Blake Kennedy is a basketball coach and official with an appreciation for the burgeoning field of NBA statistical analysis. He has used those tools to inform fans as well as to consult other high school coaches in establishing statistical methods for their own programs. You can read more of his work at The Hoops Institute blog and he’s on Twitter @BorisDK1.
There really are only four factors in winning a basketball game, from a team perspective. For all the things that game commentators like to point to, a team’s performance in regards to winning is fairly easy to identify. In his book Basketball on Paper, Dean Oliver identifies these four factors: effective field goal percentage (eFG%) differential (which is to say, one team’s eFG% less the other team’s), offensive rebounding percentage (ORB%) differential, turnover percentage (TO%) differential and Free Throw Rate (FT/FGA) differential. To borrow a kitchen idea, when you reduce down the game of basketball to its final sauce, these are the ingredients which are going to define it.
Some of those four factors are more important than others. eFG% differential is the most important, historically. TO% and ORB% differential seem tied for second place in terms of importance, and Free Throw Rate differential brings up the rear — but is still very, very crucial in terms of winning.
Basically, a team which desires to be successful should be as balanced as possible throughout the Four Factors. On occasion, a team might be successful while being “tilted” away from or towards one aspect of the game; the 2010 Boston Celtics were a poor rebounding team, and they came within one game of winning a championship – and lost that game because the Lakers pounded them on the offensive glass, grabbing 41.8% of the available offensive rebounds to Boston’s 21.1%. In other words, even for great teams, imbalance is eventually likely to catch up with you even when you do everything else quite well.
This brings me to our point of interest: the 2011-12 Toronto Raptors. True, we’re only five games into the schedule at the time of this writing and there’s a lot of basketball left to be played. However, up until now a distinct trend has been forming: the Toronto Raptors are, apparently, “punting” (for lack of a better term) their offensive rebounding. They currently sit last in the NBA in ORB% (.198), and 25th in ORB% differential (-.028) – and that includes the first game, in which they blitzed Cleveland on the offensive boards. Last year, the Raptors were the eighth-ranked offensive rebounding team, so there has been a definite slip.
What are the reasons for this? Well, obviously Coach Casey wants the team to get back deeper and sooner in transition defense; he obviously (and rightly) has little faith in the ability of his starting point guard in particular to control and then stop the ball in transition. Since he has chosen to send three players as what coaches call “tailbacks” in transition (as in, “get your tail back as soon as the shot goes up”) and another as a “halfback” (“get halfway back when the shot goes up”) that leaves one player really attempting to contest the offensive boards. However, there are other ways of doing transition defense than abandoning the offensive boards entirely — Casey has likely resigned himself to the idea that his personnel dictates this approach, given probabilities of success.
That one person has largely been Amir Johnson, who has faced constant double-teams in rebounding action. That’s been a wise move for the defenders, since Amir and Ed Davis are among the best offensive rebounders in the game. This same dilemma has faced the other bigs the Raptors have brought into the game — they face defensive attention and cannot really get on the offensive boards. This has devastated the Raptors’ offensive rebounding presence.
The other part of that equation is Andrea Bargnani. We don’t need to elaborate on Bargnani’s poor rebounding, since it’s a known fact. But this year it’s worse — he’s grabbing only 0.7 percent of the available offensive rebounds. To put that in perspective, Jose Calderon is currently grabbing 3.5 times more offensive rebounds than Bargnani is. Obviously, that’s unacceptable.
It would seem unlikely that the Raptors are going to have much long-term success as long as this condition persists. They will need to ask themselves some hard questions over the coming months about the odds of sustainable winning with the assets they currently enjoy, or whether they should consider making some changes – changes which I’m convinced are necessary to prevent this team from simply being fundamentally uncompetitive.