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If a blogger were an analyst

I'm sure many of you are aware that Bullets Forever is part of a larger blogging network called Sports Blog Nation.  There are 10 total NBA sites on the network, and all of them are spectacular team sites.  We have sites on here for the Bulls, Clippers, Mavericks, Warriors, Pacers, Suns, Blazers, Kings, and Spurs, and we're incredibly lucky to have our site mentioned in the same breath as these.  

One thing that defines this site (and I imagine every site on this network) is that we take "conventional wisdom" with a grain of salt.  We don't believe what we are told until we think about it ourselves.  This is not to say that we always debunk ideas that are seen as universal truths in this game, but it does mean that we want to come to conclusions ourselves.  

Last week, the collective pulse of SB Nation gathered to ask what we would do if we were named commissioner of the NBA.  This week, many of us (not all, some didn't respond in time) discussed what we think is actually important for basketball success.  Here were the three questions posed to the group.

What are your least favorite basketball cliches/terms/keys/etc. thrown out by announcers/writers/analysts/pundits?
What elements of the game do you think are discussed too much as keys for team success?
I think we all understand that basketball success isn't determined by a formula where you have to plug in the same elements to come away
with successful results.  There are teams that succeed in so many different ways.  However, having said that, there have to be some things that all successful teams have in common over the unsuccessful ones.  What do you think are the most important measurables for success?

Here's how everyone responded:

First, we had a legitimate debate between ClipperSteve from Clips Nation and Matt from Blog-A-Bull.  The subject?  The importance of intangibles and "energy."

Here's an excerpt from CipperSteve's response:

Being a Clipper fan, I am of course woefully unprepared to discuss anything related to team success.  I will say this - the intangible aspects are as big or bigger than anyone thinks.  You can't win a championship without some talent of course, but the EXACT SAME TEAM can look like a legitimate challenger or a lottery team based on things like energy and attitude and chemistry (trust me, I know this from this season alone).  Take Utah.  Something happened last year and they forgot for awhile that they're the Utah Jazz and they're supposed to make the playoffs.  But this year they remembered again, and even when Boozer went out (which is what killed them last year) they kept right on winning.  Winning is a habit.

Here's Matt's response:

How ironic, Steve used one of my lease favorite cliches when answering #3: 'Energy'! That nebulous term that all announcers are too lazy to figure out what exactly is happening on the court. Team hits some shots: good energy. Loses a rebound: bad energy. You have 'energy' players and 'energy' lineups, no teams have actual skill or physical advantages, it's merely who brings the energy. At least be specific. Are they fighting through screens on defense? Making crisper cuts on offense? Give me something. And if the team is playing like dogshit, say so, don't say they just 'lack energy tonight'. The only plausible reason to mention energy is during a weekend afternoon game, and in which case you can replace 'low energy' with 'hungover'.

Not to be denied, Steve fired back one more response.

I agree that 'energy' is overused and cliche and insufficient in commentary on any single game.  Nonetheless SOMETHING happens in teams from one season to another where they can go from a solid playoff team to a solid lottery team without a commensurate change in personnel.  I've seen many Clipper teams with basically no talent overacheive to win a few games (I still think Bill Fitch should have won coach of the year for winning 17 games in 199x), and I've seen a couple of them underacheive with really good talent.  In 2003, when the top 6 scorers were going to be free agents, that had a lot to do with it (although that also hacks me off - you're being paid millions of dollars to play a great game - you can't play hard regardless of your contract status?!)  This season?  I truly don't know.  Chemistry and energy are two nebulous words that have to stand in for something that I simply don't understand.  Teams give up.  They don't work as hard.

That was just a sample of what we talked about.  Here's more.

Dan - Bright Side of the Sun.

The element of success that is discussed too much is "points allowed".  It's a bogus stat if you don't look at other things as well.  For instance, the Suns run constantly and try to shoot the ball within the first 7 seconds of the shot clock.  That means both teams get more shots at the basket and will score more points.  For instance, the Suns allow 86 shots per game on average.  The Spurs allow 79 per game.  Detroit allows 77 per game.  So just because a team allows more points per game does not mean they don't play defense.  Regarding defensive field-goal percentage, the Suns allow 45% opponent shooting.  The Spurs and the Pistons? 44%.

TZ - Sactown Royalty.

Announcers/color guys in general spend too much time judging specific decisions on the court instead of giving us the full picture of what's going on. Columnists, I think, try to paint broad strokes with every piece - they never discuss the minor players or the little trends, it's always "This team is on the way down" three times a week. Maybe I'm just bitter, though.

[Editor's Note: Exhibit A of the last point]

Team rebound margin is useless without knowing how many shots have been missed by each team, so I cringe every time that's brought up. Rebounds in general are less important than analysts make them seem - shooting is much more important. Having the top scoring night is way overblown, especially if it's Ron Artest with 23 on 5-22 shooting. I cannot stand "fastbreak points" or "points off turnovers" or "points in the paint" or "second-chance points" - these numbers are useless to me.

Efficiency is clearly the most important measurable - score efficiently on your possessions and make your opponent waste possessions. Shooting and shooting defense are the most important factors, followed by rebound percents (offensive and defensive), turnovers, and free throw drawing (and making). All the box score stats help define these, except shooting defense, which is largely a mystery. (Blocks help, but they are so few that there's a huge void in this sector.) If someone figures out how to measure shooting defense at the individual level, they will rule the world.

