The Relationship Between Efficiency and Championships

It has long been said that the only true title contenders are those that are top ten in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Jack looked into this here and used standard deviation to create a playoff probability model. This article has a far simpler premise: looking at the last few seasons to see which teams fared well in the playoffs and where they rated in both efficiency categories and seeing how that relates to this season.

2013-14 Season:
Offensive and Defensive Efficiency 2014.png
The 2o13-14 season saw just three true title contenders, with all of them coming from the Western Conference. The Toronto Raptors theoretically were a title contender – they boasted the 9th most efficient offense and the 10th most efficient defence – but as seen by the graph, present as more of a fringe contender. In the end, the Spurs won the title after defeating the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals. The Thunder had previously beaten the LA Clippers in the 2nd round. Only two teams that did not boast a top ten offense or defence featured in the playoffs, they were Atlanta (8th seed) and Brooklyn (6th seed). Every team that featured in the top ten defensively made the playoffs, whilst the Timberwolves and Suns missed the post season despite their top ten offenses. In the East, this graph suggests that a Miami v Toronto Conference Finals would’ve been the most likely to occur, however the Raps got knocked out in the first round at the hands of the Brooklyn Nets. The Indiana Pacers ended up making the Conference Finals.
Other Notes:
– Golden State had the 12th best offense in the league and were a first round exit. That seems like an eternity ago.
– The Rudy Gobert influence is real. The Jazz had the worst defence in the league two years ago and have been top 15 in defensive efficiency each of the last two seasons.
– The old adage that “defense wins playoff series” doesn’t seem to ring true here, with Charlotte and Chicago winning just one game between them and Indiana nearly getting beaten by the Atlanta Hawks and Washington Wizards – neither of whom present as good teams. To be a successful playoff team, you really do need to be a top ten offense.

2014-15 Season
Offensive and Defensive Efficiency 2015.png
The first thing you notice when looking at this graph compared to the 2013-14 version is that there are no Pacers or Bulls dominating the league defensively. The Warriors, being the most efficient defensive team, are still 1.5 point per 100 possessions less efficient than the Pacers of the year prior. This definitely verifies a shift in the league that was noticeable at the time, with lockdown Thibodeau defence being much harder to implement. This playoff series is interesting when compared to the hypothesis, because although Golden State won the title, the other two championship contenders were a let down in the playoffs. The Spurs were a first round exit at the hands of the Clippers and their league leading offense, whilst the Hawks made it to the Conference Finals only to be swept by a rampaging Cavaliers team. Meanwhile, the Portland Trail Blazers, a psuedo contender in the mould of the 13-14 Raptors were also first round casualties despite boasting the 8th best offense and 10th best defence. In the end, the Houston Rockets made the Western Conference Finals, and judging by the graph they appear to have been the 4th most rounded team in the West after the Warriors, Spurs and Blazers. In the Eastern Conference, the Cavaliers predictably made the Conference Finals, demonstrating that a good offense is more valuable than a good defense. The Pacers and the Hornets both failed to make the playoffs in spite of their top ten defenses, whilst Brooklyn and Boston made the playoffs without featuring in the top ten of either category. The Nets are one of the more bizarre playoff teams in recent memory, with a net rating of -3.1 and the graph above suggesting they’re a bottom ten team.
Other Notes:
– The 76ers were atrocious last year. How they managed 18 wins is beyond me.
– Likewise for the Timberwolves. You can’t give up nearly 110 points a game and expect to win.
– The Bucks rose from 29th to 2nd in defensive efficiency under new coach Jason Kidd.
– The Eastern Conference was really, really bad. The top three seeds (Hawks, Cavs and Bulls) really were the only teams with any hopes of progressing into the Conference Finals. Each other team has a glaring hole, whether it be offensively, defensively or both. Granted, the Cavs weren’t great defensively, but they do have the excuse of bringing an entire team together and being.500 halfway through the season.

2015-16 Season:
Offensive and Defensive Efficiency 2016.png

The first thing that jumps out at you about this season is how many mediocre teams there are. This really isn’t anything surprising, we know that the Warriors, Spurs and Thunder are historically good. It’s also very obvious how bad the Sixers, Lakers, Nets and Suns are, but apart from these teams (and probably the Cavs, Clippers, Raptors and Celtics), the rest of the league is extremely tight. It shows that there are seven title contenders this year, with the Celtics and Raptors probably more pseudo contenders. The other thing of note this season is just how far ahead the Warriors, Spurs and  Thunder are. The Warriors especially are so incredibly dominant that it is hard to see them not winning the title.
Other Notes:
– The graph actually presents a fairly accurate representation of the NBA Standings compared to the other two seasons, with the Warriors, Spurs, Thunder and Clippers the top four teams in the West and the Cavs, Raptors, Celtics and Hawks the top four in the East.
– I tweeted the following the other day, and the bottom three predictions are justified to varying extents in the data above.

– The Jazz are shown to be the 5th best all round team in the West despite not featuring in the top 10 of either category, Toronto are within touching distance of Cleveland offensively, whilst being almost identical defensively and Houston’s defence quite clearly puts them below the Jazz, Mavs, Grizzlies and Blazers.
– The difference between 6th and 13th in the East really is minuscule. It’s 6.5 games in real life, but it truly does feel like less when looking at the graphic, with no team being top 10 offensively or defensively.
– The Thunder need to improve their defence if they want to overcome Golden State. They have the talent on the roster, so let’s see it happen.

Overall, it is pretty clear that over the last three seasons, the theory of title contenders having both a top 10 defence and offence rings true. This season should be no exception, although interestingly, seven teams are in the top ten on both ends of the floor. In the previous two seasons, just four teams featured in both categories, which included the 2013-14 Raptors and 2014-15 Blazers, neither of whom featured higher than eighth in either category. At the conclusion of the regular season, I will revisit these graphics and see how things stack up come playoff time. For now however, it seems that barring any major changes at tomorrow’s deadline, this will be one of the most hotly contested races for the playoffs in recent memory.

  • Written by Elliott Hoffmann
    – All stats courtesy of ESPN and John Hollinger’s efficiency measures.
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