Examining Five Efficient Offenses: Breaking Down the Success of Atlanta, Minnesota, Portland, Golden State and Houston

Offensive efficiency.  You know it when you see it.  The ball zips along the perimeter in Golden State and Portland.  In San Antonio, no more of the Duncan back-down, but instead Pop and his sideline savants give Parker and company room to drive-and-dish to the corner for the open look.  Sharing the ball.  Nine Spurs averaging eights points per game or more.  In Houston and Minnesota, they rebound and suddenly the ball is over half-court, bringing back the days of Russell and Unseld when the outlet pass was new.  The three-pointer was a novelty in the early 80’s until Larry Bird decided he didn’t have to post-up anymore.  Bird passed it on to Reggie Miller, before Ray Allen grabbed it from the stubborn Pacer.  Now?  This is a new generation of basketball with a new style of play and a new way of understanding the value of the arc.  Gone is the way of the three as desperation look.  Gone is the necessity of the post (sorry, Charles Barkley, but you’re losing touch).  Shots from long-distance are not all created equally. We’ve broken it down into the corner three and the one that comes from deep–also called “above the break.”  The three-pointer spaces the floor and opens up the driving lanes that makes basketball the most creative sport on earth. Efficiency means low-turnovers and high free-throws.  It means the death of the mid-range jumper.

Efficiency is the core way in which advanced stats have impacted the game. With that in mind, let’s take a look at five of the NBA’s somewhat surprisingly efficient offenses early in this 2013-14 NBA season. Certain teams (Miami, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Clippers) have been purposely excluded from this list. Why?  Because LeBron James, Tony Parker, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul are four of the most dynamic shot-creators in the league, and they do so much on their own that they throw off the team numbers.  Using that logic, Houston (James Harden) should also be excluded.  However, Houston is one of the five teams because they highlight something specific I want to mention below.  Also, no piece on basketball analytics is complete without mentioning Daryl Morey’s team.

Explanations for each category listed below.

  1. Offensive Rating: points scored per 100 possessions. league-average: 104.0
  2. Assist Percentage: percentage of team field goals that were made with a teammate’s assist. league-average: 56.8%
  3. Assist to Turnover Ratio: ratio of assists to turnovers. league-average: 1.36
  4. Pace: number of average offensive possessions for each team (team and opponent) per 48 minutes. league-average: 94.2
  5. Effective Field-Goal Percentage: field goals made / field goals attempted, adjusted so that 3-pt FG are worth 1.5 times 2-pt FG. league-average: 49.4%
  6. Free-Throws Made / game: league-average: 17.5
  7. Three-Pointers Made / game: league-average: 7.6
  8. Overall % Shots Distributed by Zone / Shooting % on Attempts Within Each Zone

– These are the league-wide team averages, broken down by zone on the floor

  • Restricted Area (R), 32% of total shots / 60.0% 
  • Paint-non-restricted-area (P), 15.1% of total shots / 38.5%
  • Mid-range (M), 27.8% of total shots / 38.7%
  • Above-the Break-3 (A3), 18.5% of total shots / 35.0%
  • Corner-3 (C3), 6.7% of total shots / 40.2%

*all stats compiled through November 24, 2013

Atlanta Hawks (8-6)

Offensive Rating: 102.0 (11th)

Assist Percentage: 65.9% (1st)

Assist to Turnover Ratio: 1.69 (2nd-tied)

Pace: 98.02 (11th)

Effective Field-Goal Percentage: 51.5 (8th)

Free-Throws Made / game: 16.7 (17th)

Three-Pointers Made / game: 7.9 (14th)

Overall Shots Distributed by Zone / Shooting Percentage on Attempts Within Each Zone:

  • Restricted Area (R)30.1% of total shots / 65.7%. Though they take 2% fewer shots than average, they make 5% more, because they get more easy looks at the rim via the extra pass.  Horford is a strong finisher at the rim.
  • Paint-non-restricted-area (P), 16.5% of total shots / 41.3%
  • Mid-range (M), 25.9% of total shots / 39.9%
  • Above-the Break-3 (A3), 19.4% of total shots / 34.7%. 
  • Corner-3 (C3), 8.1% of total shots / 37.0%

The Hawks take 27.5% of their shots from behind the arc, more than 2% over league average.  Kyle Korver continues to be one of the NBA’s best at 50.2%, but the Hawks efficient offense would be even more efficient if the rest of the crew (Teague 20.5%, Carroll 32%, Antic 29%) were able to connect even 33% of the time.

