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Visualizing Offense: The top five offenses look nothing alike

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Warriors’ offense predicated on movement; other top offenses, not so much.

Golden State Warriors v Denver Nuggets Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

A couple of weeks ago, we looked at some new interesting ways to visualize defensive versatility — this time, we are going to look at the other side of the court: offense.

Basketball is not unique in that there are many ways to approach your team’s offensive strategy, but when it comes time to discuss actual similarities and differences we are often stuck looking at basic statistics in order to parse out a certain team’s priorities.

“These guys are last in three-point attempts and pace” is a phrase that tells the educated basketball consumer a fair amount about how that team plays. They are slow, meaning they won’t often press on fast breaks, rarely would you expect them to shoot early in the shot clock, and since they don’t have a lot of outside shooting you can expect them to primarily be focused on attacking the basket.

In basketball, if you know the team’s pace, movement, and shot selection, you could likewise fill in a lot of what that team looks like on the court. And taking it further, you could easily read up on other teams and compare some of these sames statistics — in fact, that’s pretty much the basis of the game previews we write here before every game.

But what if we hammered all of this into a picture?

Ian Levy over at Nylon Calculus wrote a very good informational breakdown using pictures. It’s not that I can’t read — I assure you — but for some reason I’m just hard-wired to consume this information much more quickly and completely when someone wraps it all up into a nice pictorial package.

Without further ado: here are the top five offenses in the NBA (note that these statistics are all slightly out of date now, but the trends remain solid).

Two takeaways from the graphics

First, the Golden State Warriors “pace and space” offense really does live up to the hype. Kerr has these guys out there doing more than any other team in the league. Sure, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson are a big part of it, but this offense is trend-setting in the NBA not just because of what we do (ball movement) but because of how much of it we do (a metric ton of it!).

Remember how far out ahead of the curve the Warriors stand with their ball movement. I know that it’s a frequent concern among fans, but Kerr has a built in system bias to get everyone a chance to touch the ball. Argue about the net benefits, but understand that Kerr is definitely having the team play like this intentionally for all the reasons the corny (yet inarguably effective) Strength in Numbers slogan and philosophy ring true for this team.

Secondly, it’s a little shocking to me that there’s not one single commonality for all of these top teams. Since the “shot selection” category is based off of “MoreyBall” it’s no surprise to see the Houston Rockets leading that category with their strong preference for threes and layups (and looking a bit like the eye of Sauron).

The Toronto Raptors seem to play an oddly efficient version of iso ball (even after reforming their offense to spread the ball more this season). The Cleveland Cavaliers do a little bit of everything. And the Minnesota Timberwolves are an odd duck, thriving on free throws and low block scoring.

The bottom line is that each of these teams are strong because of their ability to embrace their specific players’ strengths. Hammering one team into another program’s vision probably isn’t going to work very well; and likewise players will work better within certain systems. I think perhaps we should better recognize the trickiness of coaching involved in figuring out a way to get your team into the top five - however it works for you.

Will the Warriors offense change as time goes by? How many bad passes is too many?

As we’ve seen recently, the Warriors run fast and move the ball a lot, which can have both positive and negative impacts. I’d argue that it’s the Warriors’ over-abundance of passes that allows our offense to be as prolific as it is. Clearly, Kerr has prioritized this, but as the turnovers continue to pile up as a cost of doing business like this, I can’t help but wonder if we will start seeing significant revisions to our offense as early as next season.

As offenses evolve, it will be interesting to see if Kerr continues to push the upper bounds of these categories. Steph Curry turns 30 tomorrow, and as teams like the Raptors and Rockets continue to innovate it’s going to be up to Kerr to figure out how best to utilize the absurd abundance of talent we have here right now so that we stay one step ahead for a few more years .

Hopefully, Ian Levy over at Nylon Calculus keeps doing these every season, but I like the way they’re thinking about looking at understanding basketball, even if it was just this one snapshot.