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Offense or Defense: is Monty the right coach?

March 2, 2012; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Hornets head coach Monty Williams calls a play against the Dallas Mavericks during the first half of a game at the New Orleans Arena.   Mandatory Credit: Tyler Kaufman-US PRESSWIRE
March 2, 2012; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Hornets head coach Monty Williams calls a play against the Dallas Mavericks during the first half of a game at the New Orleans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Tyler Kaufman-US PRESSWIRE

As I was reading (for the nth time) Dean Oliver's *awesome* book, "Basketball on Paper" (a must read for any basketball fan), I couldn't help but stop at the chapter where Dean Oliver tries to debunk the adage (or cliche):

Offense wins you games, Defense wins you championships

- unknown

In the process, he used lots of arguments that looked reasonable. He looked at head-to-head matchups in the playoffs (i.e. how many % of the time did the better DRTG team won and compared it with the % the better ORTG team won), he also removed correlation (i.e the idea of slacking off), he compared the number of times the best defensive team won the 'chip vs the best offensive team among other things. In most of his analysis, the defense lost.

This got me thinking - is Monty Williams (and practically any defense first coach) doomed to coach against the odds? This analysis holds especially true because Monty just signed a 4 year contract extension (which is, not surprisingly, the same length as Gordon, Anderson, Davis' contract). So, the question becomes, are they?

First we need to understand (again) what (or in our case, who) we are trying to analyze. It's Monty as a coach. And quite frankly, evaluating a coach is much easier than evaluating a player. I've always believed that team analysis is easier because, like in most sports, it is easier to evaluate the whole rather than the parts. You don't have to worry too much about teamwork, about cooperation, about trust (basically a lot of things that makes evaluating the interactions between two players). It's just your team vs their team.

Monty Williams, by the Numbers

Team (2010/11) Opp (2010/11) Team (2011/12) Opp (2011/12) Team (Total) Opp (Total)
Average 94.93 94.04 89.64 93.39 92.57 93.75
Variance 82.27 135.96 84.36 124.49 89.59 130.07
Std. Dev. 9.07 11.66 9.18 11.16 9.47 11.40
Cov 30.27 50.55 40.16
Poss 88.71 88.31 88.53

If you have no background in statistics, Variance is basically the sum of the square error between the average and the data points. Basically, it measures the total variation of the data points from the average. we use square to remove the effects of negative numbers. Now if Variance is the total variation of the data points to the square, SD is an estimate of the variation itself of the data. This means that in 2010/11, NOH scored anywhere between 85.86 to 104 pts around 68% of the time. Covariance is the measure of how two data sets relate to each other i.e. a positive covariance indicates that when one increases, the other increases as well.

Now, it's very apparent that relative to itself, Monty's team's are actually more consistent on offense than on defense. Problem was that the league average PPG back in 2010/11 was 99.6, the league average PPG back in 2011/12 was 96.3. So the Hornets were more consistent as a bad offensive team rather than as a good~great defensive team. Monty's team were always good on defense (finishing 10th in DRTG back in 2010/11, finishing 15th in DRTG back in 2011/12 and in the past 2 years, ranks 13th in terms of DRTG.)

On offense, however, Monty didn't fare well (as an offensive coach). ranking 12th and 3rd worst (YIKES) in 2010/11 and 2011/12, respectively. Overall, in the past 2 years, Monty's team has been the 9th worst offensive team.

So, we've arrived at this - Monty's team has been a consistently bad offensive team while being an inconsistently good defensive team.

Of course, most of you will point to the roster instability that Monty's had in the past 2 years. From the starting roster back in 2010/11 and again in 2011/12. From the start to the end of 2010/11, of the 15 players in 2010/11, only 10 players remained - a 66% roster stability. Not so good. However, if you considered just the top 10 players for the team, only 7 remained (Starting 5 + Willie Green + Jason Smith). Still, a very low 70% roster stability. I'm not even factoring the untimely injuries to 4 of our top 5 players (Paul, Ariza, Okafor, and *sobs* David West).

If you consider the fact that because the 2011/12 season didn't have ANY pre-season at all, then the roster instability was much larger. Of the 15 players left at the end of 2010/11, only 4 were retained for the hastily assembled 2011/12 roster (Jack, Smith, Landry and Belinelli). That's a roster stability of just 26.7%. I won't even talk about the litany of injuries the Hornets experienced AND the ownership transfer (TWICE, Shinn to NBA, NBA to Benson).

