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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Is It Possible to Steal a Championship?

This article was originally published at NBCSports.com on 2/7/07; the text has been slightly modified and updated to include statistics from the 2006-07 season

A team that escapes with a victory on a fluke play is said to have "stolen" a win. Is it possible to literally steal wins--or even steal a championship? Specifically, how directly do steals correlate with winning? On the surface, a steal is the best way for a team’s defense to end an offensive possession--not only does the offense fail to score, but the defense has gained control of the ball immediately, without having to chase down a rebound, and the defensive team may even be in position to quickly convert the steal into fast break points. A blocked shot is good, but the ball could end up going out of bounds or into the waiting hands of the team that just shot it. The drawback regarding steals (and blocked shots) is that if a defender lunges for the ball and misses then he may be giving up an easier shot attempt than he would have by simply staying in front of his man and putting a hand in his face.

In "Recent NBA Champions by the Numbers," we saw that championship teams usually rank among the league leaders in both point differential and defensive field goal percentage. Such a correlation with the highest level of success does not exist with steals. The 1974-75 Golden State Warriors are the only NBA championship team that led the league in steals; that Warriors team had the individual leader as well, Rick Barry (2.85 spg). In the past 18 years, only six championship teams have ranked in the top ten in steals. During that period, championship teams have tended to rank around the middle of the pack or worse in steals. The Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen Chicago Bulls teams that won six championships in an eight year span ranked higher in steals than most champions of recent vintage--largely because Jordan and Pippen are two of the greatest individual defenders of all-time. Those Bulls’ teams account for five of the six champions that ranked in the top ten in steals since 1990; no champion has ranked higher than 13th in steals since the Bulls won their last title in 1998.

This pattern also holds true regarding teams that make it to the Conference Finals level. Last year, Cleveland ranked eighth in the NBA in steals but the other three Conference Finalists ranked 15th or worse in that category. None of 2006's final four teams ranked higher than 13th in steals. In 2005, each of the final four teams ranked 17th or lower. Since 1999, just eight of the 36 teams that made it to the Conference Finals ranked in the top ten in steals. The point differential and defensive field goal percentage numbers show that championship teams limit their opponents’ scoring by forcing them to shoot a low percentage from the field, so the fact that most of these teams are average at best in getting steals strongly suggests that they place a greater emphasis on contesting shots than roaming the passing lanes. For instance, the "Bad Boys" Detroit Pistons championship teams in 1989 and 1990 are renowned for their defensive prowess but they ranked 25th (last) and 27th (last) respectively in steals.

That does not mean that teams that focus on forcing turnovers cannot enjoy at least a certain amount of success. George Karl’s Seattle SuperSonics led the league in steals for five straight years in the 1990s, winning at least 55 games in each of those seasons. Their defensive attack was spearheaded by ball hawking guards Gary Payton and Nate McMillan. Seattle made it to the 1996 NBA Finals but also lost twice in the first round of the playoffs. Karl moved on to coach the Milwaukee Bucks before landing with his current employer, the Denver Nuggets. Karl’s Bucks ranked in the top ten in steals three times in five seasons, but never advanced farther than the Conference Finals. His Nuggets ranked second in the league in steals in both 2005-06 and 2006-07. Defensive pressure and an uptempo pace are integral elements of his coaching style. Karl has won a lot of regular season games but his teams have tended to underperform in the postseason.

Three other teams have led the NBA in steals at least three times since 1990. Del Harris’ Milwaukee Bucks led the NBA in steals three straight years in the early 90s, largely on the strength of their quick backcourt duo of Alvin Robertson and Jay Humphries. Those Bucks lost in the first round of the playoffs two seasons in a row and missed the postseason altogether in the third year, during which Harris was replaced by Frank Hamblen. When Rick Pitino came to Boston in 1997-98, he instituted a style of play involving pressure defense and a large number of three point field goal attempts. His Celtics twice led the NBA in steals (and did so a third time under his protégé, Jim O’Brien) but "Larry Bird did not walk through that door" and he never led Boston to the playoffs. Allen Iverson’s Philadelphia 76ers led the NBA in steals twice under Larry Brown and once under Jim O’Brien but none of those squads made it past the second round of the playoffs.

None of the three teams that were generally considered to be last year’s leading title contenders coming into the season--Dallas, Phoenix, San Antonio--ranked in the top ten in steals. Over in the Eastern Conference, the Chicago Bulls and the Cleveland Cavaliers ranked in the top ten in the NBA in steals but both Detroit and Miami ranked in the bottom half of the league. Shaquille O’Neal's teams have tended to not excel in this category and his four championship teams each ranked 18th or worse in steals.

Forcing turnovers can be a part of the defensive repertoire of good teams but some bad teams also accumulate a lot of steals. A great example of this can be found in the 1995-96 season. That year, the Bulls posted the best regular season record in NBA history, 72-10. They tied for third in the NBA in steals with none other than the expansion Toronto Raptors, who finished 21-61. A big difference between those teams is that Bulls’ opponents shot just .448 from the field, while Raptors’ foes shot .475. Clearly, forcing turnovers alone does not make a squad good defensively or directly lead to championship level success. Only when steals come in the context of a sound defensive system that holds opponents to a low shooting percentage do wins and titles ensue. One example of such a team is the Philadelphia 76ers of the early 1980s; those squads made it to three NBA Finals in four years and won the 1983 title. Ball hawking forwards Julius Erving and Bobby Jones and quick point guard Maurice Cheeks helped Philadelphia to annually rank near the top of the NBA in steals but, as Jones and Billy Cunningham (Philadelphia's coach during that era) both told me, they were not recklessly gambling but their traps and steal attempts were part and parcel of the team's overall defensive plan.

Is It Possible to Steal A Championship?

Year...Champion/W-L...SPG...Rank...Steals Leader/W-L...SPG

1999...San Antonio/37-13...8.42...15/29...Phil./28-22...10.84
2003...San Antonio/60-22...7.67...17/29...Phil./48-34...10.29
2005...San Antonio/59-23...7.48...17/30...Phil./43-39...9.22
2007...San Antonio/58/24...7.16...15/30...GSW/42-40...9.15

Average 59.8-22.2...8.06...14.7...47.2-34.8...10.51

(1999 W-L of San Antonio and Philadelphia projected to 61-21 and 46-36 respectively)

posted by David Friedman @ 7:27 AM



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