Don’t spend too much time looking for the recipe; the biggest ingredient to winning more games is talent. As much as coaches want to play the role of fixing the flawed like your favorite rom-com flick; there has to be a foundational skill-set to work with to facilitate competitive balance.

But, when talent is equal discipline is the separator. 

Talent can enable consistency by compensating the vulnerabilities of the team or merely outmatching the inferior. Yet, it can also provide a false sense of security inflating a statistical prowess. So while players do make the plays; our job as coaches is to foster the structure of space – culture, and scheme – so that talent can flourish.

Therefore, we look to answer these questions on the common ground of competitive balance, #WhatWinsGames:

  • Classic debate: Defense vs Offense?
  • What statistics often reflect the winningest teams?
  • Balanced-Scoring or Superstar lead teams?

The Essence of Competition – Defense vs Offense

I am a firm believer that defense wins regular-season games, but offense matters more in March.

The philosophies don’t have to be mutually exclusive – Virginia is the living, breathing example of perennial offensive efficiency with the perception of being a defensive-only program. Defense creates offensive efficiency as much as a poor offense can play into the hands of an average defense. Admittedly, I’ll take the wins in March however they come, but nothing creates a pit in a coach’s stomach more than when we don’t know where our scoring is going to come from game-in and game-out.

It has been from my experiences where despite a team’s best effort to contain offensive threats; the most improbable of runs can transcend the outcome of any game. The momentum never feels more palpable than in the post-season. Individuals create legacies from a few instances of sequential shot-making ability.  And this can come from anyone – the last person off the bench to the superstar – with a hot hand. So, while we want to set a tone for the game of defensive discipline, better offense tends to prevail versus good defense.

Four Factors

Often compared to ‘Moneyball’ in baseball, ‘Basketball on Paper’ written by former coach and Seattle SuperSonics staffer Dean Oliver hypothesized a statistical theory called the “Four Factors of Basketball Success”:

  • Effective Field-Goal Percentage (40%)
  • Turnover Rate per 100 Possessions (25%)
  • Offensive Rebound Rate (20%)
  • Free-Throw Rate (15%)

*If you get the chance, read Basketball on Paper by Dean Oliver for more insight on basketball analytics and a thorough statistical inference on the game.*

A pragmatic comprehension of statistical analysis; the Four Factors of Basketball Success can be summarized by shooting a higher percentage than the opponent, turn the ball over less, rebound more, and earning more trips to the free-throw line.

Every coach seems to have a set of particular stats to follow to evaluate how their team is performing. Take, for example, full denial defensive teams tracking deflections determining activity level on and off the ball. Or teams with a strong frontcourt presence attributing points in the paint as a key indicator of playing to their strengths. Our ‘Four Factors’ board in the locker room charts:

  • Kills (3 Stops in a Row)
  • 50/50 – Is explained as Rebounding Rate / Loose-Ball Recovery
  • Paint Touch (+/-)
  • Assist/TO’s

From these statistics we look to answer the following questions with our team:

  • Are we stringing stops together?
  • Where are we in regards to extra possessions and 2nd chances?
  • How is our defensive wall? And are we puncturing the opponent?
  • Largely, are we taking care of the ball? And are we sharing it?

Unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of box scores being recorded throughout the game, so a lot of the statistics we track are done by support staff, my wife, or junior-varsity athletes off the bench. The numbers are simply points of reference that we can use to illustrate our points during and following the game for future adjustments.

There were a couple of one-liners a former coach of mine used during my playing days that continue to resonate. Reflect on some results of your own and evaluate the statistics to see how often these theories hold true.

“Every turnover and offensive rebound is worth one-point. Consider that each additional possession tends to be converted 50% of the time.”

“Have to be 10-points better on the road. Often times opposing FTA and FG% tends to be higher when competing in the comfort of their home environment. So performing on the road takes more discipline and better offense.”

The Problem with Scorers

If you keep reading Basketball on Paper there is a chapter titled, The Problem with Scorers. Inside, references offensive efficiency ratings for two of the great volume scorers in the NBA’s history Jerry Stackhouse and Allen Iverson. Long story short the author alludes to players with high usage rates can hinder a team’s offensive efficiency because of the high number of possessions resulting in poor shot selection due to the dependency of one individual attempting to manufacture offense. Subsequently, low percentage shots lead to defensive rebounds that turn into transition opportunities for the opponent.

Less about the book and more about the value of synergy of roles within a team dynamic. #WhatWinsGames is a combination of these roles:

  • Primary Scorer – volume and pressure situations
  • Spacers – Perimeter threats making shots at a high percentage
  • Frontcourt Finishers – Dead spots, rollers, offensive rebounders
    • There has to be someone on the floor that can finish in the paint guard or post
  • Bench Bursts – Off nights happen. Is there someone that can create lightning in a bottle?

These roles could have an overlap where the primary scorer is your best spacer or frontcourt finisher. But odds are one person does not encompass all of these roles, or a successful team does not lack of any of these elements.

Consider the best teams within the past decade in any league or division; I would challenge you to find a championship-caliber team that didn’t have the personnel with these roles fulfilled.

Talent is a significant ingredient to success. But, it can quickly become diluted without the right mix of complementary factors on-the-court and reflected in the box score.


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