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March 30, 2010
Balancing Act
Do extreme teams win at playoff time?

by Bradford Doolittle

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In the first round of the NCAA Tournament, a lot of amateur bracketologists were fooled by the Florida State-Gonzaga game, especially those that pay attention to tempo-free data. The Seminoles stand at No. 24 in the Pomeroy rankings, while the Zags clock in at No. 57. The matchup was an 8 vs. 9 game, with FSU getting the worse seed, but it seemed like good bet for a mild upset. However, whereas the Zags were relatively balanced (No. 47 nationally on offense; No. 66 on defense), the Seminoles were all defense (No. 129 on offense, No. 1 on defense). The thinking of those picking FSU was that a dominant defense would surely trump Gonzaga's balanced-but-mediocre units.

Then the game started.

Florida State went 6-of-28 from the floor in the first half and fell behind 35-19. The Noles were 1-of-9 from three-point range. All across Twitterverse, people were swearing never to pick another team so reliant on one end of floor. Florida State smoothed out its offense in the second half and actually made a game of it, but fell short and Gonzaga moved on to the second round. The lingering question remains: Do extremely unbalanced teams fair better or worse than their more equanimous counterparts when it comes to the postseason?

While it was a college game that spurred this inquiry, we're going to approach it from an NBA perspective and try to apply any findings to potential matchups in the upcoming postseason. Perhaps next March we'll revisit the subject for the college ranks.

How do we define balanced? Since this is a jumping-off point for a navel-gazing exercise, let's keep it simple. Using my post-ABA/NBA merger database of 870 teams through the end of last season, let's divide teams whose league ranks in offense and defense are less than seven places apart. Why seven? Making that the dividing line gives us 425 balanced teams and 445 unbalanced. That's as close to an even split as we're going to get. Let's look at some characteristics of these two groups.

Group       #Tm   Win%   Playoffs  Titles   Finals
6 or less   425   .489     221       20       35
7 or more   445   .510     279       13       31

As a general rule, teams that are less balanced have won more in the regular season, but the balanced squads have done better in the playoffs. In the regular season, if a team has that big of a gap between its offense and defense, it means that they probably were competent at least one or the other. However, a good number of the teams we're defining as "balanced" may simply have sucked at both ends of the court. With more regular season success, the unbalanced teams have accounted for more playoff spots. But with the "suck at both" teams filtered out, the balanced teams have won more titles.

Now, let's look at just the unbalanced teams.

Group  TM    r%    p%   PO%   TI%   FN%
25-27   9  .542  .433  .444  .000  .000
22-24  17  .521  .526  .647  .000  .091
19-21  32  .517  .439  .688  .045  .045
16-18  65  .516  .438  .662  .023  .047
13-15  85  .516  .494  .647  .055  .164
10-12 108  .496  .476  .602  .015  .077
7-9   129  .511  .507  .612  .089  .165
KEY: 
r%--regular season winning percentage
p%--playoff winning percentge
PO%--% of teams in group to make playoffs
TI%--% of playoff teams in group to win title
FN%--% of playoffs teams in group to make Finals

If you rub your eyes and look real hard, you might see some trends here. In the r% column, the extreme teams seem to win at a little better clip, probably for the same reasons I mentioned above. However, once in the playoffs, the balanced teams seem to fare better both in terms of winning percentage, titles won and Finals appearances. The performance of the 10-12 group unfortunately skews what could have been some nicely smooth slopes in the data. Still, it does seem like extreme splits between offensive and defensive ranking don't bode well for a team's title chances.

The most extreme team to have won a title in the post-ABA era was the 2000-01 Lakers, who finished second in Offensive Rating but limped in at 21st in Defensive Rating. Nevertheless, the Lakers went 56-26, landed the No. 2 seed in the West, then ripped through the bracket with a 15-1 postseason record. That was the second of the three Kobe/Shaq title teams, a group known for turning up the intensity volume once the playoffs began. That team was heavily tilted towards the offensive end, but is that typical for unbalanced teams that win titles?

Year     Team        Off  Def  Bal
2000-01  Lakers        2   21   19
1993-94  Rockets      20    3   17
1978-79  SuperSonics  14    1   13
1998-99  Spurs        14    1   13
2003-04  Pistons      15    2   13
1989-90  Pistons      11    1   10
1979-80  Lakers        1   10    9
1981-82  Lakers        2   11    9
2007-08  Celtics      10    1    9
2004-05  Spurs         9    1    8
1984-85  Lakers        1    8    7
1986-87  Lakers        1    8    7
1987-88  Lakers        2    9    7

It's typical for unbalanced Lakers teams to be skewed towards the offense. All six offensive teams on the list are accounted for by various incarnations of Laker champions, five of them Magic Johnson-led Showtime teams from the 1980s. The other seven were all top-three defensive teams. What really stands out is that nine of the teams led the league in one category or the other, three others were in the top two and the '94 Rockets were third on defense. The lesson? If you're going to favor one end of the floor, you better be pretty damned close to best in the league if you want to win a ring.

Will any of this apply to this year's postseason? Here are the 17 teams that still have a realistic chance of getting into the playoffs:

Team      Off   Def   Bal
Suns        1    24    23
Raptors     8    30    22
Bobcats    24     3    21
Bulls      28    11    17
Bucks      23     6    17
Nuggets     3    17    14
Celtics    14     1    13
Hawks       4    15    11
Heat       18     7    11
Thunder    15     4    11
Blazers     5    13     8
-------------------------
Cavaliers   2     8     6
Lakers     11     5     6
Magic       6     2     4
Jazz        7    10     3
Mavericks  10    12     2
Spurs       9     9     0

The Suns are the best in the league at something (offense) but no team has won a title with such a heavy tilt towards one end of the floor. The Celtics fit the exact profile of the '79 Sonics and the '99 Spurs, though the competition is considerably more fierce this season than it was in the NBA during those two campaigns. The three title favorites are all safely inside our arbitrary threshold of balanced teams, though the Lakers are on a bit of thin ice. They seem to be pretty well slotted as the No 11 offensive team. However, their defense is neck-and-neck with the Thunder for No. 4. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, if they pass Oklahoma City in the defensive rankings, the Lakers would then slip into the unbalanced category. However, neither of the Lakers' rankings would be at the top of the league, or even the top three, which means they wouldn't fit the criteria of any of our 13 unbalanced champions.

Is that reason enough for Phil Jackson to soften up his defense to make sure his team doesn't pass the Thunder? Uh, no. Like I mentioned, this is one of those navel-gazing exercises that I love to put together. I find it interesting enough, but the general conclusion is anything but shocking: It's good to have offensive/defensive balance. Balance is good. Wasn't that the theme of "The Karate Kid"?

You can follow Bradford on Twitter at twitter.com/@bbdoolittle.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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