Individual Scoring and Shots per game:

  1. Jeff Teague, 18.0 ppg on 14.5 shots.
  2. Al Horford, 17.4 ppg on 13.9 shots.
  3. Paul Millsap, 15.6 ppg on 11.9 shots.
  4. Kyle Korver, 12.4 ppg on 8.1 shots.
  5. DeMarre Carroll, 9.4 ppg on 7.5 shots.

What It All Adds Up To:

The Hawks share the ball better than any other team in the NBA.  Consider the above five players.  Horford, Millsap, and Korver have never been primary options, but all have clear offensive strengths.  The lack of ego and the factor of new coach Mike Budenholzer (having learned the unselfish Spurs system) has Atlanta off to a rousing offensive start.   Everyone but Al Horford the green light from behind the arc, though only Kyle Korver is making opponents nervous.  By minimizing turnovers, the Hawks give themselves a chance at a great possession most of the time down the court. The addition of dynamic point guard Lou Williams, who was out for most of last season and the start of this year rehabbing a knee injury, will help create even more open looks for Millsap, Horford and Korver.

Minnesota Timberwolves (8-8)

Offensive Rating: 103.0 (9th)

Assist Percentage: 61.4% (8th)

Assist to Turnover Ratio: 1.62 (5th)

Pace: 101.8 (2nd)

Effective Field-Goal Percentage: 47.6 (21st)

Free-Throws Made / game: 20.9 (3rd)

Three-Pointers Made / game: 7.8 (15th)

Overall Shots Distributed by Zone / Shooting Percentage on Attempts Within Each Zone:

  • Restricted Area (R)35.9% of total shots / 60.5%.   
  • Paint-non-restricted-area (P), 12.2% of total shots / 35.5%
  • Mid-range (M), 25.2% of total shots / 32.3%
  • Above-the Break-3 (A3), 20.8% of total shots / 33.7%
  • Corner-3 (C3), 5.9% of total shots / 32.5%

The fast-breaking Wolves get 4% more shots at the rim than the average team.  When kept in the half-court, they struggle more than most.  In the paint, and their mid-range game is among the worst in the league.  They rarely get open looks from the corners, the most valuable shot in the game.  As a result, they shoot only 32.5%, almost 8 percentage points less than league-average.

Individual Scoring and Shots per game:

  1. Kevin Love, 24.9 ppg on 17.9 shots
  2. Kevin Martin, 22.8 ppg on 17.7 shots
  3. Corey Brewer, 14.7 ppg on 11.7 shots
  4. Nikola Pekovic, 14.2 ppg on 11.1 shots
  5. J.J. Barea, 8.2 ppg on 8.5 shots

What It All Adds Up To:

Though Ricky Rubio can’t hit a shot within the arc, Rubio’s 8.7 assists and Love’s 4.5 assists help keep the Wolves in motion.  If Rubio could find a way to take more long-range shots, the Wolves would become more efficient.  He’s shooting a meager 30.6% on 6.2 shots per game from inside, and a surprisingly good 42.9% in limited attempts from distance. The Wolves recipe is to push the pace on every occasion, with Kevin Love’s outlet passes and Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer zooming down the sidelines in hopes of a quick hoop.  The Wolves use Rubio and Brewer as attacking defenders, creating even more open-floor opportunities through passing-lane thefts, which enables Minnesota to lead the league in points off turnovers (over 20.5). However, when the Wolves are forced into the half-court, they get shy and howl at the moon (and Kevin Love) for help. Let’s not mention their less-than-stifling defense.

