“The point in looking at great teams is to find consistencies among those teams, patterns that may suggest how to construct other teams or at least how to predict what teams might be great.”

Key Takeaways:
  • 4 Significant Stats
  • 3 Point Line & Pace
  • System vs Star

This chapter looks at some of the best offensive and defensive NBA teams during the span of 1974 to 2004 when this book was published. The content went beyond ranking the top teams on either side of the floor; there was a deeper dive into variables that may have contributed to their success such as, roster breakdown, player turnover, or the coaching system versus having superstar athletes.

If you think back between those three decades multiple dynasties existed with Jordan’s Bulls in the 90s, Shaq and Kobe to start the 2nd century, or the Showtime Lakers and Celtics rivalries consuming the 80s. Yet, none of those great teams achieved the highest offensive rating during that 30 year period according to Dean Oliver; it was the 2002 Dallas Mavericks?

Four Crucial Aspects of the Game

The analytics suggest that these four statistics were considered the most influential responsibilities to being efficient (successful):

  1. Shooting percentage from the field.
  2. Getting offensive rebounds.
  3. Committing turnovers.
  4. Going to the foul line a lot and making the shots.

On the offensive side of things, during the 2002 season the Dallas Mavericks lead the league in Offensive Rating, Turnover Percentage, and True Shooting Percentage (TS%) – taking into account field-goal percentage, three-point percentage, and free throw percentage.

Comparable to the aforementioned dynasty teams, the Mavericks were one of the first teams to effectively go beyond the arc. The Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki tandem proved to be the ranging version of Stockton and Malone. Nowitzki arguably one of the first – greatest to date – stretch forwards in the game demonstrated the ability to efficiently play perimeter-to-post‘ish (see midrange stepback), while being a consistent pick-and-pop threat.

3-Point Line & Pace

Despite the 3-point line being instituted in 1980 there was a lot of apprehension from coaches to encourage the shot selection. It seemed more of a high-risk, low-reward concept to start. What is interesting was the correlation of pace with the installment of the perimeter.

To the contemporary coaches, the game is all about pace and space – playing at a high tempo with the shot-selection prioritized in order of the open-three, attacking lay-up, or getting to the free-throw line. It almost seems counterintuitive that by adding a 3-point line it would slow the game down. For roughly 20 years there was a consistent drop in pace-of-play to which the author attributed to the style of play from the champions during this era. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, the saturated style of play is an homage to previous victors. Consider the domination of champions between the 80s to 2000s:

  • Between 1980 to ’88 only one other team won a title that wasn’t the Celtics or Lakers (76ers).
  • The early 90s brought the Bad Boys of the Pistons until Jordan took over.
  • Then came the revitalized Lakers with Kobe and Shaq to start the 2nd century.

These two decades were filled with superstar playmakers, frontcourt dominance, and defensive tenacity. And it was believed that is what it took to win at the highest level – to find the next Shaq or Jordan and take no prisoners defending the paint. This type of approach shrunk the floor even with a 3-point line in place. From 1980 until 1993 the NBA averaged less than 10 3FGA in any season. Since the year 2000 the average number of 3FGA have increased every year with pace of play slowly but surely rising with it. Provided by Lineups this season alone there were more teams with a pace over 100 than all teams since the 1990-91 season combined.

System vs Star

“It’s not obvious. But the fact that Shaq has been on two great offensive teams that didn’t use the triangle and on none that did use it is just another piece of evidence to suggest that inherent offensive ability of individuals is a bit more important than the vaunted triangle offense.”

The best offensive teams had the best fit for superstars to thrive. Put Jordan in any offense he is likely still one of the greatest scorers the league has ever seen but does he have the same amount of championship success without Phil Jackson and the structure of the triangle offense? A hypothetical we will never know. We’ve generational talent Kevin Durant surrounded by other very skilled athletes in Oklahoma City that was unable to get over the hump until he joined forces in Golden State with a system that has captivated basketball coaches everywhere.

“There appeared to be more stars leading the offensive teams than the defensive teams hinting that system may be more important to defense than to offense.”

Superstars can elevate the status of any offensive scheme, while defensively that does not seem to be a necessary ingredient. During the same thirty-year period (1974-2004) there were a lot talented players on really bad defensive teams. While you would see a lot of the same teams with high offensive ratings on the top list defensively by limiting the amount of transition opportunities. However, there were teams like the 1996 Seattle SuperSonics lead by Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp or 1998 Cleveland Cavaliers with the same Shawn Kemp joined by Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Derek Anderson, and Brevin Knight. Defense is dependent upon all five guys being connected more often than an offensive playmaker outmatching an individual opponent.


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