Once More, With Feeling: The Four Factors

Posted by Rob Mahoney on October 26, 2010 under Previews | 8 Comments to Read

Dean Oliver, in his book Basketball on Paper, isolated four factors (by dissecting offensive and defensive rating) that determine success in the NBA:

  • Shooting
  • Rebounding
  • Turnovers
  • Free throws

That’s it. An entire game of nuance and complexities boiled down to four bullet points.

Of course it’s never quite that simple, as Oliver readily admits. Still, behind these four headings lies each team’s central offensive and defensive successes and failures. The four factors are a step beyond your run-of-the-mill counting statistics, but still a bit of a reach from your more advanced metric. These measures give tremendous insight into a squad’s particulars, and in my estimation, they’re essential to evaluating the performance of any team.

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Shooting

As measured by effective field goal percentage. Mavs’ 2009-2010 eFG%: .506 (13th in the league); ’09-’10 eFG% allowed: .495 (15th)

We think of the Mavericks as a team of shooters, mostly due to the sheer number of mid-range jumpers that the Mavs take and make. Dallas shot a better percentage from 16-23 feet than any team in the NBA last year, and hit at nearly two full percentage points better than the second ranked Raptors. Dirk Nowitzki, Caron Butler, and Jason Terry are mostly to both blame and praise for that success. The Mavericks are thus great at hitting the most inefficient shot in basketball, and considerably less effective (relative to their competition) as the shots get more and more efficient. Dallas just doesn’t have a lot of scorers tasked with taking efficient shots, and the result, while propped up as a Mavericks strength, makes for some inefficient shooting overall.

Dallas may shoot 43.2% on long two-pointers, but the Lakers made 44.0% of their shots in the 10-15 foot range, the Raptors shot 50.9% within 10 feet, and the Cavs converted 66.2% of their looks at the rim. It’s impressive that the Mavs shoot as well as they do on long twos, but shot selection continues to plague the Mavs’ overall offensive efficiency. Backing those same attempts to the three-point line or moving them in closer to the basket would drastically improve the Mavs’ overall shooting numbers, but alas, doing so would either require a significantly restructured offense or a pretty drastic change in personnel.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with Nowitzki, and both Butler and Terry are capable offensive sidekicks. The problem is that when all three are operating for the same team in the same space, the damage to the offense goes further than it would in similarly limited offenses. Put all of a team’s primary scorers in one range, and the team’s offense will struggle. Put all of those scorers in one range as far away from the basket as possible without giving them the added benefit of a three-point attempt, and it’s a testament to Nowitzki, Butler, and Terry that the Mavs aren’t even worse offensively.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem very likely to change. Those three players are still central to the Mavs’ offense, and even if Rodrigue Beaubois’ scoring talents become featured as anticipated, he isn’t reshaping the entire plan of attack on his own. He’ll help to boost the Mavs’ eFG% with drives to the rim and solid three-point shooting, but this is one area in which a healthy dose of Beaubois will only result in modest benefit.

The Mavs were equally unimpressive in their ability to contest high-percentage shots. It’s not that the Dallas defense was woeful in that regard — you’ll find that the Mavs a solid team across the board in many of these measures, but perhaps plagued by the fact that they’re merely solid — they just weren’t up to the elite caliber that those within the organization have targeted as a goal.

The Mavs ranked 13th in the league last season in FG% allowed at the rim, and 15th in FG% allowed within 10 feet. Both fine marks, really. Just not acceptable for a team that needs to be aiming a bit higher. Taking away as many high-percentage shots as possible is key for Dallas, particularly because their own offensive attack is lacking in those same attempts. They need to limit that discrepancy as much as possible, and to this point, they haven’t been able to do so to the degree necessary for extended  defensive success.

Brendan Haywood and Tyson Chandler are both essential if the Mavs plan to improve their effective field goal percentage defense, but it’s also vital that Dallas’ perimeter defenders continue to play tight on opponents’ three-point shooters. The Mavs ranked 10th in the league last season in their opponents’ eFG% off of threes, and that kind of effort will again be necessary for Dallas to improve their overall shot defense. If Haywood and Chandler can perform better as a tandem than the combination of Dampier, Gooden, and Haywood did last season, Dallas’ opponents will not only have more of their quality attempts contested by the Mavs’ center duo, but will also be deterred from seeking out such shots in the first place. The Mavs need to keep their opponents’ out of the paint as much as possible, and the arrival of Chandler — a quality post defender and excellent defender of the pick-and-roll — to complement Haywood could provide Dallas with just the defensive boost they need.