So yes, some (or most) of the inconsistencies experienced by Monty's team can be attributed to instability. Thus it's unfair to blame Monty for the inconsistencies' his team's experience.

How has Defense fared?

Oliver's study covered only data up until the 2002/03 season (I THINK). So what we'll do now is include the data from 2002/03 to 2010/11 and then add it to whatever Mr. Oliver got back in 2004. My reasoning is that, over the past few years, the league has experienced an upward trend in terms of ORTG.

Look at how the league average ORTG increased (or the DRTG decreased) over the years. So over the years, it's harder to prevent teams from scoring. So defensive acumen is now at a premium. Do the numbers support this assertion? We'll see.

Look at how the tables have turned. The better defense has won a higher percentage of games from 2002 to 2011 (in 756 total playoff games, the better defensive team won 426 games or 56.3% of the total games. The better offensive team? a lower 52.5% or 397 games). Interesting, in fact, in 135 playoff series wins (remember series not games), the better defensive team won 91 times while the better offensive team won just 80 times. Adding that with Dean Oliver's data on the past 387 playoff series since 1974, it comes that in 522 playoff series, the better defensive team won 312 times or 59.7% while the better offensive team won 320 times or 61.3%. The deficit is still significant, but it's not as huge as it once was.

Do not judge the book by it's dirty cover

Monty Williams cannot be judged fully yet since he hasn't experienced true "stability" until (HOPEFULLY) now. His first 2 years has nothing but instability - roster turnover, front office reshuffling (remember, he was hired before Dell was), ownership reshuffling, injuries etc. The next 2 or 3 years will tell a lot whether Monty really is as good as a coach as what we see from his team or is he just another defensive coach clone - slow pace, good~great DRTG, awful ORTG team. In my opinion, a coach has to have 2 qualities to be considered a "great" coach - he needs to exhibit the ability to motivate his team (something that's been said time and again for Monty's team) and he needs to exhibit the ability to adapt his system. The core of any success story is usually intertwined with the idea of adaptability. This is especially true in situations where human interaction is inevitable. Basketball as a sport is as "social" as it gets (maybe not on the level of American football or football) - it's the interaction of not just 5 teammates with each other but how those 5 teammates interact with the 5 opponents. If Monty can't put those 5 teammates in situations that exploit the weaknesses of different sets of 5 opponents, then he doesn't qualify as a "great" coach as what everybody seems to look at him right now.

Don't get me wrong, I LOVE Monty. I think his ability to push our team last year to play hard on every night (I don't have statistics to support this) is something I LOVE not to mention his honesty, his conviction, his straightforwardness and quirky humor. But at some point, results must speak louder than the eye test. This season is the start when results MUST speak. I'm not expecting playoffs really, I'm expecting playoff contention though.

Is Monty's approach right?

Finally, to answer the question - is Monty the right coach. I'd still re-iterate my position in my post a few months ago - I still think Monty is the right coach. Especially now that the league as a whole is moving towards a more offense oriented league. His defensive acumen will be even more important - if the league is moving towards improving offensive efficiency, then it's easier to score than to defend. So a well oiled defensive system goes a long way towards contention.

The analysis doesn't answer I posed on my headline. Over the years, "contenders" have been a mixed of offensive brilliance, defensive acumen or something in between (as Rohan showed a few months ago). The movement of the league helps stir the pot to the side of defense but you never know when rule changes, innovative ideas (hopefully ideas that will be abundant among Monty's staff) and just general population improvement can shift the weight towards offense again, but as it looks - a defensive coach is more "valuable". (A good example of a rule change that can stir the pot is the block on the rim FIBA rule that MIGHT improve the "value" of offense since defending baskets will be easier). Simple supply and demand. But he this next 2 or 3 seasons will be his time to prove himself worthy of the praise he's gotten (a lot of them I agree with) or risk becoming just another "defensive" coach. I remember a time when Mike Brown was the next big thing. Look at him now - no growth, didn't adapt. I'm hopeful and optimistic that Monty won't follow the same path. I really am. Monty, if you're reading this, great job! and congrats on a well deserved extension.