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What Makes an NBA Champion?

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The idea for this post came from a well-worn and hotly-debated question in post-Iverson 76ers fandom:  is it possible to win a championship in the "Superstar Era" of the NBA without a superstar?  Full disclosure: my first recollection of the NBA goes back to the 76-77 season, so my first three years following the NBA saw three balanced teams without a true superstar ('77 Blazers, '78 Bullets, '79 Sonics) win championships, while the superstars of the day (Erving, Kareem, Maravich, David Thompson, Gervin) all went ring-less.  So I have seen it happen more than younger readers of Depressed Fan, who only have the '04 Pistons as a counterexample.  But the NBA became a different game in 1980, or so the argument goes, and the Superstar era has continued unabated since then.  So what follows is an analysis of all 33 championship teams from 1980-2012 (teams are referred to by the year in which they won the title, e.g., '83 Sixers).  To make this a Sixers-centric post, I then compare the '12 Sixers to the champions, so that we can get a sense of how that team stacked up against the NBA champions and how the '13 Sixers might be better or worse.

All of the numbers below are compiled in a spreadsheet that is attached with this post.  You can sort the spreadsheet any way that you want to get a sense of how championship teams perform.  Each of the tables below is gleaned from the spreadsheet, with several statistics for each category:  MAX is the highest value attained by any champ for a category, MEAN is the average value among all champs, MIN is the lowest value, "Test" is a threshold test of interest for a given category, "Pct" is the percentage of championship teams (of the 33) that surpassed the threshold test, "PHI" is the value the '12 Sixers attained, and "Rank" is the ranking the '12 Sixers would have if grouped with the 33 championship teams (so the rank is out of 34 teams).

The first table deals with team records and individual accolades, the latter being a measure of "superstars" on a team.

Max Mean Min Test Pct PHI
WIN PCT .878 .741 .573 > .667 0.91 .530
Record Rank 10.5 2.39 1 < 6 0.94 16
MVP 1 0.39 0 > 0 0.39 0
DPOY 1 0.13 0 > 0 0.13 0
6MOY 1 0.13 0 > 0 0.13 0
All-NBA Pts 6 3.61 0 > 1 0.94 0
All-Def Pts 6 2.58 0 > 0 0.91 0
All Stars 4 2.03 0 > 0 0.97 1

The first row in the table, for example, says that 91% of championship teams won more than two-thirds of their games (55 or more wins in an 82-game season).  The '12 Sixers were well below that (only the '95 Rockets came close).  94% of champions were among the top five teams in the NBA record-wise.  As far as individual accolades, 13 of 33 champs (39%) had the league MVP on their team, but not every superstar can be the MVP.  A better measure of whether a player was a superstar in a given year is whether he made one of the All-NBA teams at the end of the year.  "All-NBA Points" awards 3 points for a first-team All-NBA selection, 2 points for a second-team, and 1 point for a third-team (note that 3rd team All-NBA selections only began in 1989).  The threshold test shows that 94% of champions had at least 2 All-NBA Points (meaning at least one second-team All-NBA selection).  The two that failed were the '89 and '90 Pistons (even the '04 Pistons had 2nd-team selection Ben Wallace).  97% of champions also had at least one All-Star, and the one that didn't ('99 Spurs) played in a year with no All-Star Game.  The '12 Sixers were not close to having an All-NBA selection (no players got any votes), and they had one All-Star whom many Sixers fans thought was undeserving.
 

The second table displays shooting statistics.

Max Mean Min Test Pct PHI Rank
FG% .545 .483 .435 > .47 0.70 .448 33
Opp. FG% .488 .448 .402 < .45 0.61 .427 7t
FG% Diff. .065 .036 .008 > 0 1.00 .021 31
3P% .403 .328 .138 > .35 0.45 .362 11
Opp. 3P% .376 .320 .216 < .33 0.55 .334 21t
3P% Diff. .084 .008 -.228 > 0 0.67 .028 11t
FT% .794 .748 .683 > .75 0.52 .742 24t
Opp. FT% .785 .749 .701 < .75 0.52 .752 19
FT% Diff. .050 -.001 -.071 > 0 0.58 -.010 23t
FGA Diff./G 7.11 -0.94 -6.74 > 0 0.36 3.24 5
FTA Diff./G 5.61 1.99 -1.10 > 0 0.91 -2.33 34
EFG% .551 .508 .461 > .50 0.67 .480 31
Opp. EFG% .493 .470 .423 <  .50 1.00 .460 24
EFG% Diff. .066 .038 .006 > 0 1.00 .020 30t
TS% .589 .550 .511 >  .53 0.88 .511 33t
Opp. TS% .539 .513 .464 < .53 0.91 .500 6t
TS% Diff. .062 .037 -.005 > 0 0.97 .011 33
FT/FGA .278 .238 .199   .161 34
Opp. FT/FGA .262 .218 .181 .192 3t
FT/FGA Diff. .070 .020 -.040 > 0 0.82 -.031 33

This table is more interesting to me than the first, because it describes how championship teams play, rather than how honored their individual players are.  There are some very strong correlations in this table:  100% of champions had a higher FG% and a higher effective FG% (taking into account both 2-point and 3-point field goals) than their opponents; the '12 Sixers did too, but they were not as dominant as most of the champions.  100% of champions kept their opponents to lower than 50% eFG%, while the champions themselves averaged 51% eFG%.  97% of champions had a higher true shooting percentage (TS%) than their opponents (taking into account field goals and free throws), with the only exception being the '93 Bulls.  So it is very clear that champions shoot more efficiently than their opponents.  Interestingly, only 67% of champions shot 3-pointers better than their opponents and only 58% shot free throws better than their opponents.