The foundation is there for defensive improvement, but its up to Haywood, Chandler, and co. to build on it.

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Rebounding

As measured by offensive rebounding rate (ORB%). Mavs’ 2009-2010 ORB%: .243 (26th); ’09-’10 ORB% allowed (roughly equivalent to DRB%): .263 (15)

The easiest way to diagnose the Mavs’ offensive rebounding troubles is to trace the line from system to production. The Dallas offense often pulls its second big (Nowitzki, Marion, Cardinal) far from the rim, forcing the rest of the lineup to either hit the offensive glass or retreat to defend a potential break. Having Jason Kidd helps out here, but the rest of the bunch? Jason Terry? Caron Butler? A post-Phoenix Shawn Marion? They’re not the proper group to make up for the deficit on the offensive glass.

Defensively, Dallas has a collection of solid rebounders but few impressive ones. Brendan Haywood and Tyson Chandler are both quality board men, but neither is a standout in that regard. Nowitzki collects his fair share of boards, but his rebounding rate has dropped bit by bit over the last few seasons. Marion has regressed into a nice rebounder rather than an elite one, and the Mavs’ tendency to play smaller lineups undoubtedly hurts their efforts on the glass. Putting good rebounders at every position has helped the Mavs get this far, but without a single proven rebounding machine on the roster, I’m not sure they’ll be able to climb much higher.

Tyson Chandler may provide an improvement on the offensive boards over Erick Dampier, but overall, Dallas is the same collection of effective but unspectacular rebounders they were a year ago. Plus, some of the best rebounders of last year’s bunch — Drew Gooden and Kris Humphries — have been shipped out in the last year, meaning the addition of Chandler and a year’s worth of Brendan Haywood will have to first off-set those losses in order to bring an improved regular season mark.

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Turnovers

As measured by turnover rate (TOV%). Mavs’ 2009-2010 TOV%: .122 (3rd); ’09-’10 opponents’ TOV%: .138 (11th)

Here’s the thing: Jason Kidd turns the ball over as often as he ever has. 21.4% of his possessions end in a turnover. Yet Dallas still turned the ball over less often than all but two teams in the league. Kidd aside, the Mavs are unfathomably careful in their offense.

That starts with Nowitzki. His combination of high usage rate (28.8%) and low turnover rate (7.8%) are startling, even when cast against the league’s other elite players. Comb through the history books, and in only eight instances has a player (with an 800-minutes played prerequisite) posted a turnover rate lower than 8% and a usage rate higher than 28% over the course of a season. Three of those instances belong to Dirk. Two of them belong to Michael Jordan. This is a special, special place in the league pantheon that Nowitzki inhabits.

The Mavs’ correspondingly low turnover rate has a lot to do with Dirk having the ball in his hands more than any other player on the roster, but most of his higher-usage teammates are also impressively protective. Jason Terry, for example, had the seventh lowest turnover rate of all players who used more than 22% of their team’s possessions while on the floor last season. Caron Butler was also notable for his lack of turnovers, even if some of Butler’s other decisions with the ball are a bit confounding. Dallas puts the ball in the hands of players like Nowitzki, Butler, and Terry, while limiting the touches of turnover-prone bigs like Brendan Haywood, Erick Dampier, and this season, Tyson Chandler. The shots may not always be distributed in the most efficient manner possible, but the possessions are typically used by those least likely to senselessly give up the rock. The Mavs, as a result, are able to hedge some of their other offensive limitations by their quantity of attempts.

Considering that Dallas’ biggest offensive contributors will remain mostly the same (with the exception of the slightly turnover-happy Beaubois moving up in rank) from last year to this one, the Mavs should be pegged for a similar lack of turnovers in the coming season.

On D, the Mavs actually force quite a few turnovers considering how little they foul. Dallas ranked seventh in the league last season in defensive play rate (a per-possession measure of of steals, blocks, and drawn charges), and between Caron Butler, Jason Kidd, Rodrigue Beaubois, and Jason Terry, they have a number of perimeter players eager to jump passing lanes and strip driving players from behind. It’s not a full-on pressure defensive scheme, but the Mavericks do force their opponents to cough up the ball a fair bit. Not enough to make them an elite defensive outfit mind you, but enough to keep them afloat on their way to another successful season.

