Nylon Calculus: Defining teams by their offensive style


One of my favorite projects every year is building team offensive style charts, helping to illustrate the ways each team go about trying to create the same goal — efficiency. As a whole the league is migrating towards a pace-and-space approach but the speed and degree to which each team is implementing those concepts varies greatly. In the past we’ve used these charts to look at year-over-year changes, and we’ll do that again closer to the end of the season, but first I thought it would be fun to try and create some groupings of style charts to see which teams are playing a similar style.

These charts are not meant to evaluate whether an offense is good or bad. They are designed to help illustrate how teams go about the goal of trying to put the ball in the basket. Each team’s offense is evaluated on four stylistic spectrums.

Ball movement is measured with the average touch time for each team, from the NBA’s player tracking statistics. A lower average touch time means the ball is moving from player to player more quickly.

Player movement is measured with a combination of different NBA.com tracking statistics and works out to average distance traveled per 24 seconds of offensive possession.

Pace is measured with the average length of an offensive possession from Inpredictable, a more accurate representation for how quickly a team is working than traditional pace.

Shot selection is measured with MoreyBall percentage — in this case the percentage of a team’s true shooting opportunities that came at the rim, from the free throw line, or on a 3-pointer. It’s a generalized measure but captures something about how much each team hews to the shots that are, on average, the most efficient.

On the graphs below you’ll see a line for each team’s offense. As the line moves away from the center of the graph on each axis you’re seeing more of that stylistic trait. For example, shot selection shows a (hypothetically) more efficient shot selection the further you are from center. Here are the subjective groups I’ve identified so far this season.

A lot of everything

All five of these teams are defined by their high rankings in every stylistic category — they play uptempo, feature generically efficient shot-selections and use lots of movement, both of player and the ball. In practical terms, they are the only teams that rank in the 50th percentile or better in all four stylistic characteristics.

For many people, this would appear to be an idealized offensive style but three of the five teams in this group have an offensive efficiency below the league average and only the Bucks rank inside the top-five. This reinforces a takeaway that will come up again but efficient offense is a product not just of design and style, but the talent of the players who are executing it and how well it matches their skill sets. In the next grouping, we see teams who are all sacrificing one specific stylistic characteristic, to let their players do what they do best.

The Warriors model

The difference between this group and the first is the low ranking in shot selection, represent the comfort level these teams have with scoring outside the restricted area but inside the 3-point line. According to PBPStats.com, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, De’Aaron Fox, Kyrie Irving and Julius Randle all rank among the top-30 in short-mid-range attempts this season (shots between 4 and 14 feet from the basket). Klay Thompson, Durant, Buddy Hield, Jayson Tatum and Davis all rank in top-30 in long-mid-range attempts (2-pointers at least 14 feet from the basket).

This system works well for the Warriors, Celtics and Pelicans given the talented scorers they’re working with. For the Kings, it seems like there might be some efficiency to be gained by reducing mid-range attempts for players like Hield, Fox, Marvin Bagley and others and squeezing a bit more efficiency out of their shot profile.

We’re fine with it

These teams all rank relatively low in shot selection but, unlike the teams in who follow the Warriors model, they don’t try and compensate with a surplus of all the other stylistic traits. The Knicks and Clippers do a bit of everything. The Spurs and Pacers focus on ball and player movement, respectively. In terms of results, we have a range of offensive efficiency marks but, again, you can trace a lot of results to the quality of the players taking the shots.

It’s the shots, stupid

These teams are all defined by their, generically, efficient shot selection but sparse implementation of the other traits. Practically speaking, they have a MoreyBall percentage that ranks above the 50th percentile but they rank below the 50th percentile in the three other traits.

The Rockets are obviously the most extreme exemplar of this group, landing in the bottom spot for both player and ball movement. Not to be a broken record, but player quality matters. Good shot selection can elevate a middling offense but it takes shot-makers to be truly elite. Also, it’s worth wondering what the Trail Blazers could accomplish if they really leaned into the Rockets’ style and took their shot selection to an even greater extreme.

Straight slingin’

The Grizzlies and Nuggets are both fairly unique — ranking in the top third of the league in ball movement but below the 50th percentage in the other stylistic traits. Both teams, at least before Marc Gasol was traded, relied heavily on the playmaking skills of a big man in the center of the floor which presents some natural limits on movement and pace. It is certainly working for Denver. not so much for Memphis.

Oh no, baby, what is you doing?

This grouping doesn’t really connect to anything else but they certainly stand out. Two of the worst offenses in the league defined by their almost pathological avoidance of any of the basic building-blocks most teams use to create efficient offense, with the exception of the Magic players running around a lot, I guess. This style is not inherently hopeless, but it works better with LeBron James or a prime Tracy McGrady in the middle of it.

Everyone else

In this somewhat miscellaneous grouping, we see teams who are variations on other themes but skewed somewhat by specific players on the roster. The Lakers, for example, a pretty close to landing in the “A lot of everything” group but the tendencies of LeBron James means a bit of ball-stopping for him and a bit of ball-watching for everyone else. The Raptors have a chameleon-like roster that sits near the middle of many stylistic traits but can adapt depending on the matchup. The Thunder are obviously playing a kinetic style with player’s bodies but the ball itself is usually in the hands of Paul George or Russell Westbrook until it’s about to be delivered to a finisher.