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December 4, 2012
Graphing the NBA

by Kevin Pelton


A few weeks ago, I organized NBA teams graphically to take a look at how they were playing early in the season. I've decided to make this a regular feature and something I consider on a monthly basis until the ratings settle down. Here's this month's update, through Sunday's games.

The X axis has Offensive Rating and the Y axis has Defensive Rating. There are four quadrants, separated by league average (105.9). 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.

One interesting observation is that there is much more spread in terms of Offensive Rating thus far. Three teams--the Miami Heat, New York Knicks and Oklahoma City Thunder--have separated themselves from the pack. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Washington Wizards have been far worse at scoring than anyone else in the league. By contrast, there is not nearly as much separation in terms of Defensive Rating. I'm not sure how much of this is a product of the early season. Surely the Wizards will get better with Nene healthy and John Wall due back to the lineup at some point. In general, the standard deviation for Offensive Rating is slightly higher than for Defensive Rating, though this tends to vary from season to season.

Thirteen teams--nearly half the league--have changed quadrants from the last time we looked at this chart. These changes almost exclusively involve teams average or worse. Just one team--the Brooklyn Nets--has moved into Quadrant III (good offense, good defense), and no team has left this group. The most common changes are teams slipping from above average to below average on offense while staying below average on defense (Charlotte, Dallas and Portland), slipping on defense while staying bad on offense (New Orleans, Sacramento and Washington) going from defensive-minded to offensive-minded (Denver, Houston and Utah).

Again, let's take a closer look at each quadrant:

Quadrant I (upper left) - bad offense, bad defense
The good news here is that there is no longer any one team far worse than the rest of the league thanks to the Detroit Pistons' massive defensive improvement over the last three weeks. Instead, there are four contenders for that dubious honor in terms of efficiency differential: the Cleveland Cavaliers, New Orleans Hornets (who probably played their way out of this group with their blowout win over Milwaukee Monday), Sacramento Kings and Washington Wizards. The Wizards, because of their combination of average defensive and pitiful offense, are unlike anyone else in the league. That's actually probably something of a good sign because the offense can only go up with Nene and Wall, while the defense should not suffer.

New Orleans, Phoenix and Portland are all a little closer than the map indicates because of the need to show all three teams, though in ascending quality; the Blazers are a bit better at both ends than the Suns, who are a bit better than the Hornets--at least before Monday.

This quadrant contains only one legitimate playoff aspirant: the Dallas Mavericks, who have to hope Dirk Nowitzki's return will carry them over into Quadrant II.

Quadrant II (upper right) - good offense, bad defense
The Heat has come back to the rest of the league a bit, scoring less frequently but also defending better. Still, Miami is playing a game unlike any other NBA team. They now have little company in this quadrant, which otherwise consists almost entirely of West teams that were previously defensive-minded. The exception is Boston, which technically slots into this quadrant but has been far and away the most average team in the NBA this season.

Quadrant III (bottom right) - good offense, good defense
New York isn't dominating this group like the last time we checked in, but the Knicks are still among the elite and now profile as similar to the Heat and the Thunder, last year's two Finalists. Of the league's top teams, the Memphis Grizzlies--tops in schedule-adjusted point differential--are the most defensive-minded, leading the league in points allowed per 100 possessions while rating just above average on offense.

The Nets have been surprisingly stout on defense recently, which has moved them into this quadrant as contenders in the East. The group is rounded out by three offensive-minded West teams. San Antonio is 14-4; the L.A. Clippers are 11-6. The L.A. Lakers, despite their similar ratings, are 8-9. While this analysis doesn't consider schedule strength whatsoever, this is additional evidence that the Lakers are better than their record indicates.

Quadrant IV (bottom left) - bad offense, good defense
For whatever reason, there are many more defensive-minded teams near average (eight) than offensive-minded ones (five) this season. The East has three teams (Chicago, Indiana, Philadelphia) that have used elite defensive to overcome injuries to star players and stay in the playoff race, while something similar applies to the Minnesota Timberwolves in the West.

The Atlanta Hawks are an interesting case. The Hawks' record so far mirrors SCHOENE's lofty projection for them, but they've gotten there in a different fashion than expected. Atlanta's offense hasn't been especially potent, but the Hawks rank among the league's top defenses, making them the best team in this group so far.

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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