NBA Saturday: Exploring The NBA’s Two Best Teams
Basketball Insiders takes a look at how the Golden State Warriors and Atlanta Hawks have become the NBA’s two best teams … Anthony Davis shocks the Thunder with a game-winning three-pointer.
Last night, the NBA’s two best teams met head-to-head in Atlanta. The Atlanta Hawks had recently come off of a 19-game winning streak, while the Golden State Warriors had won 16 of their last 19 games. The Hawks were too much for the Warriors on Friday night, winning by a final score of 124-116.
Entering this season, most analysts and fans assumed that the elite teams would be the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, Cleveland Cavaliers, Los Angeles Clippers and Chicago Bulls, among a few others. Instead, the Warriors and Hawks have been a cut above the rest of the league. To see how exactly both of these franchises have become the best two teams this season, we will look to some offensive and defensive statistical measures.
Here is how both teams stack up by the numbers:
The Warriors have the third best offense in the league (113 points per 100 possessions) and the number one defense (101 points per 100 possessions), which is good for a net rating of 12, according to nyloncalculus.com. It’s one thing to have a top ten offense and defense, but what is really impressive is that the Warriors are so good defensively while playing at the league’s highest pace (98.2). As Tom Haberstroh of ESPN (Insider) pointed out on Wedensday, the Warriors are on pace to be the first and only team in the modern NBA (dating back to 1979 when the three-point line was implemented) to rank number one in pace and defensive rating.
Ever since the mid-2000 run-and-gun Phoenix Suns teams failed to win a championship, there has been a prevalent perception that high-pace, three-point shooting teams can’t win at the highest level. However, this year’s Warriors team is proof that this belief is not necessarily true. As Adam Mares of nyloncalculus.com points out, five of the last 10 NBA champions were top-10 in regular season three-point attempt rate and two were top five. In addition, eight of the top ten offenses this season also rank in the top ten in percentage of points scored on three-point field goals per game (the two exceptions being the Houston Rockets and Detroit Pistons).
Some people criticize the Warriors for relying on jump-shooting too much, which could limit their potential to make a deep playoff run (Charles Barkley being one such critic). The Memphis Grizzlies, with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol in the frontcourt, are rightfully considered by many to be the gold standard in post play. However, not many people would guess that the Warriors are in fact third in points scored in the paint per game this season (46.1), just behind the Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans.
Here are this season’s shooting charts from the Grizzlies and Warriors to illustrate how effectively Golden State is scoring in the lane this season.
Golden State Warriors’ 2014-15 Shooting Chart
Memphis Grizzlies’ 2014-15 Shooting Chart
(Shooting Charts Courtesy of Statmuse.com/nba)
Sure, the Warriors are ranked third in percentage of points scored on three-point field goals per game, but when you have guys like Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, your team should be launching three-pointers as often as possible (especially with a second best three-point percentage of 38.8 percent). Despite Barkley’s cynical view of jump-shooting teams, he should find solace in the fact that the Warriors also score plenty of points near the rim as well.
There was a sizable group of people who disagreed with the firing of Mark Jackson last offseason. He helped the Warriors become a top defensive team and helped develop a gritty identity for Golden State. However, Jackson had a heavy preference for iso-ball, trying to exploit favorable match-ups at the expense of passing and off-ball movement. Last season, under Jackson, the Warriors were 12th in assist percentage, whereas this season, under Steve Kerr, the Warriors are second in assist percentage. Also, just as importantly, the Warriors lead the league in the points off of turnovers per game (19.5), showing that a big portion of the team’s offense comes as a direct result of its strong defense, a carry over from Jackson’s tenure.
Speaking of defense, the Warriors have been so effective on this side of the ball this season because of the versatility of their wing-players.
“The Warriors have multiple Swiss Army knives on the roster,” one longtime NBA scout told ESPN (Insider). “Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson have no problem guarding three or four positions seamlessly. And it’s brutal to go against.”
With a group of solid wing-defenders that can aggressively switch on pick-and-rolls, the Warriors hold opponents to a league-low 46.5 percent effective field goal percentage. In addition, Andrew Bogut—when healthy—is one of the elite rim protectors in the NBA and is currently rated fifth in opponent field goal percentage allowed at the rim (41.7 percent), and second in points saved per 36 minutes (3.23), according to nyloncalculus.com.