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Free throws

As measured by FTM/FGA. Mavs’ 2009-2010 FT/FGA: .226 (15th); opponents’ FTM/FGA: .206 (6th)

Two Mavericks posted excellent free throw rates last season: Brendan Haywood and Tyson Chandler. Naturally, those two Mavs have some of the lowest per-minute field goal attempt averages on the team, so their high free throw rates are rendered nearly irrelevant.

Luckily, Dirk Nowitzki isn’t too far behind, rate-wise, as he remains the Mavs’ primary source of free throw attempts. Take out Nowitzki, and Dallas has some serious problems getting to the line. Even Rodrigue Beaubois, Dallas’ great hope, has trouble getting to the line with regularity. Maybe that was a case of an unknown rookie guard getting calls relative to his reputation, but Beaubois nonetheless failed to match his otherwise impressive scoring style with a high frequency of free throw attempts.

Beaubois would need to make a concerted effort to drive more than ever if he were to boost the Mavs’ free throw rate single-handedly, though a shift in Caron Butler’s shot selection could also help the Mavs in this regard. I wouldn’t wait on Caron to give up his jab step-jab-step-pump-fake-pull-up-18-footer routine any time soon, though. Dominique Jones won’t be impacting the Mavs’ free throw rate much in his rookie year (how could any player do so with the limited playing time projected for Jones?) but he’s worth keeping an eye on. Jones’ ability to get to the line paid huge dividends for him in college, and if ever given consistent minutes, it seems likely that he could replicate that same free throw shooting regularity.

The Mavs don’t foul much. They pick their spots to apply defensive pressure, and they don’t send opponents to the line all that often. It’s obviously both a blessing and a curse, as the Mavs’ lack of aggressive defensive plays could be one of the reasons why they’re a middling defensive team, even if it prevents their opponents from taking freebies from the stripe. With that in mind, this is a defensive ranking that I’m sure Rick Carlisle and his staff wouldn’t mind seeing take a little dip. If the Mavs are fouling more often, it could be indicative of  more effective defense overall. Then again, it could just mean that Dallas is handing out points to their opponents, putting them back at square one after trying to treat a symptom as a disease.

All in all, it’s probably not worth worrying too much about how often the Mavericks foul, so long as the rest of their defense holds course. It’s nice to have opponents shoot free throws infrequently, but it’s nicer to have a more oppressive defense that limits opponents’ shooting effectiveness and forces even more turnovers than the Mavs currently do.

Many thanks to Basketball-Reference and HoopData, both completely indispensable in the making of this post and in life as a follower of the NBA in any capacity.

  • andytobo

    It's hard for me to get upset about, but that was the thing I could never understand about Hollinger's confusion regarding Mavs close-game winnability (close-gamitude?). These aren't complicated numbers. Great free throw shooting, low turnovers. And with Dirk, nearly unparalleled offensive efficiency. Neat.

    • http://www.thetwomangame.com Rob Mahoney

      Hollinger acknowledged that the Mavs won close games last season, but the data on the subject insists that historically, such consistent late-game performance isn't sustainable. The Mavs are a huge outlier in that regard, but the rest of the league data is pretty conclusive on that front.

      • andytobo

        If the Mavs were outliers once, that would be one thing. As Hollinger

        points out, they've actually won 70% of their close games since '04-'05. We

        can accept that all statistical outliers regress to the mean, which isn't a

        bad supposition at all– or we can wonder whether there's a reason that the

        anomaly exists.

        And IF there's a reason, and the Mavs haven't just dealed-with-the-devil for

        half a decade now, great free-throw shooting and low turnovers is a pretty

        good explanation.

        • Fennsk

          Good point. Rob, what is the standard deviation for that stat. Over the last 5 or 6 years combined, they most be well outside of expectations.

  • Tdubya86

    Seems like part of the reason the Mavs don't turn the ball over a lot is a side effect of shooting a lot of long twos. Generally a defense has 2 goals: take the ball away, or force a bad shot. So perhaps the Mavs' opponents are well aware of the scouting report that says the Mavs like to shoot long 2s so they simply let the Mavs shoot long 2s. Even if the Mavs shoot those shots better than most teams, efficient long-2 shooting is still less efficient than efficient close-to-the-basket shooting.

    • http://www.thetwomangame.com Rob Mahoney

      I don't think it's always a conscious effort made by opposing defenses to force the Mavs into long twos; just as often, it's Dallas beating themselves in that regard. You're right about the turnovers having something to do with it, though. High turnovers usually go along with either lots of passing or lots of play around the basket (where there is only so much space, and so many players collapsing), and the Mavs' offense features neither.

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