Big Ten Wonk
Tuesday, November 01, 2005
Style-sensitive hoops critique
Style-of-play is the ur-debate in sports. It's why fans get up in the morning.

In baseball we analyze and argue over whether small-ball or the three-run homer is the way to go. In football, of course, the perennial debates concern run vs. pass, blitz vs. cover, etc. And, while I don't know diddly-puck about hockey except that Wayne Gretzky seemed to be pretty good at it, I'd hazard a guess the same running argument is probably alive and well in those chat rooms, too.

And so it is with hoops. No pundit of the game worth his salt can go more than a day or two without issuing a stinging indictment on some team's style of play. Team X shoots too many threes, it is said. Or maybe they don't shoot enough free throws. They play too slow. They play too fast.

Now, make no mistake: I can do stinging indictments with the best of them. But said indictments will henceforth be launched in this space from the following avowed premise: there's more than one way to get to the Final Four.

And I mean that literally. Look at last year. The four styles of play that made it to St. Louis last April can be summed with some imprecision as follows:

--A rain of threes on the offensive end matched with a zone D
--An almost monomaniacal emphasis on rebounding on both sides of the ball with a resulting profusion of fouls and trips to the line by the opponent
--A rain of threes on the offensive end matched with a trapping D that gets TOs but gives up open shots
--Way up-tempo with a defensive emphasis on TOs and boards

Now, surely it's not the case that the first three teams (Louisville, Michigan State, and Illinois, respectively) should have played the same style as the last team (North Carolina) all year last year simply because we know now that Carolina won it all. Surely we're all pluralists here--your style is of course going to be a function of your philosophy, your talent, and your competition, all of which will churn and flip constantly and interestingly.

And so, hoops pundits, I say: close thy Peirce (one static capital-T Truth asymptotically approached by accumulating data fated to converge) and open thy Hegel! The optimal style of play is not a single apodictic norm characterized by uniform excellence across all stats. (Though, if any team ever approached this misbegotten ideal, it was Wake Forest last year--on one side of the ball. See below.) It is instead the best balance a coach can strike between elements that tend to be in greater or lesser tension with each other.

Today I want to look at one such style. (It just wouldn’t be a new season without a new acronym.) Behold the POT!

POT: perimeter-oriented team
There were three hard-core POTs in the Big Ten last year. One finished at the top of the league, one finished in the middle, and one finished near the bottom.

For the sake of discussion, let’s define a POT as one that chooses to shoot a lot of threes--say, at least 38 percent of their shots (all stats 2005, conference games only):

3FGA/FGA (average: .343)
1. Ohio State (.398)
2. Illinois (.394)
3. Northwestern (.383)
4. Wisconsin (.357)
5. Penn State (.353)
6. Indiana (.352)
7. Michigan (.336)
8. Michigan State (.327)
9. Iowa (.299)
10. Minnesota (.289)
11. Purdue (.289)

What are the consequences of choosing this hoops lifestyle? What other characteristics do we see from POTs?...

Well, they don’t turn the ball over much:

TO pct. (average: 20.7)
1. Illinois (15.6)
2. Ohio State (16.7)
3. Wisconsin (18.5)
4. Indiana (19.1)
5. Michigan State (20.4)
6. Iowa (20.8)
7. Northwestern (21.5)
8. Purdue (22.8)
9. Minnesota (22.8)
10. Penn State (24.0)
11. Michigan (25.5)

They don’t get many offensive boards:

Offensive rebound pct. (average: 33.7)
1. Michigan State (40.5)
2. Iowa (38.0)
3. Purdue (37.6)
4. Minnesota (36.1)
5. Penn State (35.2)
6. Illinois (34.8)
7. Michigan (33.7)
8. Wisconsin (33.1)
9. Indiana (33.0)
10. Ohio State (26.4)
11. Northwestern (22.8)

And they don’t go to the line much:

FTA/FGA (average: .344)
1. Indiana (.415)
2. Wisconsin (.400)
3. Minnesota (.391)
4. Iowa (.373)
5. Penn State (.364)
6. Michigan State (.333)
7. Northwestern (.319)
8. Michigan (.316)
9. Illinois (.307)
10. Purdue (.297)
11. Ohio State (.275)

Here, then, is one example of the dynamic in question: decisions on style of play are about finding benefits that outweigh the inevitable costs. In this case, being a POT should decrease your turnovers but at the cost of lowering your offensive rebounds (almost certainly) and your foul shots (likely but not inevitable--see Indiana's above-average 3FGA/FGA and very high FTA/FGA).

