SportVU Deep Dive

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Statistics can now be sorted by team. What information can we glean from it?

Recently I was messing around on the NBA.com/stats page. Thanks to rumors that the Pelicans and Andray Blatche have mutual interest I wanted to dig into Blatche and his potential fit; the NBA Stats shot charts are now my preferred source for such information. We can save that post for later, likely after July 1st. However, while on my search I discovered something far more valuable. At some point since the end of the regular season the NBA has added the ability to see team-wide statistics through SportVU. What new information can be found there, and what might it mean?

Passing and Ball Movement

Immediately I forgot about searching for Blatche's rebound chance rate and searched for team passing. If you have been watching the Finals you should know that ball movement has been a critical component (or perhaps the critical component) to San Antonio dismantling the Miami Heat. The ball can move faster than the players on the court. The Spurs are using this fundamental truth to create open shots and put the Heat defenders in scramble mode. Just how much are the Spurs passing the ball? We now have actual data.

From the link above (BSports, I have never heard of that website before) the Spurs have passed the ball 742 times in Game 3 and Game 4. You can see from their graph that the Spurs are passing the ball more as the series goes along, with 337 passes in games 1 and 2, 362 passes in game 3, and 380 passes in game 4. Zach Lowe broke down why the Spurs are moving the ball more on Friday.

San Antonio has grown comfortable against Miami’s trapping defense — more comfortable than any team has been since LeBron James and Chris Bosh signed with the Heat in July 2010. Until last year’s Finals, the Spurs hadn’t seen Miami at full strength, and when the Heat dialed up the berserker gear only they can reach, San Antonio occasionally became unnerved.

But they’ve gotten their reps now. People with the Spurs will tell you how huge that is. They have seen Miami’s speed, felt it, mastered strategies to defeat it. It helps that Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are healthy, Boris Diaw more comfortable, and Patty Mills a legitimate weapon instead of a towel-waver.

Now with the ability to sort passing by team we can see which teams moved the ball most during the entire regular season, and which teams did not. This is the point where the eye test is confirmed by hard numbers. For this graph I have included four Western Conference teams. The Spurs, since they are considered the gold standard for ball movement. The Pelicans, because that is the entire point of this discussion. Finally, I included the Warriors (fired their coach largely due to personality conflict although their fans routinely cited the lack of ball movement and imagination on offense) and the Thunder (Scott Brooks is constantly maligned for his coaching ability and offensive scheme).

Team Passes per Game Rank Assists per Game Rank Secondary Assists Rank Assist Opportunities Rank
San Antonio 330.4 2nd 25.2 1st 7.2 1st 48.1 4th
New Orleans 272.3 25th 21.3 19th 3.6 30th 40.4 28th
Oklahoma City 268.3 26th 21.9 13th 5.5 13th 42.8 20th
Golden State 243.3 30th 23.3 8th 5.7 10th 43.6 16th

Eek! The Pelicans are not just bad at moving the ball, they are horrendous at it. 30th in the entire league in secondary assists. 28th in assist opportunities (where if the player made the shot it would have counted as an assist). 25th in passes per game. And what do you know, fans of Golden State and haters of Scott Brooks might be on to something. Those teams also do not move the ball very much. If anything it appears the talent of their rosters inflates their assist numbers, as they convert assist opportunities into assists at high rate.

Methods of Scoring

The similarity between the Pelicans and the Thunder continues to how those teams score their points. Both teams were heavily dependent on driving the ball to the basket at the sake of ball movement. In fact, the Pelicans led the entire NBA in drive points per game according to NBA Stats.

Drive PPG Rank Close Shots PPG Rank Catch & Shoot PPG Rank Pull Up Shots PPG Rank
New Orleans 20.5 1st 10.7 28th 22.7 25th 14.3 20th
Oklahoma City 16.4 5th 10.8 27th 24.1 22nd 20.9 1st
San Antonio 15.0 10th 17.5 3rd 27.8 6th 16.3 13th
Golden State 13.2 20th 12.6 19th 25 17th 20.2 3rd

I think it is most telling how high both the Pelicans and Thunder rank in terms of driving to the basket to score and how low they rank on "close shots". NBA Stats defines close shots as "points that are scored by a player on any touch that starts within 12 feet of the basket, excluding drives". So, close shots are shots which are created close to the basket via ball movement, whereas drives are close shots created by an individual.  Catch and Shoot is something all teams seek, they are some of the most valued shots in the game. Again the Pelicans and Thunder struggle compared to the rest of the league at creating these high quality opportunities.

