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November 12, 2012
Graphing the NBA
Early Ratings

by Kevin Pelton

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Sometimes, statistics make most sense graphically. In that spirit, I decided to take a look at the landscape of the NBA a week and a half into the 2012-13 season by graphing teams' Offensive and Defensive Ratings through Saturday to get an early picture of how they are playing. Take a look:

The X axis has Offensive Rating and the Y axis has Defensive Rating. There are four quadrants, separated by league average. The upper left is the league's worst teams, those that are below average in both categories. The upper right has high-scoring teams with better offenses than defenses. The bottom right is the league's best teams, those with above-average performances in both categories. And the bottom left has defensive-minded teams. You can also track overall team performance based on the distance from the diagonal line, which represents identical play on both ends of the floor. Let's take a closer look at each quadrant for some preliminary observations.

Quadrant I (upper left) - bad offense, bad defense
So far, the Detroit Pistons have been far and away the league's worst team, which might have been evident from their 0-7 record. That understates how much better the Pistons have been than the 0-5 Wizards, who are actually above average defensively. Detroit has struggled to score and hasn't stopped anyone, ranking 29th in the NBA in Defensive Rating. The Pistons shouldn't be quite this bad, and a chance to return home this week after a grueling six-game road trip figures to help matters.

Besides the lottery-bound teams, there's a group of three East squads who have played nearly identical basketball thus far--the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors. The drama on the other end of the Boston-L.A. rivalry has overshadowed a middling start for the Celtics, who aren't defending with anything resembling their usual tenacity. It's too early to tell how much of that is noise and how much reflects the team's lack of quality help defense when Kevin Garnett is on the bench. Milwaukee and Toronto are instructive in how much fortune can play a role early in the season. Despite similar play at both ends, the Bucks are 3-2 while the Raptors sit 13th in the East at 1-5.

Quadrant 2 (upper right) - good offense, bad defense
While this doesn't include Sunday's loss at Memphis, the Miami Heat is still one of the league's two biggest outliers, having scored at a historic rate while playing only average defense. Basically, the trends we saw in the season opener have held up. If Miami continues to struggle defensively, it will be interesting to see whether Erik Spoelstra alters his lineup to give more minutes to big men or sticks with his shooters given the team's overall success. I'll admit I'm kind of rooting for the latter because it would be so interesting to see the Heat try to defy the middling postseason history of offensive-minded teams.

First-year head coach Mike Dunlap figured to help the Charlotte Bobcats more on the defensive end than on offense, especially when the team drafted defensive-minded Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in the first round. Alas, Kemba Walker's strong play has given Charlotte an above-average offense while the team can't stop anyone. The Bobcats are 28th in opponents' effective field-goal percentage and also defensive rebounding, which should be more of a strength. Consider Portland a less extreme version of Charlotte, though the Blazers' defensive woes are far more predictable.

Quadrant 3 (bottom right) - good offense, good defense
The NBA's other outlier is, of course, the New York Knicks. Lost in New York's fluky start beyond the arc has been the team's lockdown defense. Only the Chicago Bulls are surrendering fewer points per 100 possessions. Opponents are making just 42.6 percent of their two-point tries against the Knicks, who also lead the league in both forcing and avoiding turnovers. (Consider them the anti-Lakers, in more ways than one.)

I'm tremendously amused that, even before Sunday's blowout over Sacramento, the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs were playing at a similar level on both ends. Yet San Antonio leads the conference while the Lakers are searching for a new head coach. Sure, that's predicated on a couple of strong games against weak opponents, but studies have shown time and again the meaning to be found in such performances. Mike Brown, by the way, is probably not nearly so amused by this fact.

Besides the Knicks, the other noteworthy new blood in this royalty quadrant comes from last year's 4-5 first-round matchup in the West. The Los Angeles Clippers have enough wins on national TV to draw plenty of attention for their strong start. The Memphis Grizzlies' moment in the sun is coming after their win over the Heat. Again, these stats don't reflect that game but still show the Grizzlies as one of three teams to rank in the top 10 on a per-possession basis at both ends of the floor. An upgraded bench may help Memphis reach the next level.

Quadrant 4 (bottom left) - bad offense, good defense
Seven of the 10 teams in this quadrant, usually the province of grind-it-out East teams, come instead from the Western Conference. Many of them have played strongly against type. It's been years since the Golden State Warriors or Sacramento Kings have defended this well. Based on personnel, the Warriors seem more likely to keep it up, at least as long as Andrew Bogut can stay on the floor.

The cluster of three Northwest Division teams probably hoped to be closer to Quadrant 3. Surprisingly, the Denver Nuggets have survived a poor offensive start with improved defense. The Minnesota Timberwolves have used their D to overcome injuries, though taking Chase Budinger out of the lineup with knee surgery will really stress the team's depth. And the Utah Jazz hasn't found its offensive rhythm yet either.

Lastly, some appreciation for Tom Thibodeau, who could probably mold five bloggers into an above-average defense. Despite the losses the Chicago Bulls suffered on their second unit, they're still allowing fewer pointes per 100 possessions than anyone else in the NBA and hanging in on offense, too. The Bulls look like they're going to put themselves in position to take advantage of a potential midseason Derrick Rose return.

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

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What Brown Couldn't Do (11/09)
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Poised to Break Out (11/13)

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