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Saturday, September 22, 2007

Recent NBA Champions by the Numbers

This article was originally published at NBCSports.com on 11/25/06; it has been updated to include statistics from the 2006-07 season

What is the statistical profile of an NBA championship team? Hall of Famer Hubie Brown, who coached the Kentucky Colonels to the 1975 ABA championship and is now an analyst for ESPN’s NBA coverage, has always emphasized the importance of point differential. Hank Egan, a Cleveland Cavaliers Assistant Coach who was a member of Gregg Popovich’s staff when the San Antonio Spurs won the 1999 championship, told me that the first statistic he looks at is defensive field goal percentage. An examination of the statistics of NBA championship teams since 1990 shows that these two categories are indeed strong indicators that a team will be successful. On average, those teams ranked third in the league in point differential and fifth in defensive field goal percentage. Eight of those 18 teams ranked first in the league in point differential, 15 of them ranked in the top five and 17 of them ranked in the top ten. The only outlier is the 1995 Houston squad, which dealt with injuries and a blockbuster midseason trade before hitting its stride and winning the NBA title.

It is often said that defense wins championships and the strong rankings of recent championship teams in the category of defensive field goal percentage certainly lends credence to that thought. Still, the object of the game is ultimately to put the ball in the basket, so a championship team must be able to generate at least some offense. In fact, championship teams tend to rank toward the top of the league in scoring. Two of the past 17 champions were the highest scoring team in the league, five more placed in the top five and more than half ranked in the top ten. The identity of the two lowest ranking offenses among recent champions would come as no surprise to anyone who has watched NBA basketball in the past two decades: the 1990 Detroit “Bad Boys” Pistons and the 2004 Detroit "Play the Right Way" Pistons.

Another pattern that is readily evident with even a cursory glance at the accompanying chart is that scoring has plummeted in the NBA, from 107.0 ppg in 1990 to a low of 91.6 ppg in the lockout shortened 1999 season. As of 2006-07, recent rules changes that were intended to increase scoring still had not boosted that number back to triple digits. Yet, despite this obvious trend, the relative relationship between the champion’s scoring and that of the rest of the league has not changed much. Even NBA champions that rank highly in defensive field goal percentage generally are in the top half of the league in scoring; they not only outscore their opponents (point differential) but they usually play at a faster pace than the average team in the league. Slowing the pace down to reduce the number of possessions may prevent a less talented team from suffering a lot of blowout losses but it is not generally a recipe for winning a championship.

What about rebounding? That is not included in the accompanying chart because how a team ranks in total rebounds largely correlates with the pace at which that team plays (i.e., how many missed shots are available to be rebounded). The significant thing to note is that every one of these champions outrebounded their opponents by at least 1.6 rpg except for the two Houston teams and the 2002 Lakers. That Lakers squad outrebounded their opponents by a little more than 1 rpg, while both Houston teams were outrebounded by their opponents--the 1995 team by nearly 3 rpg, a number that can at least partially be explained by the trade of starting power forward Otis Thorpe for All-Star guard Clyde Drexler. Rockets’ management thought--correctly, as it turned out--that the advantage of having two superstars (Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler) on the court at the same time would outweigh any disadvantage that the team might incur on the glass. Unless your team has two of the game’s 50 greatest players--and an armada of clutch three point shooters like Robert Horry, Sam Cassell and Kenny Smith--it is not likely to win a title without enjoying a rebounding advantage.

Perhaps the "strangest" of these champions is the 1993 Chicago Bulls, a team that ranked 11th in field goal percentage, 15th in defensive field goal percentage, 15th in scoring and is one of only six champions in the past 18 years to score fewer points per game than the league average. That Bulls team had a couple things in its favor, though: a good point differential (fourth best in the league)--and a guy named Michael Jordan, who had a certain ability to do special things at the end of close games; the Bulls had several such finishes during the 1993 title run--Charles Smith’s misadventures from point blank range (thanks to strong defense by Jordan and Scottie Pippen) and John Paxson’s dagger three pointer to clinch the title being perhaps the two most famous close encounters that Chicago won.

The first two Bulls’ teams from the second "three-peat" (1996 and 1997) were in many ways the most dominant champions of the past 18 years. Both posted double digit point differentials and both led the league in scoring while also ranking highly in defensive field goal percentage. Those teams put tremendous pressure on their opponents both offensively and defensively. The 1998 Bulls squad was slightly better defensively but shot a significantly lower percentage from the field and only scored 1.1 ppg more than the average team that season. The fact that Scottie Pippen, the team’s second leading scorer and leading playmaker, missed significant playing time due to injury no doubt had a lot to do with that squad’s reduced dominance.

(Note: this paragraph was written when the 2006-07 season was only a few weeks old; by using point differential and defensive field goal percentage as a barometer, both eventual NBA Finalists and a surprise Western Finalist--the Utah Jazz--stuck out from the pack at that early juncture; Orlando got off to a fantastic start but was not able to sustain it) Which teams look like a champion so far this season? The sample size of games is so small now that one blowout can have a big effect on the rankings. That said, the Utah Jazz have been the surprise team in the league so far, sporting the best record and a gaudy point differential. One possible cause for concern (other than injuries to key players, which have been a problem for Utah in recent seasons): the Jazz rank in the bottom half of the league in defensive field goal percentage. Which NBA teams best combine a stout point differential with a good defensive field goal percentage? There is a "usual suspect," an "unusual suspect" and a "new suspect": those teams, respectively, are the San Antonio Spurs, the Orlando Magic and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Spurs have been a title contender ever since Tim Duncan arrived on the scene and that does not figure to change this year. The Cavaliers made their presence felt in the playoffs for the first time in many years in 2005-06 and seem poised to make another good run in 2007. Orlando suffered the loss of star players Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway and Tracy McGrady over the past decade but has now assembled a solid team around Dwight Howard, who is blossoming into a force right before our eyes.

Recent NBA Champions by the Numbers

Champion...PPG Diff...FG%...Def. FG%...PPG...Avg. PPG*...Diff.*

Chi...9.0..(1)...510..(2)...475..(13)..110.0..(7)..106.3.. +.7

Summary of average rankings for these 18 NBA champions: On average, these championship teams ranked 3.1 in ppg differential, with eight of them ranking first, 15 of them ranking in the top five and 17 of them ranking in the top ten. They ranked 7.1 in field goal percentage, with one of them ranking first, eight of them ranking in the top five and 14 of them ranking in the top ten. They ranked 5.2 in defensive field goal percentage, with four of them ranking first, 12 of them ranking in the top five and 15 of them ranking in the top ten. They ranked 9.8 in points scored, with two teams ranking first, five teams ranking in the top five and 10 teams ranking in the top 10.

Note: Avg. PPG and Diff. refer to the average points per game for an NBA team that season and the difference between the champion's ppg and the league average.

posted by David Friedman @ 11:43 PM



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