the secret of basketball is that it's not about basketball" is a really stupid sentence to build a book around, it doesn't mean that Simmons and Isiah aren't right. In that Olympic article, Simmons writes this about how a great U.S. team should be formed:
"The Summer Olympics [is] a blank canvas... A chance to build a superior basketball team from scratch -- not an All-Star team, a basketball team. Choosing from 300 of the greatest players in the world, we would want one dominant big man; one quality point guard; one great scorer immediately designated for Alpha Dog Status, two other good shooters, two other rebounders, one athletic swingman who can defend the other player's best shooter, a backup point guard, two energy guys, and a 12th man who will hustle in practice and just be happy to be on the team. If we pick the right guys, we know we're winning the tournament and possibly ending up on ESPN Classic. It's just a fact."
That's a pretty nice formula, not just for Team USA, but for successful NBA playoff teams as well. And it's also one that fits in with the idea of the 26%-20%-20%-18%-16% mix (or whatever is optimal) I mentioned above. Instead of grabbing all 30% usage guys, you deliberately take players who aren't necessarily as talented, but will perform with better efficiency when they are asked to play that 18% role.
But one question that pertains to the NBA playoffs is this: what exactly is the optimal combination? Is it the percentages I listed above? Or should the Alpha Dog take away more possessions from the mid-usage guys? Or maybe our role players are taking too big a % of the possessions? To find the answer, I looked at the postseason Modified Shot Attempt %s (same as poss%, but without turnovers) for the top 7 playoff minute-earners on every NBA champion since 1952:
|Modified shot att% by team rank in MP|
|Year||Team||#1 MP||#2 MP||#3 MP||#4 MP||#5 MP||#6 MP||#7 MP|
|1958||St. Louis Hawks||25.7||25.0||17.2||14.3||18.0||20.1||15.9|
|1970||New York Knickerbockers||17.6||24.0||19.2||20.6||18.3||23.1||18.5|
|1972||Los Angeles Lakers||12.5||18.7||30.5||14.8||25.3||18.9||14.1|
|1973||New York Knickerbockers||22.0||21.5||19.8||22.0||20.6||16.8||19.1|
|1975||Golden State Warriors||30.8||21.6||23.8||9.7||18.9||10.7||20.3|
|1977||Portland Trail Blazers||20.9||22.8||25.2||17.6||17.7||16.3||20.7|
|1980||Los Angeles Lakers||20.4||21.2||20.7||26.5||16.7||14.0||15.4|
|1982||Los Angeles Lakers||19.3||24.8||20.8||23.1||21.1||17.7||11.6|
|1985||Los Angeles Lakers||25.1||20.2||24.1||20.4||15.4||21.6||10.3|
|1987||Los Angeles Lakers||21.9||27.3||18.2||22.5||18.4||14.1||16.9|
|1988||Los Angeles Lakers||26.2||21.4||24.8||12.8||22.0||16.1||13.8|
|1999||San Antonio Spurs||25.4||21.3||22.0||18.1||15.9||21.7||13.8|
|2000||Los Angeles Lakers||30.0||26.7||17.6||17.1||15.0||11.4||16.8|
|2001||Los Angeles Lakers||30.9||30.0||15.4||13.6||12.9||13.6||15.6|
|2002||Los Angeles Lakers||30.4||29.9||12.3||13.9||16.2||16.8||11.9|
|2003||San Antonio Spurs||26.7||24.8||19.1||11.9||18.6||20.0||14.2|
|2005||San Antonio Spurs||31.0||26.1||9.5||26.7||16.3||12.1||13.7|
|2007||San Antonio Spurs||29.7||28.6||9.7||28.0||18.9||10.9||11.4|
|2009||Los Angeles Lakers||34.3||18.3||16.7||15.7||15.2||17.8||15.3|
So for a starting 5, it looks like 24-22-19-18-17 is the optimal championship mix, with a sixth man who can create and a pure role player in the #7 slot. Here are the remaining playoff teams and their patterns, along with the historical probability that a team with that specific usage pattern wins the championship:
|Team||#1 MP||#2 MP||#3 MP||#4 MP||#5 MP||#6 MP||#7 MP||p(C)|
|Los Angeles Lakers||33.1||21.4||16.8||14.3||16.5||14.9||20.7||9.3%|
Strangely, though, the 2010 playoff team this "Secret" formula would have predicted to win the most often through chemistry? The Bobcats. Proving that sometimes it really is about basketball... Basketball talent, that is. You can have as much on-court chemistry as you like, but if the other team is significantly better, it's probably not going to matter.