Even more interesting is the type of shots that champions take.  91% of champions took more free throws than their opponents, but only 36% had more field goal attempts than their opponents.  The '12 Sixers followed the opposite trend:  they ranked 34th (dead last by a mile) in FTA differential, but they ranked 5th in FGA differential.  We've discussed why this is the case many times on this blog:  it isn't the number of shots a team takes that matters, it's the quality of shots.  A team that gets to the line often (with a relatively small number of accompanying turnovers) will generally have a higher true shooting percentage than a team that shoots from the field more; the only exception would be if the main free throw shooters on the team shoot a lower percentage from the line than the team's eFG%.  If Dwight Howard did nothing but shoot free throws at 59% (his career percentage), he would raise his team's TS%.  Conversely, a team that has lots of field goal attempts generally gets its additional attempts from low-percentage shots (long 2s, which Brian often notes are the worst shots in the game).  The '12 Sixers managed to shoot more efficiently than their opponents because they were a decent 3-point shooting team, got a fair share of transition baskets, and defended the perimeter well; but they could have been much better had they gotten to the line more.

The third and final table displays non-shooting statistics.

Max Mean Min Test Pct PHI Rank
ORB% .371 .314 .241 > .30 0.64 .244 32
DRB% .764 .706 .662 > .70 0.52 .752 3
REB% .540 .517 .483 > .50 0.94 .497 33
AST Diff./G 6.38 2.67 -0.89 > 0 0.94 2.42 19
STL Diff./G  2.30 0.15 -1.51 > 0 0.52 2.05 3
BLK Diff./G 2.96 1.24 -0.12 > 0 0.94 0.36 30
TOV% .165 .139 .118 .109 1
Opp. TOV% .161 .141 .122 .135 24
TOV% Diff. .034 .002 -.025 > 0 0.52 .026 3
AST:TOV 2.09 1.61 1.24 > 1.5 0.70 1.97 2
ORtg Rank 18 6 1 < 11 0.85 20 34
DRtg Rank 21 5 1 < 11 0.94 3 11t
Rtg Diff. 13.4 7.3 2.3 > 5 0.82 4.7 28t
PPG Diff. 12.3 6.9 2.1 > 5 0.79 4.2 30t

The rebounding categories are a little misleading.  The NBA has evolved over the years such that offensive rebounding has decreased and defensive rebounding has increased.  So while the Sixers' 75.2% defensive rebounding rate looks good (only 2 champions have done better), their overall rebounding rate ranked 33rd, with only the '95 Rockets worse.  94% of champions had a greater than 50% rebounding rate, the only exceptions being the '94 and '95 Rockets.  Interestingly, 94% of champions also had positive assists/game and blocks/game differentials, but only 52% of champions had positive steals/game and turnovers/game differentials.  Again, the '12 Sixers had the opposite trends:  they were relatively weak (compared to champions) in assist and block differential (though both numbers were positive) and relatively strong in steals and turnover differential.  As is fairly well known, the '12 Sixers had the best (lowest) turnover percentage in history, so they ranked #1 in TOV% and #3 in TOV% differential.  The '12 Sixers also ranked #2 in assist-to-turnover ratio (only the '92 Bulls were higher).  The low turnover rate, however, only enabled the '12 Sixers to rank 20th in the league in Team Offensive Rating, that placing being dead last (no champion finished lower than 18th in their league in Offensive Rating).  The '12 Sixers were able to obtain a +4.2 PPG differential, but that only ranked in a tie for 30th among the champions.

So what are some overall conclusions?
  • There is a strong correlation between superstars and champions in the Superstar Era, if we define superstars using either All-NBA selections or All-Stars selections as the criterion.
  • There is an even stronger correlation between champions and efficient shooting.  And efficient shooting almost always means getting to the line more often than one's opponents.  Attempting more field goals than opponents has a negative correlation to championship teams (more champions than not attempt fewer FGs than their opponents).
  • Champions almost always obtain more rebounds, assists, and blocks than their opponents, with weaker correlations for more steals and fewer turnovers.
  • The '12 Sixers achieved more efficient shooting than their opponents, but they did it in unconventional ways (decent 3-point pct., relatively large number of fastbreak shots), and their Team Offensive Rating was mediocre despite their historically low turnover rate.
  • The '13 Sixers "look" much more like past championship teams:  Bynum's presence should singlehandedly turn around their FTA/FGA ratio, and the new 3-point shooters should enable the team to continue taking and making 3-pointers.  It remains to be seen, however, how much the '13 Sixers will drop off in areas that the '12 Sixers were strong:  low turnovers (likely dropoff), high assist-to-turnover ratio (likely dropoff), excellent perimeter defense (almost certain dropoff), high steals (likely dropoff).  As I've noted a couple times, the '12 Sixers were good in unconventional ways, and the '13 Sixers will attempt to be good in conventional ways.

Last note, to end on a (Sixers) positive:  do you know what champion had the most All-Stars in the Superstar Era?  The '83 Sixers with 4 (Moses, Erving, Cheeks, Toney).



by Statman on Oct 12 2012
Tags: Basketball | Sixers | Statman |