In summary, these Warriors are the real deal. They hit three-pointers at a high-rate, score in the paint, pass the ball as well as any team in the league, score easy buckets off of forced turnovers and still manage to maintain a league best defensive rating despite leading the league in pace, which is unprecedented.
The Hawks are in a lot of ways similar to the Warriors. They have the fifth best offense in the league (111.1 points per 100 possessions) and the fifth best defense (103.6 points per 100 possessions), which is good for a 7.5 net rating. They are third in the league in percentage of points scored off three-point field goals (28.6), first in three-point percentage (39.1), sixth in points off turnovers per game (18.1) and first in assist percentage (68.1).
However, there are some notable differences between the Hawks and Warriors as well. Unlike the Warriors, the Hawks only score 41.2 points in the paint per game, which is the tenth lowest average in the league. Also, the way in which the Hawks take and make three-pointers is different. Without a player like Curry who can launch three-pointers effectively off the dribble, the Hawks rely on exceptional ball-movement to hit shots from beyond-the-arc. This is why 92.1 percent of the Hawks’ made three-pointers are assisted (first in the league), whereas the Warriors assist on just 81.3 percent of their three-pointers (19th). Also, unlike the Warriors, the Hawks are ranked seventeenth in pace (92.7).
Defensively, the Hawks don’t have the same type of versatility as the Warriors, however, they protect the paint well by allowing opponents to score just 39.6 points in the paint per game (sixth lowest total in the league). However, neither Al Horford or Paul Millsap can compare to Bogut in terms of rim protection, but this isn’t a huge deal since the Hawks manage to keep opponents from scoring a lot of points in the painted area. Also, the Hawks hold opponents to just 33.7 percent from beyond-the-arc, which like Golden State, ranks in the top-10.
What we can see from these statistics is that the Warriors and Hawks have become elite through a combination of effective ball-movement, three-point shooting, interior scoring, points off turnovers and aggressive defense that limits opponents’ shooting efficiency from beyond-the-arc and in the paint. While the Warriors are on track to make history with a league leading pace and defensive rating, the Hawks are clawing through opponents with a cohesive offensive attack that often features five or more players scoring in double figures.
Friday night’s match in Atlanta very well may have been a preview of the NBA Finals. Considering how well both of these teams have played this season, that’s a match-up every NBA fan should be excited to watch.
Anthony Davis Hits Buzzer Beater in Oklahoma City
In late November, we covered whether the Oklahoma City Thunder could still make the playoffs after a slow start to the season because of injuries to Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Based on the Thunder’s win percentage from last season (in games in which both Westbrook and Durant played), and the competition for the final playoff spot in the West, it appeared as though the margin for error was very narrow for Oklahoma City.
A little over two months later and Oklahoma City is still three games out of the eighth and final playoff spot after Anthony Davis hit an improbable three-pointer as time expired to put away the Thunder on Friday night.
Davis contributed 41 points, 10 rebounds, three assists, and two blocks in the win. Davis’ game-winning shot also happened to be his first made three-pointer since March 3, 2014. It was also just Davis’ third career three-pointer in twenty-four attempts.
Russell Westbrook did everything he could stop the Pelicans from taking the crucial win in Oklahoma City, contributing a career-high 48 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds. This is the second game in a row against the Pelicans that Westbrook has scored 45 points or more, showing that he is aware of how crucial each game against New Orleans is at this point (the Pelicans are currently two games ahead of the Thunder in the standings).
Davis and Westbrook put on incredible performances for their teams, but it was Davis who walked away with the win. Davis is quickly developing into the game’s best overall player at the young age of 21. It’s scary to imagine just how good Davis will be once he enters his prime and expands his shot to the three-point line.
At 25-25, the Thunder have 32 games to close the gap with the eighth place Phoenix Suns, who are 5-5 in their last ten games. The margin for error for Oklahoma City was slim in late November and with Durant continually missing games because of a lingering toe injury, the Thunder can’t afford many more heartbreaking losses like yesterday’s.
The Thunder next take on the Los Angeles Clippers at home on Sunday.
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