Rebounding, Oh Lord

Often we have cited rebound rate (TRB% and DRB% primarily) as a measure of the Pelicans' success (or failure) on the glass. Just a few weeks ago I pointed to the inability to gather defensive rebounds as a troublesome data point for the Pelicans. With the ability to sort by teams we can see just how much this is a problem of ability and how much it is a problem of opportunity.

Last year the Pelicans were 21st in the NBA in Defensive Rebound Rate, collecting 73.8% of all rebound opportunities. That is below average, but not terrible. Diving into the SportVU numbers the Pelicans collected 57.0% of all rebound opportunities (when a Pelican was within 3.5 feet of a rebound). 26th in the entire league, even worse. The biggest culprit to drive that number so far down, unsurprisingly, is Greg Stiemsma. The big man gathered in just 49.7% of all his rebound opportunities. Only Austin Rivers (47.8%) and Jeff Withey (47.5%) were worse among Pelican rotation players.

Defending the Rim

This is another area the Pelicans really struggled. New Orleans allowed opponents to shoot 53.4% at the rim while being defended, good for just 23rd in the NBA. Doing some reverse mathematics we can determine the Pelicans allowed roughly 1837 shots at the rim which were defended. Anthony Davis, the team's best rim protector (allowing just a 48.9% conversion rate) defended about 442 of those shots, around 24%. How does that compare to the elite defenses? Very poorly.

The Pacers led the way in protecting the basket, their opponents' 45.9% rate was by far the best defensive mark in the NBA. Indiana's best defender of the rim, Roy Hibbert, held opponents to a preposterous 41.4% field goal percentage when he was defending. But that is not even the most impressive number. Hibbert defended 794 shots at the rim, 45.7% (794/1738) of all close shots defended.

This trend continues through the second best team, Oklahoma City, and the third, Golden State. For OKC (48.5% at the rim) Serge Ibaka led the way, holding opponents to 43.9% at the basket. Again, as with Hibbert, it was not just Ibaka's ability, but frequency. Ibaka defended 44.7% (770/1722) of all close shots for the the Thunder. Golden State, injuries to Andrew Bogut and all, showed a similar method. Bogut, their best rim defender, played just 1769 minutes, 589 fewer than Anthony Davis. Despite that, on the entire season Bogut (allowing 45.0% at the rim) defended 29.1% (502/1722) of close shots. Add to that total Jermaine O'Neal's numbers (he played just 883 minutes) and the combination defended 44.3% (764/1722) of close shots.

Determining how much the Pelicans' inability to defend the rim is due to execution and how much is due to the scheme is difficult. However, it is obvious that the teams who defend the rim the best leave that task to those who are most capable.

Areas for Improvement

Watching the NBA Finals fans of every team are going to hope their team passes the ball more frequently. It is fun to say the team should just pass the ball more, but remember how long it took the Spurs to get to this point. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili have been playing basketball together since 2002. They have logged tens of thousands of NBA minutes together, not to mention the years of practices, film sessions, etc.

Other areas, however, can be fixed more quickly. The Charlotte Bobcats dramatically improved on defense by adding Al Jefferson, no one expected that. Unsurprisingly, the Bobcats defended the rim quite well, fifth in the league according to NBA Stats. Rebounding appears to be the most likely area for improvement, simply by subtracting Greg Stiemsma.

A perfect (or even good) answer cannot yet be gleaned from this data. At this point it is still in its infancy, and using it just to compare the Pelicans to other teams (both good and bad) in the NBA seemed a reasonable starting point. There is a lot of work to be done every off-season by every team in the league. Every single franchise is trying to find ways to get better. Hopefully the front office in New Orleans has a great plan.

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