Portland Trailblazers (13-2)

Offensive Rating: 106.5 (4th)

Assist Percentage: 59.9% (12th)

Assist to Turnover Ratio: 1.57 (8th)

Pace: 96.7 (17th-tied)

Effective Field-Goal percentage: 51.3% (9th)

Free-Throws Made / game: 16.4 (18th)

Three-Pointers Made / game: 10.2 (2nd-tied)

Overall Shots Distributed by Zone / Shooting Percentage on Attempts Within Each Zone:

  • Restricted Area (R), 27.2% of total shots / 56.6% 
  • Paint-non-restricted-area (P), 11.7% of total shots / 33.6%
  • Mid-range (M), 33.2% of total shots / 43.0%
  • Above-the Break-3 (A3), 20.4% of total shots / 40.2%
  • Corner-3 (C3), 7.5% of total shots / 47.8%

Portland’s strengths are vividly on display in this breakdown.  Aldridge’s ability to work from the elbow and loft those 15-18 footers over the outstretched arms of defenders helps Portland shoot 4% better than league-average from mid-range. Mathews, Batum, Lillard, and Williams help with the lofty 40.2% from above the break, better than 5% over the league-average.

Individual Scoring and Shots per game:

  1. LaMarcus Aldridge, 22.3 ppg on 20.4 shots
  2. Damion Lillard, 19.9 ppg on 16.1 shots
  3. Wesley Mathews, 17.3 ppg on 11.1 shots
  4. Nicolas Batum, 13.4 ppg on 10.4 shots
  5. Mo Williams, 9.5 ppg on 9.1 shots

What It All Adds Up To:

The Blazers are knocking down an incredible amount of threes early in the season, which has propelled them to the 13-2 start. Mathews (52.5% on 5.7 per game), Batum (41.6% on 5.5 per game) and Lillard (39.4% on 7.1 per game) have them stretching defenses like only the Warriors can.  Though Mathews can’t keep up his torrid pace, the fact remains that the pieces fit beautifully in Portland, and even without any real pace or great penetration, the half-court Blazers are steam-rolling some defenses.  However, a closer look at the schedule reveals some fortuitous early-season scheduling scattered among the solid wins.  Two big tests will come next week at home against Indiana and Oklahoma City.

Golden State Warriors (8-6)

Offensive Rating: 102.9 (10th)

Assist Percentage: 62.3% (6th-tied)

Assist to Turnover Ratio: 1.32 (16th)

Pace: 99.0 (9th)

Effective Field-Goal Percentage: 54.0% (3rd)

Free-Throws Made / game: 14.9 (25th-tied)

Three-Pointers Made / game: 10.2 (1st)

Overall Shots Distributed by Zone / Shooting Percentage on Attempts Within Each Zone:

  • Restricted Area (R)30.7% of total shots / 61.0% 
  • Paint-non-restricted-area (P), 16.0% of total shots / 35.8%
  • Mid-range (M), 25.1% of total shots / 42.3%
  • Above-the Break-3 (A3), 20.7% of total shots / 44.4%
  • Corner-3 (C3), 7.6% of total shots / 47.1%

Golden State’s astounding 44.4% shooting from distance above-the-break puts every team except for Portland to shame. Remember, league-average is 9.4% points below that figure.  Steph Curry’s range (roughly 30 feet) means that any open three is a good shot.  Klay Thompson’s 6’7″ frame and quick release mean that he gets more half-court threes off than most wings. Because of their ability to stretch the floor, Golden State doesn’t have to play with pace to get good looks outside the paint.  In addition, David Lee has all kinds of room to operate from the elbow, resulting in the 42.3% on mid-range looks.  The excellent point-forward passing of Andre Iguodala is the icing on the cake.  Iguodala’s temporary absence (hamstring) will be glaring on defense, but also depletes the bench, forcing Barnes into the starting lineup.

