The Numbers Behind the NBA's Best Teams This Season

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The Numbers Behind the NBA's Best Teams This Season

The elite teams in the NBA are the ones that make more shots than everyone else.

That may sound simplistic, but so far this season, the three favorites to win the championship—the Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs—lead the league in shot-making. 

The connection jumps off the page.

Winning percentage and effective field-goal percentage (shooting accuracy adjusted for three-pointers being worth more—eFG) couldn't be more linked: The top three shooting teams are simply the three best NBA teams.

Furthermore, the only three teams shooting better than 53.0 percent (eFG) are the only three with winning percentages above .700.

It is somewhat astonishing and may cause the heads of defense-first coaches around the NBA to explode.

But so far this season, if you make 53 percent (eFG) of your shots from the floor, you will win more than 70 percent of your games. 

If you don't? You will at best be the Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies, Denver Nuggets and Indiana Pacers—four excellent teams, but all a clear tier below the top three. It is one instance where the numbers line up well with the power rankings.

Perhaps worse still to traditionalists, is that it seems making three-pointers has an out-sized effect on winning. The Heat, Spurs and Thunder rank third, fourth and second, respectively, in the NBA in long-range accuracy.

Shooters everywhere, rejoice.

What About Defense?

The strong correlation between winning and shooting doesn't mean that defense is irrelevant. For example, the Pacers, Grizzlies and Spurs have the three best defenses in the league (in terms of defensive rating, meaning points allowed per 100 possessions). They are all top-seven teams in winning percentage.

Again, the logic is elementary—the best teams tend to be good on both sides of the ball.

But it seems to take an elite defense (see Indiana and Memphis) to cover for a bad offense, whereas there are more teams with middling defenses that rank in the top 10 on their ability to score.

The Heat, Nuggets, Knicks, Nets and Warriors have all been able to win more than 56 percent of their games despite not placing in the top nine in the defensive ratings. 

 

You Don't Have to Rebound?

The rebounding numbers of this year's elite teams mean that a lot of high school coaches are lying to their players, because controlling the glass has always been preached as an absolute must to win games.

Tell that to the Heat, who rank in the bottom 10 in rebounding on both sides of the floor, yet have put together the second-longest winning streak in NBA history.

The Nuggets, Clippers and Thunder also don't rebound particularly well on defense, while the Spurs, New York Knicks and Golden State Warriors give themselves few opportunities for second-chance points on the offensive glass.

The offensive rebounding aspect is easy to explain. Many NBA coaches simply don't prioritize offensive boards. Doc Rivers, Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra would much rather their teams get back on defense than fight in the paint for errant shots.

As far as defensive boards go, it might be a different story.

Obviously, no matter how badly a team forces its opponent to shoot, it hasn't succeeded until it gets the ball back.

The Clippers and Heat are perhaps able to overcome their defensive rebounding deficiencies by forcing turnovers. Rather than take away extra shots from the opposition by dominating the glass, the Clippers and Heat take shots away by taking the ball away. The Clippers are first in the league in the percentage of possessions on which they force a turnover. The Heat are third.

As for the Thunder, they seem to offset their run-of-the-mill rebounding numbers by being elite in every other facet of the game.

There is no easy explanation for the Denver Nuggets. They have an average defense and can't grab defensive boards. But they are also an offensive-rebounding, in-the-paint-scoring juggernaut that is the only top-five offense incapable of hitting threes. There really isn't an NBA model to compare the Nuggets with this season.

 

Is This a Regular-Season Story?

The game slows down in the playoffs, or so goes the cliché, anyway.

When the postseason starts, they say, defense and rebounding take priority. You can't score your way to a title. The Mike D'Antoni/Steve Nash-era Phoenix Suns proved that.

Right?

The old adage that defense wins championships might suffer some this season.

While the Heat do play tremendous defense (perhaps tops in the league), when they really dial in, they don't have the full-season pedigree of a team that is incredibly difficult to score against. Perception may trump reality here, but if Miami does tighten up in the playoffs, especially on the defensive boards, it will be a departure from their regular-season tendencies.

The Spurs and Thunder, meanwhile, have been top-tier defensive squads all season. 

But while each remains more balanced than anything, these two Western Conference giants generally seem more likely to bury an opponent with offensive dominance than prevent them from scoring.

Given this, and that Miami is its own beast altogether, it may be enlightening to see how the "next four"—Clippers, Grizzlies, Nuggets and Pacers—fare in the postseason. They may be the better barometers on whether the NBA has actually swung toward becoming a more offensive league.

While the Pacers and Grizzlies are built from the traditional cloth of defense and rebounding, the Clippers and Nuggets thrive by putting the ball in the hoop. If the first two squads have better runs than the latter two, it may mean the clichés of the old-school purists still ring true.

But if the Clippers and Nuggets make big runs, we may have more evidence that basketball, at least on the NBA level this season, is about getting buckets.

Somewhere, Jamal Crawford is smiling.

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