As the 2015 NBA playoffs approach, we wanted to look at the teams involved in a slightly different way. And so we made some charts. These five charts present interesting data about the playoff teams (those already in and some fringe clubs) that say something about their style, quality, strengths and weaknesses. Note that the data used has been collected over the past couple of days, so recent games may not be fully represented.
There are a lot of ways to measure entertainment value because tastes differ and the data can be misleading. But using two common indicators of fun -- offensive efficiency and pace -- actually works pretty well this season. To wit: The Warriors combine tempo and offensive success unlike any other club in the NBA.
Houston and the Clippers are not well-liked, but their offenses sing and they play with above-average pace. The Thunder and Mavericks are in that zone as well. Boston is below average in efficiency, but its pace-and-space belief system is represented in pace.
Mainly, this chart shows that the West playoffs are where it's at. As if you didn't know.
This chart represents offensive style by laying out which teams take a lot of threes and which teams focus more on shots at the rim (through penetration, screen rolls, transition or post-ups). As it turns out, only one playoff team -- Houston -- is above average in both categories. And the Rockets are way ahead of everyone in terms of three-point rate.
Most playoff teams, in fact, take fewer shots than average at the rim. Part of this could be that better teams draw fouls on a good share of shots in the restricted area, at least compared to lesser teams. Free throws aren't represented in this chart, which could underrate the near-basket frequency for some teams. (It's more difficult than just adding free throws to restricted area attempts, especially given the league's new propensity for intentional fouling strategies.)
The Grizzlies and Wizards really don't take many threes at all. They are old-school teams at this point.
Given that taking shots at the rim and from beyond the arc is representative of the New School of offense, defending those areas well is important. This chart shows which teams defend one or both areas well. As it turns out, Houston rates highly here as well. The team's long wings do a good job forcing tougher threes, and Dwight Howard in the paint (when he's been available) makes a huge difference in the restricted area.
Note that most of the best rim defense teams have a 7-footer or highly athletic shot blocker on their roster, led by the Pacers (Roy Hibbert), Warriors (Andrew Bogut) and Blazers (Robin Lopez). Also note Cleveland's poor rating on defending in the restricted area. That shouldn't bite the Cavs in the first round -- likely opponent Boston can't do much in the paint -- but it could come into play later on.
One flaw with this chart: It measures efficiency in the two zones, but not frequency. It's arguably better to prevent opponents from taking threes at all by running them off the line, or to prevent shots in the paint by encouraging pull-up jumpers or denying the ball in the deep post. It's likely that some defenses that use more preventative measures are underrated here.
Here's another way to measure the fun factor of an offense: how frequently buckets come from assists. As you can see, the three best offenses in the league -- Golden State, Atlanta and the Clippers -- rate very highly in assist percentage. But a few other top assist teams (including Washington, Boston and Milwaukee) are rather average in overall offensive efficiency.
The best offense with a lower-than-average assist percentage is no surprise: it's Cleveland, who has a point guard with a 55-point game this season. And despite Russell Westbrook ranking in the top five in assists per game, OKC has the second-lowest assist percentage in the league, primarily because most of Westbrook's shots are unassisted.
Here's the most important one of this set: a chart showing teams' performance since the midway point of the season (roughly Jan. 15). You want to be in the lower right hand corner. What's interesting is that since the midway point, San Antonio has basically been Golden State's equal. The next tier is essentially comprised of Cleveland, the Clippers, the Hawks, the Bulls and ... the Pacers. Then you've got Portland, Houston, New Orleans, Dallas, Boston, Memphis and, uh, the Jazz, who were eliminated from contention a month ago.
Can anyone stop the Spurs or Warriors? Which one will stop the other? Those seem to be the leading questions heading into the playoffs.