Individual Scoring and Shots per game:

  1. Klay Thompson, 21.1 ppg on 15.1 shots
  2. Stephen Curry, 20.1 ppg on 16.0 shots
  3. David Lee, 17.5 ppg on 13.4 shots
  4. Andre Iguodala, 12.9 ppg on 8.5 shots
  5. Harrison Barnes, 12.4 ppg on 10.2 shots

What It All Adds Up To:

Points per game with Curry (10 games): 106.7.  Points per game without Curry (3 games): 83.3. Granted, of the three games, two came against excellent defenses–San Antonio and Memphis. The Warriors offense is a well-oiled machine. Watching them operate against Oklahoma City two weeks ago was a thing of beauty.  As they showed in last year’s playoffs, they are unstoppable when Curry finds that impossible groove that means he will hit with or without a hand in his face.  With the addition of Iguodala, the pressure is lessened on Thompson.  Without Iguodala, and injured guard Toney Douglas, the bench depth is questionable.  The telling numbers: four players averaging over 10 shot attempts per game. The Warriors offense will not be a problem.  Without Iguodala, their defense, which was hugely successful through the first 12 games, will be tested.

Houston Rockets (10-5)

Offensive Rating: 108.1 (3rd)

Assist Percentage: 55.5% (23rd)

Assist to Turnover Ratio: 1.08 (27th-tied)

Pace: 100.8 (4th-tied)

Effective Field-Goal Percentage: 54.7% (2nd)

Free-Throws Made / game: 24.7 (1st)

Three-Pointers Made / game: 9.3 (4th)

Overall Shots Distributed by Zone / Shooting Percentage on Attempts Within Each Zone:

  • Restricted Area (R), 40.4% of total shots / 66.5% 
  • Paint-non-restricted-area (P), 14.2% of total shots / 42.7%
  • Mid-range (M), 10.9% of total shots / 32.8%
  • Above-the Break-3 (A3), 25.7% of total shots / 34.1%
  • Corner-3 (C3), 8.9% of total shots / 38.2%

Wow.  These percentages read exactly as you might imagine if you know Daryl Morey’s name.  Morey has engineered his Rockets to resist the urge to shoot the mid-range jumper, aka the dying “long 2.”  Instead, Harden, Howard and company either get to the rim or let fly from distance.  A measly 10.9% of shots are from mid-range.  League-average: 27.8%. Instead, the Rockets attack the rim and either get to the line (see below) or get a decent look from distance.

Individual Scoring and Shots per game:

  1. James Harden, 24.2 ppg on 16.3 shots
  2. Dwight Howard, 17.9 ppg on 10.7 shots
  3. Chandler Parsons, 16.6 ppg on 12.4 shots
  4. Jeremy Lin, 16.5 ppg on 10.4 shots
  5. Patrick Beverley, 10.0 ppg on 8.4 shots

What It All Adds Up To:

Houston is one of the few teams that can survive a miserable assist-to-turnover ratio and still be efficient. How do they manage this?  Because they’re devoted to the arc and attacking the rim.  Morey’s kids are asked to embrace the advanced stats more than any team in the league.  They get to the free-throw line at an incredible rate, and by do so by pushing the pace without a true point guard. Harden, Parsons and Lin all average over 4 assists per night.  The Rockets currently have six players attempting at least three shots from distance per game.  In addition to the previously mentioned trio, Patrick Beverley, Francisco Garcia and Omri Casspi combine to attempt over 12 triples per contest.  Harden averaged over 10 FT attempts per game last year, and is currently at 8.8 attempts per game.  For his career, Harden shoots 84.3% from the line. Howard is forced to the charity-stripe 10.8 times per game, but connects on only 54% of those attempts.  It’s one thing to believe in the long-range jump-shot, but when a team combines that with an all-out attack on the paint, you get the super efficient Rockets.  The question for Houston, other than Dwight Howard’s commitment to the pick-and-roll (his best offensive skill), is if the Rockets are able to commit to the defensive end in the same way they’ve committed to this offensive philosophy.


The Darko Index is my own personal outlet pass (not quite as majestic as Kevin Love’s).  On Twitter @darkoindex

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