Hmmm. Fewer TOs and fewer offensive boards: you'll get more first shots but fewer second shots. If you have good outside shooters this is a trade you'll want to make. If you don't, it's not.

So coaches out there considering whether or not to give their players the green light on threes should be required to read the following....

WARNING: The POT hoops lifestyle is not for everyone. Side effects may include diminished offensive rebounding and a lack of free-throw attempts. Ask your outside shooters if POT is right for you....

3FG pct. (average: 34.7)
1. Illinois (41.3)
2. Wisconsin (40.6)
3. Indiana (37.3)
4. Northwestern (36.0)
5. Iowa (35.1)
6. Penn State (33.0)
7. Michigan State (32.9)
8. Michigan (32.4)
9. Ohio State (32.2)
10. Purdue (31.6)
11. Minnesota (29.7)

That’s right. Ohio State led the league in the proportion of their shots given over to three-point attempts yet ranked only ninth in three-point accuracy. (Which may explain Thad Matta’s late-season decision to bench starters Tony Stockman and Brandon Fuss-Cheatham.) Illinois, conversely, concentrated their offensive investment where they were getting the greatest return: when you’re hitting 41 percent of your threes you should indeed shoot a lot of them. The POT style can work--if you hit your threes.

And kudos as well to rational actors Purdue and Minnesota, ranking at the bottom of the conference in both three-point attempts and three-point accuracy: they couldn’t make those shots so they didn’t try.

(Note also how Wisconsin was a borderline POT in 2005: the Badgers ranked fourth in the conference in the relative frequency with which they shot threes. Plus Bo Ryan’s team both held on to the ball and suffered on the offensive boards like an archetypal POT. Yet somehow they still managed to make a lot of trips to the line.)

BONUS reason why Illinois was beastly in 2005! The Illini were undeniably a POT and yet they were still, as seen above, slightly above average on the offensive glass. Add in the fact that they made their shots and almost never turned the ball over and, well, this is what you get:

Points per possession (average 1.01)
1. Illinois (1.18)
2. Michigan State (1.13)
3. Indiana (1.06)
4. Wisconsin (1.06)
5. Iowa (1.00)
6. Ohio State (1.00)
7. Purdue (0.98)
8. Northwestern (0.97)
9. Michigan (0.92)
10. Minnesota (0.92)
11. Penn State (0.90)

EXTRANEOUS non-Big-Ten note! So must a team choose the POT lifestyle to achieve Illinois-in-2005-like monstrosity in offensive efficiency? Certainly not! Allow me to kindly direct your attention to last year’s Wake Forest squad and the outstanding analysis of the Deacs offered here by indispensable Hawkeye Hoops blogger Ryan Kobliska. Wake Forest achieved a points-per-possession number in ACC play (1.20) slightly better than that posted by Illinois in Big Ten play (1.18). Yet only about 32 percent of the Demon Deacons’ shots were threes—about like last year’s Michigan State team.

Wake was able to achieve thoroughly un-POT yet nevertheless astronomical efficiency on offense by: shooting only slightly less well than Illinois; holding on to the ball pretty well (an 18.9 TO pct., about like Indiana last season); pounding opponents to a bloody pulp on the offensive glass (an absolutely absurd 41.6 offensive rebound pct., better even than last year’s Spartans); and sinking many, many free throws (far more made FTs, as a percentage of FGAs, than any Big Ten team).

But then their defense was Edvard Munch-level horrific (1.04 opponent points per possession in ACC play) so they were sent home by West Virginia in the second round.

(Which means, not to belabor the point, that preseason coverage approaching the Deacs in traditional who's-gone and who's-still-here terms is missing the forest (har!) for the trees. My storyline, conversely, would run like this: Wake Forest may well have had the best offense in the nation last year. If their defense had been merely adequate they could have gone to the Final Four. Their offense won't be as good this year, obviously, but any drop-off can be lessened if they start playing D.)

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