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April 13, 2012
Trading Places
Bucks and Knicks Switch Identities

by Dan Feldman

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About a month ago, I participated in a roundtable discussion in which we picked the teams that would make the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, essentially choosing the Knicks or the Bucks. J.M. Poulard of Warriors World gave this rationale:

When in doubt, always pick the teams that defend better, because they give themselves chances to stay in games late.

So, of course, he picked the Knicks.

Contrary to perception, New York is a defensive juggernaut and Milwaukee's specialty is offense.

The Knicks' defense has certainly improved under Mike Woodson, but they were already a defense-first team before his hire. Tyson Chandler has anchored an entire-team turnaround. What's just as surprising is that as much as New York's defense has improved, its offense has regressed nearly as much.

Last year, the Knicks ranked seventh in Offensive Rating and 22nd in Defensive Rating. This year, the Knicks rank 21st in Offensive Rating and fourth in Defensive Rating.

Last year, the Knicks won 42 games. This year, the Knicks are on pace to win 42 games over an 82-game schedule.

That's a stunning identity reversal--one of the most dramatic in NBA history. It would be even more remarkable if another team weren't going through an even more substantial reversal.

Milwaukee, New York's playoff-race foe, has essentially done the opposite. Last year, the Bucks ranked last in Offensive Rating and fourth in Defensive Rating. This year, they're 12th in Offensive Rating and 17th in Defensive Rating.

But unlike the Knicks, Milwaukee's style switch has led to better play. The Bucks are on pace to win 40 games over an 82-game schedule this year, up from 35 a year ago.

To measure whether a team's offense or defense is better, I'm comparing how many points better its Offensive Rating is than league average relative to how many points better its Defensive Rating is than league average--which I'll call relative Offensive Rating and Relative Defensive Rating.

  • Knicks' 2012 Offensive Rating: 1.5 points worse than league average
  • Knicks' 2012 Defensive Rating: 4.1 points better than league average
  • Knicks' 2011 Offensive Rating: 3.7 points better than league average
  • Knicks' 2011 Defensive Rating: 2.9 points worse than league average

That's a net change of 12.2 points.

  • Bucks' 2012 Offensive Rating: 1.3 points better than league average
  • Bucks' 2012 Defensive Rating: 0.7 points worse than league average
  • Bucks' 2011 Offensive Rating: 5.6 points worse than league average
  • Bucks' 2011 Defensive Rating: 4.7 points better than league average

That's a net change of 12.3 points.

Since 1973-74, when the NBA began tracking the stats necessary to estimate number of possession, 299 teams have gone from being better offensively to being better defensively--or vice versa--in a single season. Just four have had a greater magnitude of change than this year's Knicks and Bucks.

Teams are identified by their current initials (e.g., all Seattle teams are OKC). Red signifies a change toward defense, and green signifies a change toward offense.

As you can see, Carmelo Anthony had already been part of team that completely altered its style. A year after becoming more defensively focused (or more accurately, a year after their offense fell off a cliff), the Nuggets became a better offensive team than defensive team during Melo's rookie season.

It's not difficult to imagine Anthony again being part of a team with back-to-back reversals. If the Knicks don't keep Mike Woodson and/or Chandler suffers another injury, New York will likely, once again, be the team of Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire. That sounds like an offense-first team to me.

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

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