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The League Average Matters

Sometimes, I'll go for a few days without any good idea for a post. But then I'll read something that irks me. This morning, it's this piece from Rusty Simmons:

With Wright struggling to find comfort in the offense, the Warriors (2-5) went into the game ranked 25th of 30 teams in scoring and 17th in field-goal shooting. They're clearly a more defensive team this season, but that hasn't consistently translated into fastbreak chances, and they've labored in halfcourt sets.

Clearly a more defensive team? Hmm...This season the Warriors' DRTG is 106.2. Last season it was 110.7. Lower is better, so the Warriors are a better defensive team. Right? Not exactly. Let's look at this in terms of their ranking with respect to the rest of the league. Last season, the Warriors ranked 26th in DRTG. You're probably thinking they're now around average. Nope. This season the Warriors are ranked...wait for it...24th. We've moved up two spots! Now, I don't know about you, but I'm not sure that qualifies us as a defensive powerhouse.

So, why the discrepancy between what Mr. Simmons "clearly" sees (and I'm guessing what many fans are seeing — Hey, Kwame Brown plays defense!) and what the rankings see? It's pretty simple. There are two things going on. First, the Warriors are playing at a slower pace, 91.6 vs. 94.8. That change in pace, although seemingly small, is actually noticeable. And obviously, fewer possessions and fewer points (both offensively and defensively) can lead people to believe the team has improved (on defense). Second, and this one is arguably the more important factor, the league average DRTG is way down from last season (at least, in the early going). Last season the league average DRTG was 107.3. This season it's down to 102.6. That's almost 5 points down, which is a huge drop. Relative to this mark, the Warriors decrease in DRTG of 4 points is actually less than the overall drop in the league average. Go figure.

It's not only the perception of the Warriors that is being skewed. There's weird things afoot in Denver, too. Since Carmelo left, the conventional wisdom is that Denver's offense appears to have improved, because it is more balanced. Has it? The answer is apparently not. The Nuggets rank 12th in ORTG this season. Last season they ranked 1st (and most of that was with Carmelo in the lineup). But Denver *is* playing really well. Why? Because *their* defense actually has improved. Dramatically. Last season Denver was 16th in DRTG (107.3). This season, the Nuggets are leading the league at 94.6 (right ahead of the Bulls' 95.0). That's a pretty incredible change, but I haven't heard anybody talk about it (yet). They surely will. My guess is that *this* is the mile high effect in a condensed season.

So the take-home message here is:

Ok, that's not the message, but I just wanted to get that in here somewhere. The real message is, as always, don't let PPG fool you. And look at those league averages.