Dave - Blazers Edge.

Some combination of size and speed is important.  Generally you can't have too many players that rely on one or the other [Editor's Note: Like Arenas, Jamison, and Butler].  A definitive style, whatever that may be in the case of each team, is also underrated.  There are a lot of teams out there that have good players that don't fit together at all.  Some kind of superstar-level talent to focus/build around also seems critical in the modern NBA.

If you're talking measurable stats then the one that's indicative year after year, era after era is point differential.  Taken in isolation points scored and points allowed don't mean much because they're affected by the style you play.  But whatever style they employ the elite teams always have a high positive point differential at the end of the year.  Usually this even trumps record as an indicator of who's good and who's pretending.

Matt - Blog-A-Bull.

I don't know if this applies to teams other than the Bulls, but they point out the 'bench scoring' all the time. And of course when the Bulls had their best scorer, Ben Gordon, on the bench, and a team with no players getting over 35 minutes, the bench is going to score a lot of points. Does it correlate to winning though? Even worse was when Gordon eventually did get in the starting lineup, and then Bulls fans had to hear how the bench scoring will suffer because of it. What the hell does that mean?

I like teams with high FTAs as an indicator of good offense. It shows that the team not settling and going to the basket, and even if they shoot poorly while at the line (which can happen from game-to-game) if they get there enough it won't matter.

ClipperSteve - Clips Nation.

I dislike the tendency to backwards engineer statistics to fit conventional wisdom as opposed to actually watching the game and analyzing what's happening.  (Don't get me wrong - statistics are crucial at the macro level, but they are often overwrought in individual games.)  For instance, sometimes a high shooting percentage is relective of poor defense by the opponent and sometimes a high shooting percentage means a team got really, really hot, despite good defense.  The tendency is to say "They need to play better defense - they can't allow them to shoot 55% all game" when in fact the defense has been fine, but the offense made a lot of tough shots.

I do think that the NBA went a little overboard with defense and athletes in the last decade and forgot that you also have to be able to shoot the ball. If I were a GM, I'd put shooters on the floor.  The pendulum is of course in the process of swinging back over these last couple of seasons, and I couldn't be happier.  The NBA needs more Jason Kapono's and fewer Stromile Swifts.

Cornrows - Indy Cornrows.

It drives me nuts when a coach gets heavily praised during a win streak and then blamed for everything during a losing streak. The NBA is a players league. There are several variables that go into winning or losing a game.  Coaching can make a difference and is certainly a variable, but if there are injuries to key players at key times it doesn't change the coaches ability.
If a team is running flawlessly on the offense and ending possession after possession with open shots, how is the coaching any different if those shots go in and the team wins or they catch iron and the team loses?

Interior defense and outside shooting combined with a 'go to' scorer or two.  The 'go to' scorer may be a painful cliche for some, but I have plenty of evidence to support the need. Nothing kills a team's spirit more than getting a needed defensive stop and then coming up empty on the following offensive possession. It is one thing to make shots in the first half, but championship teams usually have a player or two who everyone knows is going to take a shot in the last two minutes and who more often than not will make that shot. I'm sure this flies in the face of statistical analysis (clutch shooting), but let me tell you, the Pacers don't have one player who is both willing and able to hit a game winner from outside of 15 feet and it has been the difference in several games this year.

Pradamaster - Bullets Forever.

I don't have much to add to those responses.  I agree with pretty much everything said, especially Dan's point about the deceiving nature of "points allowed" and TZ's point about efficiency.  

One thing that was hinted at, but not disucssed, was the fallacy of clutchness.  I detest the use of this phrase, because there is no data indicating that consistently winning close games is a skill.  Otherwise, you'd see teams finish with similar records in close games year after year.  

For example, last year, the Wizards really struggled in close games, but this year, with all the same personnel, they're thriving.  One could say that there's a difference in mindset from this year to last year, but it really is mostly just a case of the Wizards getting lucky.  We remember Gilbert Arenas' game-winning shot against Milwaukee, but on the previous posession, Charlie Bell had a wide-open three pointer for the lead.  He makes that shot most of the time, but missed in then.  In the one-point win over the Knicks, the referees missed Caron Butler camping out in the lane for 5 seconds on his game-winning dunk.

Playing close games means that every play matters more.  A change in any play at any point will decide the outcome.  Since there are so many times over the course of a game where luck factors in (e.g. when a player hits an impossible shot, or when the referees miss a call), close games can always go either way.  

Also, defining a player as "clutch" really bothers me.  We have a tendency to classify players very early on as "clutch" or "unclutch," and then we have a selective memory.  There are many times Michael Jordan missed a game-winning shot, and there are many times LeBron James hits a game-winning shot, but one is defined as clutch and the other isn't.  The fact is, clutchness is mostly a factor of luck.

The other thing is that the best teams are ones that create a system and find players that fit it.  Phoenix is a perfect example; they draft and sign guys that are suited for an up-tempo game.  Pure talent is not as important as fitting into a greater system, which explains how some players can thrive in one location and stink in another.  Those teams that have a direction and stay committed to it are ultimately the ones that are very successful.

So now, post what you think.  What metrics are overrated, and what metrics are actually important?  

Also, be sure to check out all these blogs.  They really are fantastic.