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The Pelicans offense ran the wrong plays

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New Orleans strategy was not properly allocated this past season.

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{Everyone, please welcome Peyton Fine to The Bird Writes. He is our newest author and this is his first effort, a wonderful comparison of the Pelicans offense to the 2015 league leaders. - Oleh}

This year’s playoffs have made one thing very clear, the NBA is shifting from a "defense wins championships" league to an "offense wins championships" league. Of the four teams to play in the conference finals, the respective offensive ratings (points scored per 100 possessions) of the four teams was second, fourth, and sixth.  The Rockets brought up the rear with a rating that was twelfth in the league, but even the Rockets turned that around by scoring the most points per game in the playoffs.

Compare the teams’ offensive ratings to their defensive ratings, and the shift in the NBA becomes even clearer. The Warriors ranked first in defensive rating. The other three teams ranked sixth, seventh, and twentieth. To take the shift one step further, for the last three years, of the eight teams that advanced to the Western Conference playoffs, at least six were ranked in the top ten of the NBA in offensive rating.

For the first time, in those three years, the Pelicans had a top-ten offense, and for the first time, they made the playoffs. Eight non-playoff teams had a better defensive rating than New Orleans. The Pelicans had a better offensive rating than every non-playoff team. Of the seven teams who were ahead of the Pels in the Western conference standings, five had better offensive ratings. That is saying something considering Monty's squad ranked ninth in the league in offensive rating. Offense is the new calling card in the NBA, and if the Pelicans want to continue to climb the ranks of the Western conference, they must become elite on offense.

So, how do the Pelicans make the jump into the upper echelons of offense? A simple change could be just running the right combination of plays. I am saying that a team needs to get really good at a few play types, run those plays a lot, and avoid running the plays that they’re bad at. Sounds simple and somewhat self-explanatory, but the Pelicans failed to do this.

This year, for the first time, Synergy Sports catalogued every play type that an NBA team ran and made that data available to the public via NBA.com. Synergy broke the plays into nine major types and collected the stats from each. The types are as follows:

  • Cut
  • Off-Screen
  • Hand-offs
  • Spot-up catch and shoot
  • Pick&Roll ending with the Roll-man
  • Pick&Roll ending with the Ballhandler
  • Isolation
  • Transition
  • Post-up

When compiling the statistics of each play type, the theory of running the right plays consistently became an indicator of offensive rating. The chart below breaks down the nine offensive categories that coaches and players can control for the eight teams ranked above the Pelicans in offensive rating. If a box is green, it means that the team either scores more points per possession than the league average or runs this type of play more frequently than the league average. A red box indicates that the team is below average in the particular category.

(A quick note on the statistics. This is the first year that these stats are publicly available. A perfect analysis would examine if this hypothesis held true over multiple years. However, the statistics back-up much of what is seen on the court and is reasonable from a basketball perspective if not an academic statistics perspective.)

Let’s start with the San Antonio Spurs, the gold standard for team-oriented offense. The Spurs have ranked in the top seven in offensive rating for the last three years seemingly defying age, injuries, and a revolving cast of role players stepping into the spotlight.

Why?

The Spurs are really good at portions of the offense, ran those portions of their offense all the time, and did not run offense that was inept. They only ran one play type at an above average rate in which they were below average in scoring, and it was only by .1%. Furthermore, the Spurs took getting really good at something and running it a lot to the extreme.

The bottom of the chart includes the league average for each type of play as well as the standard deviation. If you add the standard deviation to the average, you get a statistical maximum and minimum. Any value above the maximum or below the minimum is the outlier to the statistical set, indicating a team is elite at that play type.

For instance, take a look at the Spurs cut data and spot-up shooting data. You’ll notice that the Spurs exceed the max for points per possession and spot-up shooting. This means that 30% of the Spurs offense comes from two play types in which they are statistically elite.

Now, I’m not saying the Pelicans need to emulate the Spurs’ offense exactly. There are other ways to go about it.

  • The Warriors also scored nearly 30% of their offense from two elite play types — cut and transition baskets.
  • The Hawks surpassed the maximum in points per possession and frequency for both spot-up shots and shots off screens.
  • Cleveland made its money on isolation plays and plays ending with the ballhandler coming off picks. (It helps to have the best player in the world on your team.)
  • The Clippers have too many good offensive options, as they exceeded the maximum for points per possession in six of the nine categories.
  • Portland went to LaMarcus Aldridge consistently as evidenced by their post-up stats,
  • Toronto also focused on isolation, an ode to the season had by Kyle Lowry, and Dallas was an elite post-up team with Dirk Nowitzki and elite roll-man team with Tyson Chandler.

Every single team on this chart exceeded the statistical maximum in at least three play types except for, you guessed it, the Pelicans.

New Orleans exceeded the statistical maximum in only one category: shots off screens. They ran that type of play less than the league average. Furthermore, the Pelicans misused a major portion of their offense: isolation. The Pelicans were below the league average in isolation points per possession, but ran it more frequently than the statistical maximum.

If you were one of the many fans who clamored for more ball movement when the offense stalled, the statistics show that you had a point. Only one team above the Pelicans misused a play type (ran a below average play type at an above average rate), and that team only ran it .1% more than the league average. As much as the Pelicans lacked elite play types like other teams, they also hurt themselves by running the wrong types of plays too often.

For the Pelicans to improve on offense, much of the focus has centered on the need for another outside shooter, particularly at the small forward position. Others have called for a more offensive-minded center over Omer Asik, or at least a center who is better at a catch and dunk under the rim.  And some even want to send off one of our bevy of guards.

All could help; however, before making big changes like adding personnel, simple changes in the frequency of plays or getting slightly better at certain plays can take this offense to the next level. If the Pelicans simply brought down the frequency of their isolation plays below the statistical minimum and shifted those play to their off-screen plays, their offensive rating would increase by .8 and vault New Orleans to sixth in offensive rating. The Pelicans are just tenths of a point per possession from being elite at points resulting from cuts, roll-man, and post-ups.

Take the foundation already there, run those plays until fans are sick of them, and watch the Pelicans make another jump into the upper echelon of NBA offenses.